Crossing the River

G.D. Agrawal began his final fast on June 22, 2018, in Haridwar. We already know the end of this story. What needs to be added to it is if citizens will let the government sweep the dust of its destruction under the rug.

A river both worshipped and scorned. Crowned with flowers and cement. Rattled on about by bells and politicians, slurred by sewers. Gleams by the light of lamps even as it is choked by filth. The story behind India’s most polluted river – the Ganga and the myth of her descent – is said to be symbolic of the liberation of the human soul from sin and suffering.

Today, it is hard to imagine it having anything to do with liberation, spiritually or otherwise. It’s easy to pass the Ganga off as another Indian paradox of glaring opposites. However, Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand – formerly G. D. Agrawal – reminds us to hold faith, even after his crossing over to the other side.

The man who gave it all

GD Agrawal | Photo: Facebook

If there was anyone who succeeded in crossing over complacency by rejecting what we take for granted and pursuing liberation – ecologically, socially and spiritually – it was him. Eighty-six year old Agrawal fought for the uninterrupted flow of the Ganga for the last 40 years.

Of course, the environment, society, and spirituality were never mutually exclusive to him in the first place. To work at one thing meant working at the other two. His story is beyond that of a saint fasting to protect the sanctity of a river.

His tryst with rivers started after he graduated and worked as a design engineer in the Department of Irrigation in Uttar Pradesh. Then, armed with a PhD in Environmental Engineering from the University of Berkeley,  he went on to inspire students as a professor at IIT Kanpur. Of all the things Agrawal will be remembered for, an inspiring teacher is one among the top.

Even after retirement, he taught as Honorary Professor of Environmental Sciences in Mahatma Gandhi Chitrakoot Gramodaya Vishwavidyalaya in Chitrakoot (M.P.). From being awarded ‘Best Teacher’ by his students at IIT Kanpur to mentoring noted environmentalists including Dr. Rajendra Singh (‘Waterman of India’), Anil Agrawal (founder of the Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi) and Dr. Ravi Chopra (Director of People’s Science Institute, Dehradun), Agrawal helped nurture the fire to understand nature in generations of Indians. This wasn’t exclusive to his students either, he inspired people of all kinds – bloggers, scientists, religious leaders (such as Swami Ramdev who launched a ‘Ganga Raksha Manch’) – in rallying together to speak up for their rivers.

His genius was proven by the fact that he was much sought after for making environmental impact assessments, and was the author of several scientific publications. He helped in drafting significant policies from within the government as well – he was the first member-secretary of the Central Pollution Control Board, and a member of several official committees which helped give structure to India’s pollution control framework.

And when institutions weren’t working efficiently, he had the courage to call them out. The National Ganga Basin Authority of India, formed because of his very protests, and a body of which he was part, only festered inaction. In 2012, he resigned from the establishment, naming it a ‘sham’.

A significant turning point in Agrawal’s life was his witnessing what foreshadowed the slow death of the river Ganga. According to his junior colleague Ayan Biswas, during a trip from the People’s Science Institute to Uttarakhand in 2006, Agrawal found that large stretches of the river were vanishing because of hydroelectric projects. This, Ayan says of Agrawal, “stirred his scientific soul”.

The initial crusades

The Ganga |Photo: Stiwar | Wikimedia Commons

Agrawal decided to use fasting as a key way of protest. Before the final fast which took his life, Agrawal conducted five similar fasts which resulted in many positive results on the ground.

One of his most significant fasts was one that was 38 days long and had him on the verge of death. It was in protest of the Loharinag – Pala project, located on one of the two headstreams of the Ganga. The project was to give an output of 600 MW but was reported by the NTPC to lead to adverse effects in river hydrology, aquatic ecosystems, and significant loss of agricultural and forest land.

With his efforts (as well as that of Rajendra Singh’s), the project was scrapped – despite the project being 90 percent complete and resulting in a loss of thousands of crores of rupees. An eco-sensitive zone between Gangotri and Uttarkashi was declared too. Agrawal’s fast also led to the suspension of two projects at Bhaironghati and Pala-Maneri by the then Uttarakhand government.

The beginning of the fast that took his life

As of  2018, Agrawal was demanding for the  ‘aviral’ (uninterrupted) flow of the Ganga, the halting of all environmentally unfriendly hydroelectric projects (Alaknanda, Mandakini, Dhauliganga, Nandakini, and Pinderganga) along the tributaries of the Ganga, and the enactment of the Ganga Protection Management Act. He also added that all sand mining from the banks of Ganga, particularly near Haridwar (the site of the Kumbh Mela), be stopped.

Swami Sanand (the name Agrawal adopted after becoming a sanyasi) wrote several letters to various ministers, none of which were of any real consequence.He resorted to writing letters to the Prime Minister, cautioning that he would go on an indefinite fast if the letters went unresponded to, and his three primary demands unmet. No reply. And so he chose to “fast unto death”.

He began his final fast on June 22, 2018, in Haridwar. We already know the end of this story. One day before his death, he stopped consuming water. And, on the 111th day of his fast, he lost his life. However, the battle that he started still continues.

The proposed projects on the Alaknanda, Dhauliganga, Mandakini, Nandakini and Pindar rivers remain standing, and bed sand mining activities on the Ganga continue. Meanwhile, only seven out of the 70 odd monitoring stations along the river have found water that is fit for drinking. A draft bill to protect the river remains stuck in the legislature.

What needs to be added to the story is if citizens will let the government sweep the dust of its destruction under the rug. And even this epilogue Swami foresaw, as evident from his statement in an interview with Down to Earth:

“I will have no regrets even if I die in the course of saving the Ganga. The end of my life would not mean the end of efforts being undertaken to save the river.”

Swami was attached to the Ganga for he saw it as the soul of Indian culture, and unique both regards to tradition and science. It was in a fact a relationship that started early on. In this panel discussion in 2013, he describes his love for Mother Nature as having stemmed from Indian cultural beliefs at an early age. “Gangaji was not only in my brain but in my blood,” he says eloquently. Even in the letters he wrote to Prime Minister Modi, he continued to address the river (‘Gangaji’) with the same amount of respect as he did the politician himself.

With regards to science, he describes the Ganga as being able to withstand relative deterioration, and having purifying properties that were proven by studies. One study to note is the discovery of  the presence novel bacteriophages (which eat bacteria) in the river.

Some time ago, a man dressed in saffron robes who swept his own floors, washed his own clothes, and lived in a two-room cottage dared to dream of a free-flowing Ganga. He navigated the waters of negligence to raise his voice again and again. And now it is time for the rest of us to wade into that battle too.

The next time we think of the Ganga and the hopeless state of things, may we look up to the sky to see the visionary who crossed the river.

Like this story? Please send us emails and share your views at – contact@thestoriesofchange.com. You can follow us on FacebookTwitterYouTube and Instagram.

Sunanda Ramasamy

When she's not fangirling over words of social and literary power, Sunanda likes to bribe street dogs into being friends with her.

Add comment