The legendary Guru Das Agrawal, who laid the foundation of India’s anti-pollution regime as the first member-secretary of the Central Pollution Control Board, failed to convince the Indian government to commit to rejuvenating the river Ganga, and paid for it with his life.

The professor, who obtained a PhD from the University of California at Berkeley and taught at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology at Kanpur, died on October 11 on the 112th day of a fast he started on June 22 to demand a pollution-free Ganga. He was 86. Agrawal had become a Hindu ascetic a few years ago, taking the name Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand.

It is intriguing why the Union government, which rode to power on a Hindutva agenda, did not listen to a Hindu holy man on an issue of ecological and religious significance related to a river that Hindus consider to be sacred and which was at the core of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s election campaign.

In 2012, Agrawal had presented a draft for the National River Ganga ji (Conservation and Management) Act. In 2017, the government framed The National River Ganga (Rejuvenation, Protection and Management) Bill and updated it in 2018. The two draft Bills, however, differed in their basic perspectives.

On August 5, during his sixth and last fast, he wrote to Modi saying that his government had not done a thing for the conservation of the Ganga even after four-and-a-half-years of being in power. He pointed out that the previous Manmohan Singh government had been more responsive to his demands. He said that during Singh’s tenure as prime minister, the National Environmental Appellate authority had suspended the Lohari Nagpala hydroelectric project in Uttarakhand, even though construction had been started. It also declared a stretch of over 100 km of the Ganga from Gangotri to Uttarkashi as an eco-sensitive zone, which meant no destructive activity could take place there.

He repeated his four demands, which he had intimated to the prime minister before going on his fast. These were:

  1. That the draft prepared by him along with Advocate MC Mehta and Paritosh Tyagi, among others, be placed before and passed by Parliament.
  2. All under construction and proposed hydroelectric projects on streams directly flowing into the Ganga in the upper reaches, downstream and its tributaries be scrapped with immediate effect.
  3. All mining and deforestation activities be banned in the Ganga basin.
  4. A Ganga Bhakt Parishad be formed to work to protect the interest of the river.

He never heard from the prime minister. When Agrawal died, Modi tweeted his condolences.

In 2013, during Agrawal’s fifth fast, Rajnath Singh, then the Bhartiya Janata Party president, had promised him that all his demands related to the Ganga would be met if the party came to power at the Centre.

Agrawal wanted the Ganga to be declared a national symbol. His main aim was to conserve the Ganga in its natural pristine glory, to ensure its unobstructed natural flow (he referred to this as “aviral”) and ensure its water remained unpolluted or “nirmal”. To protect the Ganga, he wanted a ban on sewage and industrial effluents being discharged into the Ganga, units discharging pollutants, deforestation, illegal stone quarrying, sand mining, river-front development and use of chemicals or hazardous substances in the vicinity of the river.

Agrawal’s learnings about rivers emerged from his engineering experience with the Rihand dam in Uttar Pradesh’s Sonbhadra district, while working for the State Irrigation Department.

Agrawal precisely defined aviral to mean “minimum environmental/ecological flow at every place, including the downstream of each dam, and at all times with universal bed, lateral, open-to-air, longitudinal and temporal connectivities”. To be considered “aviral”, the river must always be connected to its bed and its two adjacent sides (ruling out concrete constructions on the riverfront), open to air (so must not pass through a tunnel), and its upstream and downstream always be connected longitudinally (without any dams across it). In addition, the natural flow of the water, which changes according to the season, must be maintained. He believed this aviral flow was essential for preserving the unique qualities of the Ganga water – non-putrefying, disease and pollution destroying and health enhancing.

Similarly, for Agrawal, nirmal meant more than just meeting the regular standards on water quality related to its pH factor (a measure of acidity or alkalinity), dissolved oxygen, biological oxygen demand, total dissolved solids and so on. According to him, nirmal included retaining the special “self-cleaning” property of the Ganga waters, to which the unique rocks, sediment and ecology of the upper region of the Ganga contributed.

GD Agrawal.
GD Agrawal.

Political compulsions

Nitin Gadkari, Union Minister for Water Resources, River Basin Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, is known to have publicly said that he understands the concept of nirmal but not that of aviral. It is quite obvious that accepting Agrawal’s concept of aviral would inhibit the construction of more dams.

Another view emanating from the ruling BJP government is that their focus is development above all else. This seems to be the kind of development that is corporate driven, which seems to yield sufficient paybacks to fund the next electoral cycle of whichever party is in power.

Even though a senior functionary of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, who tried to mediate between Agrawal and the government, said he agreed theoretically with Agrawal’s vision on Ganga, the compulsions of realpolitik sealed the fate of the scientist, and by extension that of the Ganga. This threat will loom large on the lives and livelihoods of people living in other river valleys in India too.

Agrawal also fasted five times during the United Progressive Alliance regime. That he died during the National Democratic Alliance government’s tenure, demonstrates that the development paradigm being followed by this government is more pro-corporate and less humane than that followed by the previous one. Neither is it sensitive to socio-cultural or environmental issues, notwithstanding the United Nations’ Champions of the Earth award given to Prime Minister Narendra Modi earlier this month.

The vacuum created by Agrawal’s death seems to be almost unfillable. Where is another strong voice for the Ganga? To many religious-minded people, Agrawal appeared to be in the mould of the mythological figure Bhagirath, whose penance brought the Ganga to earth from the heavens, according to Hindu mythology.

Those who want to pay true tribute to Agrawal must brace themselves to fight against governments that believe in the kind of development that entails the destruction of nature, against corporations that implement such misplaced concepts, and contractors that plunder natural resources, including sand from riverbeds and catchment areas.

The fight for the conservation of the Ganga is far from over. Swami Shivanand, the chief priest of Matre Sadan, the ashram in Haridwar that Agrawal chose as the site of his last fast, has warned Modi that after Agrawal, he and his disciples will ensure that the chain of fasting does not break. One ascetic called Swami Gopal Das had begun fasting soon after Agrawal started his fast in June. He is also ailing. Earlier Swami Nigmanand, also associated with Matre Sadan, died in 2011 on the 115th day of a fast. How many more lives will be sacrificed at the altar of development?

Medha Patkar is a founder-member of the Narmada Bachao Andolan. Sandeep Pandey is a visiting professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar.