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Dying for the Ganges: A Scientist Turned Swami Risks All

[For more current news on GD Agrawal and his fast please click on this new post, published Thursday, March 22.]

G.D. Agrawal is determined to die. 

“At the moment I am quite resigned to my fate,” Agrawal, the 80-year-old dean of India’s environmental engineers, tells me by phone from his hospital bed in the holy city of Varanasi.

Agrawal hasn’t eaten since February 8. He hasn’t taken a drink of water since March 8; an intravenous drip of dextrose and vitamins keeps him lucid.

GD Agrawal, the environmental engineer also known as Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand, at the Varanasi hospital where he is on a hunger strike. Agrawal says he will remove his IV tube on Saturday. "At the moment I am quite resigned to my fate," he told Nat Geo News Watch.

At 5 pm Saturday, Agrawal says, he will pull those tubes from his arms, his next – and maybe last – escalation in a years-long battle to force the Indian government to honor its promises to protect the Ganges River.

The 1,569-mile holy river is increasingly choked by dams, drained by irrigation canals, and fouled by industrial, agricultural, and human waste. Since 2008, Agrawal has engaged in four hunger strikes seeking to prevent the construction of hydroelectric dams on the Ganges’ Himalayan source rivers.

His devotion to the river is more than scientific. Last summer, Agrawal, a former chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, renounced the material world and became a swami. He is now known by his disciples as Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand.

Agrawal is a national figure, and he’s won concessions in the past. In July 2010, when the Indian government decided to resume work on several hydroelectric plants on the Bhagirathi River, Agrawal went without food for 34 days before the government, represented by Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, agreed to cancel dam projects on the river’s upper reaches.

Despite these and other successes, the condition of the river continues to deteriorate. An estimated 90 percent of its flow is diverted into irrigation canals and to meeting the water needs of the fast-growing New Delhi capital region.

Agrawal and his supporters say a national body created in 2008 to safeguard Hinduism’s holiest river has been a sham. The National Ganga River Basin Authority has met only twice in three years, and not at all since November 2010.

On March 9, board members Rajendra Singh, a Magsaysay Award winner for his work on protecting freshwater resources, Ravi Chopra of the People’s Science Institute, and environmentalist Rashid Hayat Siddiqui resigned from the authority in solidarity with Agrawal. Singh told The Hindu newspaper that the government body has cost $1.19 billion during its short life, “but we do not have any details about how the money is being used…There is no accountability.”

Agrawal and the others want a real commitment from the government to protect the Ganges. So far, they say, they’ve received nothing but half-promises. This week, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh dispatched the coal minister, Sriprakash Jaiswal, to ask Agrawal to stop his fast. Jaiswal left empty handed.

“There are a few options that I am willing to give them,” Agrawal told me: Call an immediate meeting of the river authority to formulate plans for effective regulations, or call an immediate halt to upstream dam projects. “So far, there’s been no significant response,” he says.

If Agrawal goes through with his promise to remove his intravenous line, it’s almost certain police will restrain and feed him through an IV drip or a nasal feeding tube. “It depends on how much force they want to use,” he says. “I am not willing to go on like this.”

Last year a young swami called Nigamanand died after an epic fast to stop illegal mining of the Ganges riverbed in the northern city of Haridwar. (His comrades insist, somewhat persuasively, that he died not of malnutrition but that he was poisoned by local mining interests.) Nigamanand’s leader, Swami Shivanand, has also engaged in several fasts to protect the river.

This activism isn’t taking place in a vacuum of good deeds (or bad ones). Bolstered by a $1 billion loan from the World Bank, the Indian government recently started a new Ganges clean-up plan. As I mentioned in this piece, this good faith plan teems with expensive lessons learned.

It’s obvious that it will take more than a few men starving themselves to death to preserve the Ganges. The question is, why should it require any?

