No Backing Down: Scientist’s Ganges River Fast Reaches Day 43

[UPDATE, Friday, March 23: The Press Trust of India reports that GD Agrawal has decided to partially end his fast. The 80-year-old environmentalist will take liquids, but no solid food, pending an April 17 meeting of the National Ganges River Basin Authority.

“I will keep taking liquid but will not consume any solid food till any concrete work happens for cleaning of Ganga river,” the 80-year-old activist told reporters here at AIIMS where he was admitted two days ago in a critical condition. Demanding that the issue of Ganga should be put in the “priority list” of government, Agrawal said, “I am not in condition to wait too long. I would be happy if it happens before the Prayag Kumbh scheduled to take place in January, 2013.” 

Apparently Agrawal has received the written assurances he had requested that the government would suspend four hydroelectric projects on two of the Ganges’ Himalayan tributaries.]

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Negotiations in New Delhi to end the 43-day hunger strike of a noted environmental scientist have stalled on the basic issue of trust: According to G.D. Agrawal’s supporters, the government of India has agreed to suspend work on four hydroelectric projects on the upper reaches of the Ganges River, but refuses to commit its pledge to writing.

“Yesterday, the government’s representative came and told us they are accepting our demands, but they are not willing to give any written document,” Govind Sharma of the Ganga Mahasabha organization told me Thursday morning. “How can we believe them?”

“We want a written assurance,” Sharma said. “Then Swami-ji will break his fast.” (Agrawal renounced the material world last year, and is known to his followers as Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand.)

GD Agrawal, after removing his intravenous line last week.

Agrawal, 80, is a former head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, and is a past secretary of the Indian government’s Central Pollution Control Board. He wants Delhi to make good on its past commitments to ensure a free-flowing Ganges that is also free of pollution. The Government has reneged on past written agreements related to dams on the river.

India is starving for electricity to power its factories, light its homes, and to keep its hospitals running. But, while Agrawal is an environmentalist, this isn’t really a battle between development and the environment. And while Agrawal is a swami, it’s also not a battle between development and religion.

The real choice Agrawal and many others have been trying to articulate is the one between development that’s based on strong science and research, and development that’s based on big construction schemes and contractor kickbacks. Religion of course plays a role: The Ganges is the holy river of Hinduism – how could it not?

But a key argument, often lost amid the drama of hunger strikes and forced displacement of farmers and villagers, is that there are better ways to power India. An estimated 35 percent of the electricity generated in India is lost due to inefficiencies in the power grid.

I have to believe that strengthening this infrastructure would cost less than the dozens of dams and other hydroelectric projects currently planned for the Ganges’ upper reaches. Tightening up the grid doesn’t generate the big up-front money that dams do. Nor does it force people from their ancestral homes, or create deadly mudslides.

A study last year by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California found that “simple energy efficiency measures. . . can eliminate [India’s] electricity deficit as early as 2013. What’s more, doing so will add $505 billion to India’s gross domestic product (GDP).”

Agrawal is currently being held in state custody at the All-India Institute for Medical Science, where doctors are considering performing angioplasty on him. Agrawal suffered what his representatives have called a “mild” heart attack on Sunday in the city of Varanasi. He was airlifted to Delhi on Monday.

“At the moment I am quite resigned to my fate,” Agrawal told me last week, two days before his heart attack, a botched attempt at force-feeding him through a nasal tube, and his unwilling relocation from Varanasi to Delhi.

Agrawal “doesn’t want anything,” Sharma told me. “Any medication, any operation, any angioplasty.”

He wants a real commitment, or he wants to die.

Sharma said that when Agrawal’s representatives pressed for a written agreement from the government before he would end his fast, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s emissary responded with a tough dose of political reality.

According to Sharma, Coal Minister Sriprakash Jaiswal told them, “You have very few followers, why should we accept your demands?”

“We said, ‘That’s right. We have no followers,’” Sharma recalled. “’But Ganga-ji has millions of followers.’” (I tried but couldn’t reach Jaiswal for comment. He may be preoccupied with a recent report by India’s Comptroller & Auditor General.)

The last week has shown signs of reinvigorated activism for the Ganges. On World Water Day, it’s an open question if it will sustain itself long enough to make a difference.

 

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Meet the Author
Dan Morrison is a contributor to National Geographic Voices. From 2007 to 2012 he reported for National Geographic News from South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, filing dispatches on climate change, conflict, the environment, and antiquities. Dan is author of The Black Nile , a nonfiction account of his 3,600-mile journey down the length of the White Nile through Uganda, Sudan, and Egypt. The Daily Beast called The Black Nile "a masterful narrative of investigative reportage, travel writing, and contemporary history," and The Village Voice named it one of the Ten Best of 2010. Dan was a 2013 United Nations Foundation Global Health Fellow. Currently at work on a book about the Ganges River, Dan also contributes to the New York Times, POLITICO Magazine, Slate, The Arabist Network and the Dhaka Tribune. To contact Dan please see his website.