Sacrifice At the Altar of Development: How Many More Deaths Will It Take'
An unfillable void
The legendary Professor Guru Das Agrawal -- promoted from a Lecturer directly to Professor at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology at Kanpur after having finished his Ph.D. from University of California at Berkeley in two years and laid the foundation of India's anti-pollution regimen as the first Member-Secretary of Central Pollution Control Board -- ultimately failed to convince the government of India about his views for the rejuvenation of river Ganga. And had to pay for this with his life.
He died on October 11, 2018 after 112 days of fasting on lemon water and honey, the last three days of which were without any water at all.
It may be intriguing why the government, which rode to power on a Hindutva agenda, did not listen to a Hindu saint, a path he had taken in 2011. Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand, as Professor G.D. Agrawal was now known, had put forward a draft for National River Ganga ji (Conservation and Management) Act in 2012.
The government came up with The National River Ganga (Rejuvenation, Protection and Management) Bill in 2017 and updated it in 2018. The two draft Bills however, differed in their basic perspectives.
During his sixth and last fast he wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on August 5, 2018 saying that the government had not done a thing for the conservation of the Ganga despite being in power for four and a half years. He pointed that the National Environmental Appellate authority of the previous Manmohan Singh government had suspended the Lohari Nagpala hydroelectric project, even after some construction was over. And as per his demand declared 100 km of Bhagirathi from Gangotri to Uttarkashi as an Eco-Sensitive Zone.
Prof Agrawal repeated his four demands : (1) The draft prepared by him along with Advocate M.C. Mehta and Paritosh Tyagi, among others, be placed before and passed by the Parliament;
(2) All under construction and proposed hydroelectric projects on streams directly flowing into Ganga in the upper reaches, downstream and its tributaries be scrapped with immediate effect;
(3) All mining and deforestation activities be banned in Ganga basin; and
(4) Form Ganga Bhakt Parishad to work to protect the interest of Ganga.
He never heard from the PM . In 2013, during his fifth fast on the issue when the Congress led UPA government was in power, then then Bhartiya Janata Party president Rajnath Singh had promised him that all the demands would be met even though during his fifth fast in 2013 Rajnath Singh as the then Bhartiya Janata Party president had promised his demands would be met if and when the Narendra Modi government came to power.
Professor Agrawal wanted the Ganga to be declared a national symbol. His main emphasis was on the conservation of the river in its natural pristine glory, unobstructed natural flow, which he called Aviral. And unpolluted water quality, which he described as Nirmal.
He also wanted a ban on the discharge of untreated or treated sewage or industrial effluents in Ganga;
- incineration of all kinds of solid waste;
- setting up of units discharging pollutants;
- illegal stone quarrying and sand mining;
- river-front development structures and chemicals or hazardous substances to be used in its vicinity.
These measures are ecessary if any river is to be protected against destruction and degradation. It is important to know that Professor G.D. Agrawal's important learnings emerged from his engineering experience with Rihand dam while working for the Uttar Pradesh State Irrigation Department.
As a true scientist Agrawal precisely defined Aviral to mean minimum environmental/ecological flow at every place, including the downstream of each dam, and at all times with universal bed, lateral, open-to-air, longitudinal and temporal connectivities.
He believed that to preserve the unique qualities of the Ganges waters -- non-putrefying, disease destroying, health enhancing and pollution destroying -- it was necessary to ensure its Aviral flow.
Similarly, Nirmal for him did not merely mean meeting the standards on water quality related to pH (measure of acidity or alkalinity), Dissolved Oxygen, Biological Oxygen Demand, Chemical Oxygen Demand, Total Dissolved Solids, Free Chlorine and Total Chlorine or water treated by Reverse Osmosis process and Ultraviolet rays. The special 'self-cleaning' property of Ganga, he concluded scientifically, is because of the presence of bacteriophages, coliform destroying capabilities, large amounts of exo-cellular polymers coming from trees present in Himalayan uplands, unique mix of heavy and radioactive metals, ultra fine silt or micro nucleii in the water.
Essentially it is the rocks, sediment, vegetation including medicinal plants or ecology of the upper region that contributes to the special properties of the Ganga described as Nirmal.
Nitin Gadkari, Minister for Water Resources, Riven Basin Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, is known to have publicly said that he understands the concept of Nirmal but not that of Aviral.
It is quite obvious that accepting Professor Agrawal's concept of Aviral would disallow construction of any more dams.
And that the BJP government does not seem to care about the country, religion or the people but only about corporate driven ‘development’. As it delivers the kickbacks necessary for electoral funding. Hence, even though a senior functionary of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, who tried to mediate, said he agreed theoretically with Professor G.D. Agrawal's vision on the Ganga, the compulsions of realpolitik sealed the scientists fate and by extension, that of the Ganga.
This threat will loom large on life and livelihood of people living in other river valleys too.
Agrawal also fasted five times during the United Progressive Alliance regime. However, he never faced a threat to his life. The only time he fasted during the National Democratic Alliance government's tenure it proved fatal for him. This also demonstrates that the development paradigm is not sensitive to socio-cultural issues, including religion, or environmental issues, in spite of the PM having won a United Nations award, and is more brazenly pro-corporate and less humane under the present government.
The vacuum created by Agrawal's demise almost seems to be unfillable. Where is another strong voice for River Ganga, saintly and yet completely scientific in his approach?
A true condolence to him would be to brace ourselves to continue his fight with the same grit and determination.
As the struggle for the conservation of the Ganga is far from over.
The chief priest of Matre Sadan, the ashram in Haridwar Professor Agrawal chose as his fast site, Swami Shivanand has warned Narendra Modi that after Swami Sanand he and his disciples will ensure that the chain of fasting doesn't break.
One Swami Gopal Das had also begun fasting soon after Swami Sanand started his fast on June 22, 2018. Earlier Swami Nigmanand, also associated with Matre Sadan, laid down his life in 2011 on the 115th day of his fast, which is alleged to be a murder at the behest of a mining mafia associated with the then ruling BJP government in Uttarakhand.
How many more lives will be sacrificed at the altar of development?