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.]

. . . . .

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.


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.
  • Govind Ranjan

    Its really nice to read such an article which relates to the ground reality and so called development….
    Am really thankful to the God for making Govt. agree to the request of Swamiji.
    Moreover, I would like to express that when Gangji agreed to come down by the Tapasya of Bhagirath
    she asked Bhagirath, please answer my question…
    By cleansing of so many bad karmas of several people on this earth if I become dirty then how will I claen myself??

    Bhagirath replied! Mate.. even in those days… there would be quite few number of sagas, by the touch of their feet only, you will regain your purity
    I feel that Swamiji (Formerly Dr. G. D. Agrawal) is one among them…Praying for his speedy recovery….

  • Dr. Ankit Sura

    Interesting Pattern : [ http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/article584356.ece ] Last year similar uprising to protect Eco geological impact of massive Infrastructure projects, which are geared for massive power supply / consumption economical paradigm of industrialization process.

    Environmental depletion is Universal, the amount of disruption has already peaked in developed nations, and now developing nations follows the path. Though the declination is ongoing process if Industrialization and Consumerism continue at rapid pace disturbing balance with natural processes.

  • […] renowned Indian academic and environmentalist, GD Agarwal, has been fasting since February to protest the reckless pollution of the Ganges, a river considered holy by Hindus. […]

  • Manas Ranjan Mishra


    I bet, you will die a saint in India. For the way you are upto helping our mother of poor country, you are heaven bound. Accolades to this pure journalist in you who peers into the stingy bylanes of the most-ancient Varanasi Math of the Aadi Sankaracharya order for the newly christened fasting saint knowledgeable Saanad or the gloom over the Matri Sadan (mother’s home) missing its most ardent son Nagmananda, consecrated to the mother Gangaa(and strictly not Ganges as you would like to spell), the fountainhead of motherhood of human civilization.

    What about the happenings over the past fortnight ? Did the write-ups of the Saint Jaiswal or the Pastor Swamy (?) yeild any definitive results for the satisfaction of the most-practical of scientist-saint of Gangaa-knowledged Gyaan Swaroop Saanad(Prof G.D.Agarwal) ?

    What has been the role of the Matri Sadan, Swami Avimuykteshwarananda, S.N.Subba Rao, Anna Hazare, G.R.Khairnar, Prabhu Narayan, Dr Vijay Verma, Swami Sivanand, the Jal Purush, the Pune Jal Biradari, Mohan Dhaariya, R.H.Siddique, Ravi Chopra, and others concerned ?

    How do we expect Saanand ji to react to the fact whether any action has been taken about the promises made by the omni-potent, omni-present, omni-scient, leviathan government of the Indian Sovereign reacting to the fountain-head of Riverine-Ecosystemic knowhow ?

    How are the poor power-providers intertwined with power-brokering to satisfy Saanand ji ? Or are they meditating ? The rapists of Mother Ganga – are they in hiding or camouflaged ? Or are they feigning molestation only ?

    What has been the continuous reaction of the local media and the like ? What have the proponents of Democracy and the Climate Change Brigade doing to save the fountainhead of the World Civilizations – Ganga ? Are they better than Brother Roosevelt who preferred to change the venue of the first Atom Bomb to a less-cultural ill-fated Hiroshima ? All Colorado Desert tests having yeilded the necessary results – strategy forced them to do the inevitable eh ! Common-Japan bled.

    I as a common-man am awaiting any news of the saint-salaad-servitude combine. Please help many like us nature lovers, ardent developers(scientifically, not mindlessly profiteering upon the landscape) and freedom-fighters to peruse the ultimate of all battles on earth today – against corruption…..

    Why Dan; you are silent ? Go for the kill(of insanity). That’s the message from the Geetaa. God’s own gospel. He said – “Hatwaba praapyasi swarga; jitwaba bhogyasey mahee; Kounteya, yudhyaya kruta nischaya.”(If you die you will enjoy the heavens, if you live you will enjoy the earth – O’Arjun fight with determination.)


  • […] fasting for 43 days in an effort to try and get action on cleaning up the Ganga (Ganges River). The National Geographic News Watch is providing updates on the situation as it evolves. Agrawal is in hospital and officials are […]

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