GD Agarwal dies: Activist's demands seeking measures to clean up Ganga were repeatedly ignored by govt

After 111 days of fasting, activist Dr GD Agarwal passed away at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Rishikesh on Thursday afternoon at 1 pm. He had begun a fast unto death at the Matri Sadan in Haridwar to protest against the Government of India’s inaction over the highly degraded condition of the river Ganga and had demanded immediate action against the damming and mining along the river.

Agarwal had taken to his fast until death after receiving no response to his letters addressed to the prime minister sent out in February this year, reminding him of his election promises to revive the Ganga.

Dr Agarwal began his fast on 22 June. He was an eminent environmental scientist, former professor of IIT Kanpur and former member secretary, Central Pollution Control Board, who had been  campaigning for over 45 years for effective steps to save the river.

 GD Agarwal dies: Activists demands seeking measures to clean up Ganga were repeatedly ignored by govt

File image of activist GD Agarwal. Image taken from Facebook

“GD’s action to go on a fast unto death also points towards the need for ordinary people to act by themselves to protect and even recover their environments, and not leave it to others, governments included, to perform this task. His action is a moral one and is non-violent. His actions point to the question of what our relationship to nature is. Are we a part of it or are we apart from it? And we wish to re-negotiate our relationship with nature. Can we do it in any other way except non-violently, after all the violent damage we have done to nature and to humans through all these centuries?” says Sagar Dhara, a senior environmental scientist, based out of Hyderabad, who joined Agarwal during the initial phase of his fast.

What is the status of Ganga?

A study conducted at IIT Kanpur in 1974-75 which was aimed at understanding the special properties of the river Ganga showed that there was a 98 percent decline in the percentage of coliform (bacteria) added to the water. However, with the removal of suspended particles (sediments) from the river water, this decline reduced to 45 percent, which means that the free flow of water (aviral Dhara or environmental flow) is ensuring the removal of sediments along the basin.

In another study, it was found that the oxygen content of the river was relatively high, and the BOD (Biological Oxygen Demand) of the river was 8-17 percent higher than what is the norm in other water bodies.

A NEERI report suggests the presence of bacteriophages in the sediments released by the melting of permafrost at the source of the river gives the water of Ganga its uniqueness. In fact, if harnessed suitably, these bacteriophages possess the potency to destroy 17 pathological bacteria and viruses (like cholera, typhoid, salmonella, etc).

However, as damming along the Ganga became rampant, the quality of water began to degrade, given the obstruction in natural and sediment flow. Today, almost all the sediment from different sources is being obstructed. 99 percent of the river’s flows are diverted into Ganganagar canal (at Haridwar) which supplies water to Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. As a result, very little water remains in the river. Furthermore, sewage discharge increases significantly from Haridwar onwards, with large cities like Varanasi and Allahabad downstream contributing majorly to the sewage load entering the river.

Rampant damming and mining along the river will only deteriorate the river flow and bring down the water quality of the river along with rendering the regions along the river waterless in the years to come.

Between 2008 and 2012, Agarwal had organised three fasts which demanded the withdrawal of various hydropower projects that were harming the environmental flow of the river. While three hydropower projects on the river were repealed, these efforts also led to the creation of the Bhagirathi Eco-Sensitive Zone, declaration of river Ganga as the national river of India and the setting up of the National Ganga River Basin Authority, of which he served as a board member.

What were the demands of Dr Agarwal?

In a letter, released on the day he began his fast, Agarwal had expressed his disappointment at not even receiving an acknowledgement of his earlier letters. The following were his four major demands:

— The 2012 draft National River Ganga (Conservation and Management) Bill must be introduced and passed in the Parliament.

— All proposed and under-construction hydropower projects on the Alaknanda, Dhauliganga, Mandakini, Nandakini and Pindar rivers must be scrapped.

— All river bed sand mining activities on the Ganga must be stopped, especially in the Haridwar Kumbh Mela area.

— Formation of an autonomous Ganga Devotees Council to manage and ensure the well-being of the river.

The statements issued in response so far by Union ministers Nitin Gadkari and Uma Bharti have been unsatisfactory and were rejected by Agrawal. He had been surviving on three glasses of water with a spoonful of honey and a few drops of lemon every day. On 9 September, Agarwal had announced that he would give up drinking water from 9 October, the first day of the auspicious nine-day Navratra festival.

Current negotiations

The government of India issued a notification on Wednesday, which says that a minimum environmental flow or aviral dhara (uninterrupted flow) will be 20-30 percent of the flow in various sections of the river Ganga and its tributaries. This uninterrupted flow will be applicable only for the head tributaries and Unnao and not for the entire stretch of the river . The notification, thereby, implies that the riverway project beyond Allahabad will continue with the construction.

The discussions between Agarwal and Gadkari had been facilitated by the former chief minister of Uttarakhand, Ramesh Pokhriyal, but to no avail. Not satisfied with Centre's offer, Agarwal stopped drinking water on the evening of Tuesday. According to sources close to him, he was advised by Uma Bharti to end the fast at the Matrasadhan Ashram.

But Agarwal insisted that he will continue to fast until the act was implemented. This was the fifth such fast protesting against development projects that are polluting the Ganga. In the face of his death, what remains to be seen is how the government and even the Opposition respond to this delicate situation. Will the prime minister’s office take heed of Agarwal’s concerns, who put his life on stake to protect our natural resources?

Updated Date: Oct 11, 2018 21:20:57 IST

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