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Environmentalist GD Agarwal fasts to save Ganga

Even as one of India’s most eminent environmentalists has been put into protective custody in a hospital, the authorities have largely ignored his month-long fast to force corrective action on the Ganga
Put into protective custody in a hospital in Rishikesh, Agarwal refused to break his fast until action on the Ganga was taken [image by: Tarun Bharat Sangh]
Put into protective custody in a hospital in Rishikesh, Agarwal refused to break his fast until action on the Ganga was taken [image by: Tarun Bharat Sangh]

GD Agarwal is in the 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, Agarwal is no ordinary protestor, nor a fringe environmentalist. In his past life as an academic, he 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 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 the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, had made restoring the Ganga to health one of its planks when it was campaigning for the 2014 elections that it won, its Namani Gange project to clean the river has failed to present any results.

On June 22, Agarwal 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 the encroachments along the riverbanks are removed, and a special law be enacted to deal with pollution and encroachments of the river.

Agarwal starting his protest in Haridwar [image by: Tarun Bharat Sangh]
On July 10, police forcefully removed Agarwal from the venue of the indefinite hunger strike and took him to an undisclosed location. After his eviction, Agarwal 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 law and order of the area or the state and alleging police ill treatment against his supporters.

The Uttarakhand High Court stepped in on July 12, and directed the Uttarakhand Chief Secretary to hold meetings with the fasting Agarwal within the next 12 hours to resolve this issue. In the meanwhile 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 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 the Stockholm Water Prize, said that despite the High Court’s directive to the Uttarakhand Chief Secretary, the Chief Secretary has refused to do so, saying the issue is beyond his purview. In a letter addressed to the prime minister recently, Singh urged that the government immediately ensure the passage of the Ganga Protection and Management Bill and stall all construction of dams along the river, a key demand of Agarwal.

Unfortunately, there does not seem to be any response. As the hunger strike enters the second month, Agarwal has lost 9 kg of weight. Singh said that Agarwal 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 issue or prevail over Agarwal to end his fast. “His life is in danger but nobody cares. We are really worried now.”