Penance for Ganga

Print edition : April 06, 2012

An environmental scientist continues his relentless battle to save the Ganga, this time by starting a fast unto death.

in Haridwar

G.D. Agarwal in Haridwar.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

THE campaign to save the Ganga has cost one life in the hill State of Uttarakhand. The life of another activist now hinges on the government's commitment.

In 2011, Swami Nigamananda of Matri Sadan undertook a fast unto death demanding an end to illegal sand mining in the Ganga, at least in Haridwar where the Kumbh Mela, a mass Hindu pilgrimage, takes place. The governments, both in Uttarakhand and at the Centre, paid no heed. The swami died after fasting for 115 days.

Since February 8 this year, G.D. Agarwal, a former professor with the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur and a renowned environmental scientist, has been on a hunger strike demanding that all hydroelectric projects on the tributaries of the Ganga be stopped in order to maintain the purity of the river, allow its continuous flow, and protect the flora and fauna in the river basin zone. Since March 8, Agarwal has given up even water, the only fluid he had consumed until then.

It may be recalled that in June 2008, Agarwal went on a hunger strike demanding that the Ganga be allowed to flow freely in the 100-odd-kilometre stretch from its origin in the Gaumukh glacier to Uttarkashi and that the hydroelectric projects in this stretch of the river be scrapped. He called off the fast after 18 days when the Centre promised that a high-level panel would review the run-of-the-river Lohari Nagpala hydroelectric project which was being executed by the National Thermal Power Corporation.

Agarwal resumed his fast in January 2009, charging the government with going back on its promise. The Uttarakhand government was also forced to abandon the Pala Maneri and Bhairo Ghati power projects, proposed by the Uttarakhand Jal Vidyut Nigam Limited, as Agarwal's protests generated massive local support ( Frontline, March 13, 2009). The three projects were planned very close to Gaumukh, where the Ganga is called the Bhagirathi.

When Agarwal came close to death on the 38th day of his fast, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre decided to act. The Prime Minister intervened. Among the decisions taken, the most significant was the stoppage of work on the three projects and the declaration of the 100-km stretch from Gaumukh as an eco-sensitive zone. The government even declared the Ganga a national river and announced the constitution of a National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA), with the Prime Minister as its chairperson and Chief Ministers of the riparian States and Union Ministers and experts as its members.

For an institution of such significance, the NGRBA's functioning has left much to be desired. It has met only twice in the past three years. The first meeting was in February 2009, basically to fine-tune its constitution. The second one was in October 2009 when the Clean Ganga campaign was launched; it was then declared that by 2020 the river would be rid of pollutants and freed of the hindrances in its path.

Nothing much has happened on the ground though. The river is as polluted as ever while work on the hydel projects are continuing. In all, 193 projects are proposed to be executed on the Alakananda, the Mandakini and the Bhagirathi, the three major tributaries of the Ganga. Environmental impact assessment studies have been completed or are under way with respect to 40 of these projects.

In some cases, as in the case of the Kotli Bhel and Vishnugad Pipalkoti projects, environmental clearances have been given or are under consideration despite serious objections from experts and activists. In the case of other projects, such as the Srinagar hydro project, 80 per cent of the civil work has been completed after the usual court battles.

It is to oppose this mad hurry to dam the Ganga that Agarwal has staked his life. He renounced worldly life and became a disciple of Swami Swarupanand Saraswati, the Sankaracharya of Dwarkapith. He acquired a new name, Swami Gyan Swarup Sanand, and vowed to give up his life, if need be, for the sake of aviralta (continuous flow) and nirmalata (purity) of the Ganga.

On January 14, Makar Sankranti day, he began his fast at Ganga Sagar (West Bengal) and vowed to start penance for the Ganga. He gave up cereals and subsisted on fruits. From February 8, he stopped eating fruits as well and survived only on water. Since March 8, he has given up water also.

But this time, there has been no reaction from the governments at the Centre and in the State.

In order to achieve something, one has to sacrifice something. If by sacrificing my life I can save the Ganga, that is a small price to pay. I am not afraid to lay down my life, Agarwal told this correspondent. If he died, his associates would carry forward the tapasya, he said. It is futile to expect that the Ganga can be saved only by the government or by non-governmental organisations. They do not have the time or the intention. It can only be saved by the sadhus and saints who have so far, for inexplicable reasons, remained indifferent to the tragedy facing the river, he said.

But so far nobody seems to be unduly disturbed by the prospect of his death. In Haridwar, not a single Hindu saint attended a meeting convened on March 4 to discuss the issue. The saints were busy celebrating a sumptuous Holi milan function at the nearby Chaitanya Jyoti Ashram, a luxurious abode of godmen. When this correspondent sought their reaction on Agarwal's fast, the saints feigned ignorance.

According to a close aide of Swami Swarupanand, who is known to be close to UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, the government has gathered intelligence inputs from all major States and has come to the conclusion that even if Agarwal died, there would be no major people's movement to follow up the issue.

The Sankaracharya said: The government is busy dabbling in Hindu-Muslim politics. It does not have time to worry about real issues facing the people. I have conveyed my concern to the Prime Minister and also to Sonia Gandhi, but they don't seem concerned. The Prime Minister went down on his knees when Anna Hazare undertook his fake fast, but now when this man [Agarwal] is actually dying the government does not seem to care. If the government takes some positive step, Hindus world over will appreciate it; otherwise it will have to face the consequences.

He, however, expressed unhappiness that Agarwal disobeyed his order to defer giving up water by seven days. I had told him not to give up water for a week as the governments, both in New Delhi and in Uttarakhand, were busy with other things. But he did not listen. It seems he has decided to end his life, the Sankaracharya said.

A senior official of the NGRBA told this correspondent that no meeting had been proposed on the issue and there was little the authority could do. Free flow of the river and its purity are things that cannot be achieved in one day. We are working towards this and by 2020 we aim to achieve our target. We need Rs.15,000 crore for this purpose. We have managed to procure funds to the tune of Rs.7,000 crore, of which Rs.4,600 crore has come from the World Bank. Thirty-five projects worth Rs.2,600 crore have been sanctioned and are under various stages of implementation. Over Rs.438 crore has been disbursed to States such as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and West Bengal, he said.

According to the official, cleaning the Ganga is more an urban infrastructure management issue. We have only about 25-30 per cent capacity for sewage treatment. Even the existing capacity does not function fully for lack of power. So the net result remains nil. We have a long way to go, but we are catching up, the official said.

According to him, management of the Ganga river basin is a new concept and has so far not been given any consideration. This is the first time such a plan is being discussed. Obviously, this will take time, he said.

Seven IITs have been roped in since 2010 to prepare a plan for the management of the river basin. The plan will, hopefully, be ready in two years.

Meanwhile, three experts appointed to the NGRBA Magsaysay Award winner Rajendra Singh, Professor Ravi Chopra of the Dehradun-based People's Science Institute, and Prof. R.H. Siddiqui of the Aligarh Muslim University have resigned their posts. In a letter to the Prime Minister, they have cited the authority's inaction and its indifference to Agarwal's fast as the reason for their action.

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