Swami Gyan Swaroopanand has just completed three months on hunger strike to press his demand for conservation of the Ganga basin. The 81-year-old Hindu monk, known in his earlier life as G.D. Agrawal, has been arrested, jailed, released and continues to fast against what he calls destruction of India’s holiest river.

This is the fourth time the alumnus of two famous institutions – Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Roorkee and University of California, Berkeley – has gone on hunger strike to protest the building of dams on the Ganga and pollution in the river. Having been the head of civil and environmental engineering at India’s technical university, IIT Kanpur, and also having been secretary of the Indian government’s Central Pollution Control Board, he is one man the authorities find difficult to ignore.

Brahmachari Dayanand, a monk at Matri Sadan – the monastery in Hardwar where Swaroopanand is on hunger strike – told The Third Pole that the renowned activist had no intention of calling off his fast till the authorities in Uttarakhand and India’s central government cancelled their plans to build a series of dams on the tributaries of the Ganga in the Himalayas.

The dams and other hydroelectric projects are already in the eye of a storm, with environmentalists blaming them for magnifying the effects of flash floods that devastated the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand mid-June. Engineers who planned and built the dams have however claimed the dams minimized losses and saved many people downstream. What is certain is that several dams and hydroelectric projects – running or under construction – were damaged or destroyed in the flash floods.

Swaroopanand – who turned into a monk in 2011 – had started his hunger strike on June 13 this year, just two days before the flash floods occurred. He wants the authorities to scrap all hydroelectric projects in the Bhagirathi, Mandakini and Alaknanda river basins. The three rivers join in the foothills of the Himalayas to form the Ganga.

The environmentalist has been opposing hydroelectric projects from well before he became a monk. A hunger strike he undertook in 2008 forced the government to suspend work on two hydropower projects at Pala Maneri and Bhairon Ghati, upstream of Uttarkashi in Uttarakhand.

However, work on the 600 megawatt Lohari Nagpala hydropower project – being built by the National Thermal Power Corporation in Uttarkashi – continued. So Agrawal resumed his hunger strike on January 14, 2009. He ended it in March that year, only after a government assurance to suspend the project and to speed up an inquiry into how electricity could be generated without the flow of the Ganga being impeded.

Swaroopanand has had his share of critics, especially among politicians in Uttarakhand. He has been called anti-development, an agent of US’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and of Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence (ISI). Undaunted, he restarted his hunger strike this June because work was continuing on hydropower projects on the Ganga and its tributaries despite the assurances of the government.

He was arrested on August 1, charged with attempted suicide, and taken to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in New Delhi the next day. The doctors released him after six days, after which a court in Hardwar sent him to judicial custody.

Swaroopanand continued his fast in jail while his supporters appealed to the Supreme Court. India’s top court ordered his release on August 19. He was let out of jail three days later.

As the monk continues his hunger strike, he is most scathing about the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA), a central monitoring that he had helped set up. The NGRBA has been in charge of the Rs 17 billion (US$264 million) Ganga Action Plan, which has failed to clean India’s longest river despite trying to do so for 30 years.

With the Supreme Court placing a moratorium on all hydroelectric projects in Uttarakhand following the June flash floods, the arguments being made by Swaroopanand over the years has gained strength, even as the octogenarian environmentalist becomes frailer due to his hunger strike.

 

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