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Death of a Ganga activist

Print edition : Nov 09, 2018 T+T-
Professor G.D. Agarwal, who was on a fast from June 22, being forcibly taken to hospital after his health detriorated in Haridwar on October 10. He died the next day.

Professor G.D. Agarwal, who was on a fast from June 22, being forcibly taken to hospital after his health detriorated in Haridwar on October 10. He died the next day.

Sewer water flowing into the Ganga at Krishna Ghat in Patna, a 2017 picture.

Sewer water flowing into the Ganga at Krishna Ghat in Patna, a 2017 picture.

The environmental scientist-turned-sanyasi Prof. G.D. Agrawal breathed his last on October 11 after being on a fast for 111 days since June 22 to save the river Ganga. His demise was a shocking case of governmental apathy and dealt a blow to the much-touted “Clean Ganga” initiative. After his retirement from the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, he had devoted himself to saving the river. On October 10, the district administration had forcibly shifted Prof. Agrawal, known as Swami Gyanswarup Sanand, to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS)in Rishikesh, Uttarakhand, from the Matrisadan ashram in Haridwar where he was on a fast.

Swami Sanand had kept Prime Minister Narendra Modi informed of his agitation through three letters to him: one in February 2018, long before he started the fast; another on June 13, a few days before the fast began; and the third on August 5. Even a small gesture by the Prime Minister by way of acknowledgement of the letters and an assurance could have saved the seer’s life. But the Prime Minister, who had claimed before his election from Varanasi that he had been called by Ganga Maiya (Mother Ganga), did nothing.

Swami Sanand’s last letter to Modi made it amply clear that he was disappointed with the way the government was handling the issue. In the letter he said he genuinely believed that the Prime Minister would go a step ahead of what the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government did and take substantive action to save the Ganga from pollution and bring it back to life.

In the August 5 letter, a copy of which is with Frontline, the swami detailed how his hopes had been dashed. “It was my expectation that you would go two steps forward and make special efforts for the sake of Gangaji because you went ahead and created a separate ministry for all works relating to Gangaji, but in the past four years all actions undertaken by your government have not at all been gainful to Gangaji, and in her place gains are to be seen only for the corporate sector and several business houses. Till now you have only thought on the point of earning profits from Gangaji. You do not seem to be giving anything to Gangaji, such is the impression created by all of your projects in relation to Gangaji. Even if for the sake of making a statement you may say that there is nothing to take from Gangaji but only give her from our side,” he wrote.

The previous UPA government led by Manmohan Singh had heeded his suggestions and taken substantive steps like declaring the Ganga as a National River, creating the National Ganga River Basin Authority, declaring a 100-km stretch of the river from Gaumukh to Uttarkashi an eco-sensitive zone, and halting work on two ongoing hydropower projects despite substantial amounts having been spent on them.

In his letters, the swami informed the Prime Minister that he would take only lemon water and honey during his fast and from October 10 onwards he would even give up taking water. Knowing the fact that the scientist was 86 years old and frail, and also knowing his body of scientific work in the field of river rejuvenation, especially the Ganga, one would have thought that the Prime Minister would take steps to break his fast.

Former Water Resources Minister Uma Bharati and former Uttarakhand Chief Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal met Swami Sanand and requested him to end his fast, which he refused, insisting on an assurance from the Prime Minister himself.

On October 10, the day he had declared he would give up even taking water, the Haridwar district administration forcibly shifted him to the AIIMS, Rishikesh. He died the next day.

Surprisingly, at 6:45 a.m. on the day of his death, he apparently wrote a letter in his own hand thanking the Rishikesh AIIMS doctors and saying how he had agreed on the treatment as recommended by them. His sudden death a few hours later left the Matrisadan seers in shock. They alleged foul play and demanded a probe into it. An ugly situation was created at the hospital where even after four days, his body was not handed over to the seers. Hospital Director Ravi Kant said this was because the swami had “donated” his body to the AIIMS for education and research. The seers, however, seemed to disbelieve that.

The swami’s demands were something the government itself had committed to deliver: a pristine, clean Ganga with enough natural flow. For this to happen, he had listed four prerequisites: a halt to all ongoing work on hydroelectric power projects on its tributaries; a law to protect the river; a ban on all mining activity in the river, especially in the Haridwar Kumbh area; and the formation of a Ganga Devotees Council, which would be the ultimate body for any decision on the river. But the government made no categorical assurance on these demands. On the day the swami died, the Ministry of Water Resources issued a statement saying it had been decided to maintain 25-30 per cent environmental flow throughout the year, which would be achieved in “2-3” years’ time.

The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has launched an ambitious project called Namami Gange to clean the river and has set aside Rs.20,000 crore for the purpose. But precious little has been achieved so far by way of cleaning the river. On the other hand, massive mismanagement and diversion of funds for the purpose has been recorded by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (“Clean Ganga remains a dream”, Frontline, September 14, 2018). The government’s target of cleaning the river by 2019, reports say, is just wishful thinking.

Strangely, ever since reports about the dismal performance of the government on this aspect began appearing, the otherwise voluble Prime Minister has gone silent. Even during his visits to his constituency, Varanasi, he made no mention of the subject. Neither did he ever discuss the issue with known names who have been active in the rejuvenation of the Ganga for years.

“He has only paid lip service to Ganga maiya but done absolutely nothing,” Prof. V.N. Mishra of Benares Hindu University told Frontline recently. Prof. Mishra has been associated with monitoring the pollution in the Ganga for many years now. His studies have shown that the river is dirtier than earlier and is not even fit for bathing at many points along its stretch in the plains. This has been backed by many studies, including one done by the Central Pollution Control Board.

Swami Sanand’s is not the first death that has happened for the sake of the river. In June 2011, Swami Nigamananda died after fasting for 115 days demanding an immediate ban on sand mining in the river, especially in the Haridwar Kumbh area. Swami Sanand, who had gone on many fasts since 2008, however, had increasingly become dejected with the lack of action for the river on various fronts (“Captive Ganga”, Frontline, March 13, 2009, and “Penance for Ganga”, Frontline, April 6, 2012).

He was equally disappointed that even sants had failed the Ganga maiya. He once told Frontline in an interview that he was disappointed not only with the governments but also with the sant community which had failed to protect the river though they swore by it. “If the sant samaj announces a boycott of the kumbh, can any government ignore their demand? Why have they never done that?” he had asked, sitting on his fast at Matrisadan in March 2012.