[UPDATE, 9:45 pm Saturday, Indian Standard Time: According to Govind Sharma, secretary of the Ganga Mahasabha organization in Varanasi, Professor Agrawal has removed his intravenous line against the advice of his doctors and is now resting in his hospital bed and reading Hindu scriptures. He has not as of this writing been forced to re-insert the intravenous line, although there is still a possibility that the Varanasi district administration could apply for a court's permission to force feed him.]

[UPDATE 2: According to the website Espirito Kashi, Professor Agrawal was moved by government order to Banaras Hindu University medical center on Sunday afternoon.]

[UPDATE 3: Professor Agrawal has suffered a "minor heart attack," Govind Sharma told me, and on Monday morning was en route from Varanasi to New Delhi on an air ambulance. Agrawal was conscious, speaking, and in good spirits, Sharma said. He still hasn't eaten or taken water, but is once again being fed by an intravenous drip. He is in state custody.]

[UPDATE 4: Agrawal has been admitted to the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi, Samay Live reports, adding that "close aides of Agrawal have alleged that he has been shifted unnecessarily and that in a recent letter sent to them, the activist had claimed to be in sound health."]

[UPDATE 5: The #SaveGanga hashtag is now trending among Twitter users in India, as word of Professor Agrawal’s hunger strike spreads across social media.]

[UPDATE 6: Context: For some more background on Agrawal’s history of activism against dams and excessive diversion of the Ganges waters, see this recent piece from the muckraking Tehelka magazine. Here’s a taste of Agrawal’s writing on upstream Ganges dams, with a melding of the technical and spiritual arguments against. Here’s a brief history of Indians fasting for the environment. And for a look at the deadly struggle against illegal mining on the Ganges riverbed in Uttarkhand state, here are pieces I wrote for the New York Times and here at National Geographic.]

[UPDATE 7: Anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare, whose agitations this summer shook, but did not topple, the Indian government, paid a hospital visit to Dr. Agrawal on Monday afternoon, and has expressed support for his fast. Hazare’s top aide and organizer, Arvind Kejriwal, has been posting messages on Twitter to spread the word about Dr. Agrawal's hunger strike.]

[UPDATE 8: In what could be an important development, on Tuesday evening the Indian government agreed to convene a meeting of the National River Ganges Basin Authority next month, and may it also temporarily suspend work on several Ganges dam projects, the IANS news wire reports.

Tarun Agarwal, GD Agarwal's nephew who is accompanying him, said the activist demanded that a meeting of the NRRBA be called immediately and the government has agreed to convene a meeting in April.

"We are also demanding that till the meeting is held, work on four under construction projects on the river should be temporarily stopped. But the government is agreeing to three projects. The ministers have assured us that they will convey our concerns to prime minister and will let us know by Wednesday," Tarun told IANS.

We’ll keep you posted. ]

 

GD Agrawal, after removing his intravenous line.

 

Comments

  1. liamna jajendra
    usa
    December 20, 2012, 12:22 am

    “WHY NOT DURING HIS SERVICE TENURE”….. A BABY DOES NOT RIDE A BIKE OR EAT MEAT BUT DRINKS MILK . ACCORDING TO THE ABOVE, MR/MRS/MS, ERA STATEMENT IT IS THE EXPERIENCE AND MATURITY THAT A PERSON RISES UP TO THE FACT TO FIND OUT THE CAUSES OF ENVIRONMENT AND STUDIES AND MAKES A RESEARCH ON A PARTICULAR SUBJECT WHICH HAPPENS TO BE RIVER GANGES. AT LEAST BE HAPPY AND PRAISE THE GERMANSWHO FOUND OUT THE REAL CAUSE OF THE HEALING AND THE BACTERIA THAT EXISTS AND LIVES IN THE RIVER AND THAT RIVER GANGES GIVES TO THE HUMANITY. NEVER IS THERE A SENSE OF GRATITUDE WHO HAS FOUND FOR HUMANITY SAKE AND RATHER CRITICISE BE IT ANY ONE .SAVE THE FOR A RAINY DAY ,YOU MUGHT NEED IT /

  2. [...] continue to be the burden of a few green crusaders.” But thanks to a recent spate of high-profile hunger strikes, the river is grabbing headlines and [...]

