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By Rashme Sehgal

Professor GD Agarwal’s death on Thursday will not go in vain. Already, another swami by the name of Swami Gopal Das has declared his intent to go on an indefinite hunger strike at Matri Sadan from Friday.

The Matri Sadan in Haridwar has become the hub of the Save Ganga agitation and has witnessed forty such on fasts during the last decade. Earlier, another young swami Nigamanand had also fasted to death in a brave attempt to stop sand mining on the banks of the Ganga.

Prof GD Agarwal, Ganga crusader and brave heart environmentalist was also known as Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand. He had been fasting from June 22. And his single-point demand was for the Ganga to be cleaned up at the earliest.

This should not have been difficult for the Modi government to meet primarily because the prime minister had, ever since he declared is intent to become prime minister in 2013, made a promise  to clean up our national river. So much so that Modi had said that he was the son of the Ganga.

Agarwal had told his close associates before Modi became prime minister, that it seemed as though “we were finally going to get a government in power who understood the moral and cultural significance of this river.”

Alas, this belief was soon belied by the government’s unwillingness or inability to take concrete action on the ground. Of course, there was no shortage of funds because not only was the nomenclature of the Ministry of Water Resources extended to included River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation but the Namami Ganga received an unprecedented Rs 20,000 crore for cleaning up operations.

In February 2018, Agarwal wrote a letter to Modi demanding to know why instead of working to rejuvenate the river, his ministry of Ganga Rejuvenation was busy diverting its water or else undertaking indiscriminate dredging which would only destroy the river.

Agarwal also demanded that all work on the Vishnugad Pipalkoti hydropower project on the Alaknanda river, the Singoli Bhatwari and Phato Byung projects on the Mandakini river as also other hydro projects on the tributaries of the Alaknanda be halted with immediate effect.

He demanded that a Ganga Protection Bill be passed immediately in Parliament. The bill had been drafted by the Justice Girdhar Malviya committee two years ago. He also demanded the setting up of a statutory 20-member Ganga Council that would oversee all projects that could impact the Ganga.

The Modi government did not respond to his letter. Finally, on June 22, (Ganga Avataran Divas) Agarwal started a fast-unto-death surviving only on lime water.

Of course, this was not his first fast to save the river. He is known to have fasted in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2013 during the UPA regime. Former environment minister Jairam Ramesh interacted with him closely during his tenure as minister and agreed to scrap the hydro-projects coming up along the Bhagirathi river.

Ramesh also declared that the 135 km stretch   from Gaumukh to Uttarkashi be declared an eco-sensitive zone, a decision which came in for strong criticism from the ‘development’ lobby and which the BJP government in Uttarakhand has subsequently promised to reverse.

Agarwal went on to write four more letters to Modi, none of which received any response. All his letters reiterated the same points which have aggrieved activists and farmers mainly to end sand mining along the banks of the Ganga and also stop all hydropower projects on Alaknanda, Mandakini, Dhauliganga, Nandakini and Pinderganga as these would destroy the natural flow of the river.

It is to Minister of Sanitation and Drinking Water Uma Bharati’s credit that she did go down to meet the fasting Agarwal at Matri Sadan in early August. Following her meeting, she sought to get his demands fulfilled by Minister of Water Resources Nitin Gadkari.

But Agarwal was no longer willing to settle for assurances. He wanted concrete action. Following his death, Gadkari issued a statement explaining that the government had accepted almost all his demands.  Not only had the government come up with a notification to ensure minimum flow of the Ganga at various locations but they had also come up with a legislation to protect the river and this had been sent to the Cabinet for approval.

Gadkari also clarified that on the issue of the cancellation of the hydro-projects, “the government had been trying to bring all stakeholders together and sort out the issue at the earliest.”

The question is who is going to buy this explanation? India’s foremost environmentalist has been asking the government in power to ensure its most premier river providing precious drinking water to millions of homes and farmers have a pollution-free, continuous flow as also to ensure that no sand mining take place along its banks especially around Haridwar.

These were legitimate demands that should have been provided as a matter of right to all of us. The Ganga is in ICU as are all our rivers. Not willing to take this lying down, Agarwal, a former professor at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur and also the first member secretary of the Central Pollution Control Board, was willing to fight for this cause.

Let us hope it does not go in vain.

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