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GD Agarwal

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In 2009, Diwakar Bhatt, cabinet minister of Uttarkhand, alleged that G.D. Agarwal – along with those protesting against hydro-electric projects near the source of the Ganges river – were puppets of the CIA and the ISI. For G D Agarwal, doyen of environmental engineers in India and a legend in his fraternity, this type of attack is only to be treated with indifference.

This indifference could be rooted in the fact that the 80-year old environmental activist is now a sanyasi – Swami Gyanswaroop Sanand – and more interested in spiritual enlightenment than political pettiness. But this doesn’t mean he has discarded his activist’s skin: his commitment to the Ganges’ protection has only been reinforced with time.

He’s an unlikeliy activist – with a PhD from the University of Berkeley, he became a member of the Indian Central Pollution Control Board, and later HOD of Civil and Environmental Engineering at IIT-Kanpur.

But when it came to protest, this man of science adopted the saint’s way: he’s fasted countless times to push the government to action for the conservation of the Ganges ecosystem and the dangers of tampering with the Ganges’ riverbed. With 600 dams either operational, under construction or proposed, he’s not exaggerating the issue.

He makes an impassioned plea for the lives that will be affected by these dams; of the communities who live on its banks and the biodiversity and stability of the surrounding natural ecosystems. Environmentalists tend to agree with him, pointing out that tunnelling of the river for such long stretches would result in loss of flora, fauna, fertile soil and minerals.

He has little faith in the government’s projects to clean the Ganges: he is convinced that “Mission Clean Ganga-2020” will fail and have the same faultlines as its 1986 avatar – Ganga Action Plan (GAP) – did. “They have no concern for the Ganga at all”, Dr. Agarwal claims, talking about the government. “Was any person, official or engineer made accountable for the failure of GAP? Now the same thing is going to happen.” It isn’t just rabble-rousing – Jairam Ramesh, former Minister for the Environment and Forests, acknowledged the public mismanagement of the GAP and the waste of Rs. 1,700 crores.

He may be a protester but at heart, he’s a pacifist; his chosen route to protest being to sit through virtually countless fasts over the last several decades of his struggle. He fasted for 18 days in June 2008, then resumed his fast in January 2009, coming close to death on the 36th day – forcing the government to suspend the dam construction, which finally resulted in him ending his fast.

It may sound drastic to most, but Dr Agarwal is implacable. “This water is not ordinary water to a Hindu”, he says, hell bent on ending the unholy practices polluting this, the most sacred of India’s rivers.

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