GD Agrawal is in hospital, under protective custody. It has been more than a month since he has eaten, but the frail old man is ready to give his life for the river he cares for more than anything in the world – the Ganga.
Known as Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand after he took vows to become a Hindu ascetic some years ago, Agrawal is no ordinary protestor, nor a fringe environmentalist. He is an academic, having previously held the chair at the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, one of the finest technical institutes in India. He served on the board of the National Ganga River Basin Authority and was the first member secretary to the Central Pollution Control Board. He has been engaged by the government at various levels to advise it on the health of rivers.
But maybe he has been known more for his resolve to call a spade a spade, and put his life on the line to fight for his beloved rivers. Between 2008 and 2012, he conducted four fasts – threatening to end his life by not eating in a manner made famous by the father of the Indian state, MK Gandhi, unless the government agreed to cancel planned hydropower projects that were limiting the environmental flow of rivers. In 2012, he stepped down from his role in the National Ganga River Basin Authority – calling it a sham – prompting other board members to do the same.
Due to his eminence in the field of environmentalism, these fasts were always taken seriously. In July 2010, the Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change Jairam Ramesh personally represented the government in dialogue with the environmentalist, and agreed to cancel dams on the Bhagirathi – one of the important headstreams of the Ganga.
This time, though, the government – both at the state and Central levels – has responded differently. Although Prime Minister Narendra Modi had made restoring the Ganga to health one of his planks while campaigning for the 2014 elections, his government’s Namani Gange project to clean the river has failed to present any results.
‘His life is in danger but nobody cares’
On June 22, Agrawal announced a fast at the holy city of Haridwar in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand. His demands were that the environmental flow of the rivers be maintained to curb pollution, that encroachments along the riverbanks be removed, and a special law be enacted to deal with pollution and encroachment of the river.
On July 10, police forcefully removed Agrawal from the venue of the indefinite hunger strike and took him to an undisclosed location. After his eviction, Agrawal filed a petition in the Uttarakhand High Court against the police action, stating that his peaceful protest and fast did not pose any threat to the law and order of the area or the state and alleging ill-treatment of his supporters by the police.
The High Court stepped in on July 12 and directed the Uttarakhand chief secretary to hold meetings with the fasting Agrawal within the next 12 hours to resolve the issue. In the meantime, a number of other prominent individuals – both environmentalists and politicians – stepped up their support. Talks were scheduled to be held with the monk over four ongoing hydropower projects – Bhagirathi, Palmanari, Lohari Nagpal and Bhero-ghati — all of which are rivers at the headwaters of the Ganga.
But nothing has come of this. The government has taken the ageing environmentalist into police custody and to the All India Institute of Medical Science in Rishikesh, where he has refused to be force-fed by the doctors.
Rajendra Singh, a water activist and winner of both the Ramon Magsaysay award and Stockholm Water Prize, said that despite the High Court’s directive, the chief secretary has refused to intervene, saying the issue is beyond his purview. In a letter addressed to the prime minister, Singh urged the government to immediately ensure the passage of the Ganga Protection and Management Bill and stall all construction of dams along the river – a key demand of Agrawal.
Unfortunately, there does not seem to be any response. As his hunger strike enters the second month, Agrawal has lost 9 kg of weight. Singh said that Agrawal would not relent, would not give up. Speaking to thethirdpole.net, he said that that the state administration has only issued orders in paper but has not followed up with any action. Nobody from the government has come to either resolve the problem or prevail upon Agrawal to end his fast. “His life is in danger but nobody cares. We are really worried now,” he said.
This article first appeared on The Third Pole.