  3. [...] belt-waving “Gandhian” savior, Anna Hazare; two pieces on the hunger strikes of the scientist-turned-swami GD Agrawal; a brief update on the Kony 2012 campaign; in India, skin-whitening reaches below the belt; in [...]

  4. S kumar Parmar
    Noida
    March 28, 2012, 10:34 am

    Are we interested in commentary or action? All are coming forward day by day and very soon action will start to give the result. Only we have to come forward to solve the nuisance of Corruption…!!!

  5. Pavitra
    India
    March 22, 2012, 8:11 am

    @ ERA Delhi, Are you mad or Engineer or bothlet me know @ 9410706109

  6. Rachit Garg
    UK
    March 22, 2012, 7:03 am

    Yaar agar ham apani Ganga Maa ko nahi bacha paaye to ham kis kaam ke? Agar Swami Ji hutatma ho gaye to anarth!

  7. Alpana A
    March 21, 2012, 11:08 am

    Please help to save Dr. Agrawal’s life before it is too late….sign this online petition NOW!!! It will take less than a minute… http://www.change.org/petitions/save-bhagirathi-ganga-river-ganges

  8. Prakash Chandra Jha
    Ranchi
    March 21, 2012, 1:02 am

    GOI MUST ACCEPT WHAT PROF. GDA IS SAYING. HE IS A VISIONARY AND A MAN OF PRINCIPLE.

  9. espirito kashi
    varanasi
    March 20, 2012, 9:42 am

    Podcast from the citizens of India cave…
    Dr. GD Agrawal – Where We the citizens are Going
    http://soundcloud.com/kashispaceradio/dr-gd-agrawal-where-we-the

  10. espirito kashi
    varanasi
    March 20, 2012, 7:28 am

    Dr. GD Agrawal’s Ganga Tapasya Story – By Govind Sharma

  11. Dr. Hitesh Sukhwal
    Rajasthan
    March 20, 2012, 6:35 am

    We appeal to all who has think once for green environment like pure drinking water, clean streams n river, beauty of nature should keep with this movement of CLEAN GANGA. We should thankful to respected Prof. GDA. Is EARTH ka kuch karo nahi to Un Earth ho jayega.

  12. Aman Deep Dubey
    India
    March 20, 2012, 2:19 am

    People like Swamiji are born once in a century who see a cause bigger than themselves, the state of affairs we are witnessing are demoralizing for the country, Government is too busy raking public money. isnt it funny how shallow is the ‘deep commitment’ of government on everything, Our Prayers are with swamiji ,HAR HAR GANGE!

  13. espirito kashi
    varanasi
    March 19, 2012, 3:57 pm

    Swami Avimuksteshwaranand: 5 point agenda presented by Dr. GD Agrawal

  14. espirito kashi
    varanasi
    March 19, 2012, 1:24 pm

    16th March 2012, Varanasi: Talks with Dr G.D Agrawal In The Hospital, Varanasi 16th March, 2012.

  15. sanjeevang
    chd
    March 19, 2012, 5:44 am

    Is this the great Indian Democracy, where people’s demand for good life is not even given the deaf ear.

    We are governed by anarchy, for the anarchists!!!!!!
    we are ashamed of our leaders.

  16. rajat
    Varanasi
    March 19, 2012, 4:50 am

    Yesterday night at the hospital, the press was informed that Swami Ji wouldn’t be moved. Such a pity that dubious information is being given to the viewers. However, Govind Sharma informed us beforehand about the plan to move Swami Ji to Delhi.

