All you need to know about Ganga activist G.D. Agarwal

Published - October 20, 2018 07:29 pm IST

On October 11, the 112th day of a fast that began in June to protest against the government’s inadequate efforts at cleaning the Ganga, G.D. Agarwal, a well-known crusader for the river, died of a heart attack. He was 86.

What was his stand?

He had adopted the name Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand, and was formerly a professor in the civil engineering department at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. As an environmentalist, he was vocal about disallowing hydroelectric projects in Uttarakhand along the Ganga and was disappointed with the Central and Uttarakhand governments for not doing enough to protect the river. A trigger for his fast this year was the “unfulfilled” promises by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had vowed to clean the Ganga after winning the Varanasi seat. Agarwal was subsisting on a diet of honey, lemon and water since June and had given up even water in the week before he died. He was admitted to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Rishikesh, where he died.

What informed his activism?

Agarwal began his career in the 1950s as a design engineer with the Uttar Pradesh Irrigation Department, before his academic stint at IIT-Kanpur. While being opposed to dams, Agarwal, in the 1950s, was involved in the construction of the Tehri Dam. Several people associated with him said his scientific training helped him understand the risks of hydropower projects in the pristine stretches of the Ganga and this informed his activism over the years.

He was also the first Member-Secretary of the Central Pollution Control Board. He also dabbled as an environmental consultant and was part of Envirotech Instruments, a firm that specialised in preparing environment appraisal plans for projects and now makes air-pollution monitoring instruments.

What did he achieve?

He observed several fasts over the years. These resulted in the establishment of the National Ganga River Basin Authority, as well as the creation of concepts such as ecological flow (the necessity to maintain a minimum quantity of water in a river at all times) while planning for hydro-electric projects. The Bhagirathi eco-sensitive zone came into being after the government conceded to his demands made at one of his fasts. After his retirement (and before his many fasts), Agarwal chose to co-opt religion in his quest to preserve the Ganga. He argued that publicising the needs of the Ganga from a purely scientific perspective would take too long, during which irreparable harm could come to the river. Therefore, invoking the religious sentiments of people and creating a public movement was the need of the hour.

What were his latest demands?

Bringing the Ganga Act into law was one of Agarwal’s key demands as were instructions to give legal standing to the Ganga Bhakti Parishad, which would have supreme power to decide on matters of the river. He had also sought a ban on all proposed dams on the upper reaches of the Ganga and on sand mining along the river.

How did the government respond?

Over three years, the government prepared multiple drafts of the Ganga Act based on consultations with Ministries, think-tanks and religious groups. A final version of the draft Bill has been sent to the Law Ministry. Water Resources Minister Nitin Gadkari has committed to presenting the Bill in the coming session of Parliament. After Agarwal eschewed water, the government promulgated a notification - a day before he died - declaring a minimum ecological flow that ought to be maintained through the Ganga all year. However, demands for a Ganga Parishad were untenable, sources have told The Hindu , as it would imply handing power to a religious body to decide on how the Ganga ought to be taken care of.

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