Sacrifice at the Altar of Development

 Medha Patkar, Sandeep Pandey

Medha Patkar, Sandeep Pandey,

            The legendary Professor Guru Das Agrawal, who got 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, who had laid the foundation of India’s anti-pollution regimen as the first Member-Secretary of Central Pollution Control Board, and who had become Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand in 2011 at the age of 79 years, ultimately failed to convince a government about his viewpoint on rejuvenation of river Ganga and had to pay for this with his life. He died on 11 October 2018 after 112 days of fasting on lemon water and honey, 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, on an issue of ecological and religious significance of Ganga, which was at the core of  Prime Minister’s election campaign. Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand 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, Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand wrote to PM Narendra Modi on 5 August 2018 that whereas the National Environmental Appellate authority of the previous Manmohan Singh government had suspended the Lohari Nagpala hydroelectric project on his clearly articulated demands, despite some construction having taken place there, and declared a length of over hundred kilometres of Bhagirathi from Gangotri to Uttarkashi as an Eco-Sensitive Zone, which means no destructive activity could take place here, the present government had not done a thing for conservation of Ganga even after four and a half years of being in power. He repeated his four demands which he had intimated to PM before going on fast: (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 the Ganga basin; and (4) Form a Ganga Bhakt Parishad whose aim would be to work to protect the interests of Ganga. He never heard from the PM till his death, even though during his fifth fast in 2013, Rajnath Singh as the then Bhartiya Janata Party president had promised to him that all his demands related to Ganga would be met if the BJP came to power at the Centre.


            Professor Agrawal wanted Ganga to be declared a national symbol. His main emphasis was on conservation of Ganga in its natural pristine glory, unobstructed natural flow, which he called as Aviral, and unpolluted water quality, which he described as Nirmal. He wanted a ban on discharge of any untreated or treated sewage or industrial effluents in Ganga. Another of his demands was complete prohibition of incineration of any kind of solid waste, setting up of units discharging pollutants, deforestation, illegal stone quarrying and sand mining, building of river-front development structures and use of chemicals or hazardous substances in the vicinity of Ganga. These have become necessary 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 the Rihand dam while working for the Uttar Pradesh State Irrigation Department.


            As a true scientist, Professor 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 water of Ganga—its non-putrefying, disease destroying, health enhancing and pollution destroying properties—it was necessary to ensure its Aviral flow. Similarly, Nirmal doesn’t mean merely 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. He concluded scientifically that the special ‘self-cleaning’ property of Ganga and its unique coliform destroying capabilities were because of  the presence of bacteriophages, large amounts of exo-cellular polymers coming from trees present in Himalayan uplands, unique mix of heavy and radioactive metals, and ultra fine silt or micro nucleii in the water. It is essentially the rocks, sediment and vegetation, including medicinal plants or ecology of the upper region, that contributes to the special property of 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. Another view emanating from the ruling BJP government is that they don’t care about the country, religion or its people but are only interested in ‘Development.’ It is very clear that the BJP’s concept of ‘Development’ is clearly corporate driven and, as is now well established, yields sufficient kickbacks to fund the next electoral cycle. Hence even though a senior functionary of Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, who tried to mediate, said he agreed theoretically with Professor G.D. Agrawal’s vision on Ganga, the compulsions of realpolitik sealed the fate of Professor G.D. Agrawal and by extension that of Ganga. This threat will loom large on life and livelihoods of people living in other river valleys too.


            Professor Agrawal had 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 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 Professor G.D. Agrawal’s demise is unfillable. Where is another strong voice for Ganga? To many religious minded people, Professor G.D. Agrawal appeared to be in the mould of the mythological figure Bhagirath, almost single-handedly taking up the cause of Ganga.


            A true condolence to him would be to brace ourselves for fight against governments which believe in concept of ‘development’ with attendant destruction of nature, corporations which implement such misplaced and misgoverned projects, and contractors plundering natural resources including sand from the river bed and its catchment area.


            The fight for conservation of Ganga is far from over. Swami Shivanand, the chief priest of Matre Sadan, the ashram in Haridwar that Professor Agrawal chose as his fast site, has warned Narendra Modi that he and his disciples will ensure that the chain of fasting begun by Swami Sanand doesn’t break. One Swami Gopal Das had also begun fasting soon after Swami Sanand started his fast on 22 June, 2018. Earlier Swami Nigmanand, also associated with Matre Sadan, laid down his life in 2011 on the 115th day of his fast—it is widely believed that he was actually murdered 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?

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