    This is a serious issue because he was moved so that the movement which was being ignited at Varanasi would stop. Even though Swamiji words were ” I am so fit that I can take a stroll around the whole B.H.U Campus”. And moreover this is a tapasya not any kind movement against the government.

    Swamiji gave his own critique of hydro electric power projects in India and asked us to publish online. It can be viewed here: http://espiritokashi.wordpress.com/2012/03/18/a-critique-of-loharinag-pala-pala-maneri-and-other-hydroelectric-projects-on-river-ganga-bhagirathi/

    On the same Blog we keep updating inside videos.

  17. vande matram
    Delhi
    March 19, 2012, 4:12 am

    Can local media / papers / tv channels / FB Twitter posts can put this in world view to force the government to take actions. There is one lady in manipur who is fasting for last 4 years. Unfortunatly we have insenstive local and state governments on the human issues. I am spreading the world on my fb and twitter accounts as much as I can.

  18. त्रिदीव मुखर्जी
    बोंगाईगांव, असम
    March 19, 2012, 2:28 am

    इतने महत्त्वपूर्ण ख़बर को मीडिया ठीक ढंग से प्रचार ही नहीं कर रहा तो कैसे सुधार आएगा । यह भ्रष्ट सरकार गंगा नदी में बढ़ती प्रदूषण के लिए कुछ नहीं कर रहा । इन्हें सिर्फ सत्ता और पैसा चाहिए । इनके लिए न पर्यावरण जरूरी हैं और न ही इस देश की जनता । और हमारे देश की राष्ट्रीय दूरसंचार मीडिया भी वैसी ही है । वे सिर्फ दिल्ली के ही ख़बर दिखाते हैं ।

    [Here's a very rough translation, courtesy Google Translate: "Not so important news is the media hype it properly will improve. The corrupt government is doing nothing to increasing pollution in the Ganga. They just want power and money. They are necessary for the environment nor the people of this country. And our country's national telecommunications media is intact. They just show the story of Delhi."]

  19. rajat
    varanasi
    March 18, 2012, 6:47 am

    It is really sad that the mainstream media isn’t too efficient in highlighting this news outside Varanasi, India. If anyone would like to watch updates, current news, videos from the hospital and a regular watch. visit: espiritokashi.wordpress.com
    India’s only efficient alternative media project in the cultural capital of India, Varanasi.

  20. rajat
    varanasi
    March 18, 2012, 6:45 am

    Update on Dr. GD Agrawal (Swami Gyan Swarup Sanand): Sunday, 4:00pm, Varanasi – The Govt. Administration of Varanasi (on the orders of the Central Govt.) has forcefully taken Dr. GD Agrawal to Banaras Hindu University Medical Department from the hospital, where they might also force him to eat. – By Govind Sharma (Secreatry of Ganga Mahasabha Org, Varanasi)

    Here’s Govind Sharma’s interview: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QUScIDOc95w&hd=1

    [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QUScIDOc95w&w=560&h=315

  21. [...] piece first appeared at National Geographic, and was updated Saturday [...]

  22. Manas Ranjan Mishra
    Bhubaneswar, India
    March 17, 2012, 10:26 pm

    The police had forced Prof G.D.Agarwal saying that the emissaries of Jayanti Natrajan and the local MLA conglomerate would come back day after yesterday with concrete solutions. The “GDP maafia” has failed to ignite the passion of GDA to survive. GDA ji has removed his survival aids and gone on fast since yesterday despite his sustodial stature and daily checkup by govt docs and the District Magistrate. He has remained under the Police Vigilance and DM Vigilance and Doctors Monitoring ever since about 35 days or so !

    A monitored democratic movement !

    I’m afraid the less-informed, lack-lustre, inferior government machinery has remained his ardent detractor, playing dilly-dally on the key emotive issue of environmental protection, preservation and rejuvenation of riverine ecosystems as also the entire ecology / hydrological balance of the river-basin of the Ganga ! The protectors of the statues are the blatant violators of the constitutional right of the individuals of the nation. As in the versions of the famous jurist Salmond – the soveriegn is sacrosanct thus the state should be adjudged as the failed one or otherwise by the actions of the law enforcing agencies.

    How can the state stand contrary to the dictat of the intellectuals of the compare of the Albert Einstein or the Mother Teresa ! How can the GDA ever explain the Hon’ble Minister or for that matter even the Judiciary on issues such as Ganga-Hydrology or River-Joining. Both the Law-making agencies must stand guard urgently by the side of the knowledgeable Professor. These errant have belittled every institution in India and the globe. Section 309 IPC is awaited from the “Dirty Picture” govt. anytime. A sadistic pleasure the neo-rulers are posing to the egalitarian Saanand ji. It will take its toll for sure. Connectedness of wantonness is the impasse of modern Indian times….

    Manas
    +919937140840, +919937140840.

  23. surya
    sagar mp
    March 17, 2012, 4:03 pm

    kya fast abhi chal raha hai yadi ha to meadia ke dwara soochit kijiye

  24. rajat
    varanasi
    March 17, 2012, 4:05 am

    I reckon our govt. should wake upto it’s country’s real needs, open its eyes to alternative forms of energy and stop selling everything we have.

    I spent a couple of hours in the hospital yesterday, interviewing Swami Avimukteshwaranand as well as Dr. GD Agrawal. They suspect a much bigger conspiracy here.

    This might be our last chance to save river ganga. Stop India from moving towards a country without it’s beautiful culture.

    rajat
    creative head
    Espirito Kashi (an alternative media project, varanasi)

  25. Manas Ranjan Mishra
    Bhubaneswar, Odisha, India
    March 16, 2012, 10:13 am

    He is under police custody in hospital.

    Manas
    +919937140840, +919437010262.

  26. Manas Ranjan Mishra
    Bhubaneswar, Odisha, India
    March 16, 2012, 10:11 am

    Dear Shri Morrison(Shri for Mr),

    Please permit me to suggest the following corrections :
    Replace “Environment and Forest Minister Jairam Ramesh,” in place of “Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee,”. [Done. Thank you; Dan]

    Ganga putra (son of Ganga) Swami (spiritual master)Nagmananda ji won his legal battle as a plaintiff before the High Court of Uttarakhand while he fought against the corruption in the judiciary towed to the same in the Govt. Delayed judgement in environmental issues is Tyranny of Status Quo.

    These die-hard stallions of the environmental-battleground-turf are indeed protecting Intergenerational Equity which is a global concern in Climate Change times.

    Their battle is well within the perview of the longest written Constitution of India. Their battles are analogous with that of the Mahatma Gandhi and the Martin Luther King Junior in silence and solitude.

    The upheaval is solely spiritual and lacks any material urge what-so-ever. They are struggling to save their mutilated mother from the clutches of the demoniac forces of contemporary modern times.

    IT IS ALL OUT ECO-SENSITIVE WAR, PURELY AND CLEARLY DEMOCRATIC, BETWEEN THE ECO-RESTORATIVE FORCES AND THE INSENSATE ELITES OF THE GANGA BASIN WHOSE PERIPHERY EXTEND TO THE HEARTS AND MINDS OF EVERY INDIAN IN THE GLOBE AND THE LOVERS OF INDOLOGY AND NATURE.

    ALL GANGA BHAKTS UNITE AND CALL A SPADE AS THAT TO HANDLE THIS DELICATE ISSUE INTRIGUING TO THE HUMAN COGNIZANCE…. ANY ATROCITIES UPON THE GANGA COULD VERY WELL BE AN EXCUSE TO SPOIL AND MUTILATE OTHER RIVERS THAT ARE THE LIFE-LINE OF CIVILIZATION ON THIS PLANET.

    THE RIVER GANGA IS HOLY IN EVERY SENSE OF THE WORD, SPURNING AND CHURNING OUT CIVILIZATIONS FROM ITS BOSOM OF THE ANTI-SEPTIC WATER AND PLETHORA OF LIFE IN THE INTRIGUING BIOTA. HOME TO THE ONE AND ONLY BDELLOVIBRIO BACTERIOVORUS BACTERIA, SHE (GANGA) WAS ONCE THE HOME TO THE GANGA DOLPHINS AND A MYRIAD OF FLORA AND FAUNA UNKNOWN TO THE GENE-POOL OF THE REST OF THE RIVERS OF THE COUNTRY OR THE GLOBE !

    BEWITCHED BY HER BEAUTY AND BOUNTINESS THE EARLY HUMANS IN THIS PENINSULA BETWEEN THE GONDWANA AND THE ANGAARA LAND PREFERRED TO WORSHIP HER AS THE EMBODIMENT OF THE LIFE-GIVING AND LIFE-SUSTAINING MOTHER.

    IF THAT CAN HAPPEN TO THE GANGA IN THE FORM OF THE HYDRO-ELECTRIC PROJECT AT LOHARI NAGPALA AND THE MANY ATROCITIES ON HER DISDAIN INCLUDING THE 300-ODD NON-FUNCTIONAL S.T.P.(SEWERAGE TREATMENT PLANTS) AND ABOUT 700 CRORES USURPED BY HER ATROCIOUS SONS IN THE NAME OF HER SURVIVAL ALREADY. ANOTHER 5000 CRORES AWAITS THEIR PRYING EYES. GOD SAVE THE MOTHER FROM THESE PAMPERED CLASS OF DEGENERATES !

    STRUGGLING TO SAVE MOTHER-EARTH FOR THE SAKE OF POSTERITY THREE OF MY ACTIVIST FRIENDS HAVE WON THE RECENT 3-TIER PANCHAYATI-RAJ ELECTIONS ALREADY. LETS STAND UP IN JOY TO CELEBRATE THE UPSURGE IN DEMOCRACY MEANT TO ALLEVIATE THE MOTHERLAND OF THE SUFFERING OF TH TEEMING MILLIONS.

    INDUSTRIALISATIONS COULD HAPPEN SCIENTIFICALLY AND SUSTAINABLY…. NOT MINDLESSLY ! ODISHA HAS TAKEN STEPS IN LEAPS AND BOUNDS TO SAVE HER PIETY. YOUR VALUE-ADDITIONS ARE BUT A MILESTONE ON THE PATH OF HER REJUVENATION AND RESTORATION.

    Manas Ranjan Mishra
    Erstwhile – Scientist from Dept of Atomic Energy, Govt. of India, Mathematical Modeller, Experimental Physicist.
    Additionally – Advocate, High Court and Supreme Courts of India.
    +919937140840, +919437010262.

  27. Dr Vijay Verma
    Haridwar Uttarakhand India
    March 16, 2012, 4:49 am

    Spiritual fight against pollution and corruption which is endangering the life not only river but the whole globe.

  28. Era
    Delhi
    March 16, 2012, 4:30 am

    It is like creating a scene of Sholay, where Veeru give threat to his maousi regarding getting married to Basanti.

    If some one wants to die on his whimsical fancy let him. Illogical things should not be entertained. It is an ostensible gimmick by former dean of IIT Mr. G.D. Agrawal turned so called environmentalist.

    It is not understandable that why at fag end of life or after retirement this sort of knowledge these sort of people gathers, why not during there service tenure.

  29. Bal Krishna Gupta
    India
    March 16, 2012, 3:58 am

    It is a sad commentary on India’s elite political, religious and educated class as well as print and Visual media that very few people have come forward to appeal to the Prime Minister of India to look into the demands of famous environmentalist. Even the so called champions of environment like Ms Sunita Narayan are visible on this issue.

    Pray who bothers for the India we used to know, any more!

    it is a sad commentary on the country’s apathy to issues concerning its very being.