Department of Engineering Geology and Hydrogeology of the RWTH Aachen University

A Scientist who became an Activist

Bhagirathi River

For people who follow the Indian media, Dr. G.D. Agarwal is not an unheard name. Dr. Agarwal was instrumental in the campaign to save the sacred River Ganga by insisting on maintaining the uninterrupted flow of the River Bhagirathi. His efforts not only suspended the construction of multiple number of Hydropower plants but also made the Central government to give a written commitment to ensure perennial environment flows in all stretches of Bhagirathi River.

Source: Wikipedia

Dr. G.D. Agarwal, now known as Swami Gyanswaroop Sanand, is an 80 year old Sanyasi. If you see him today, you will never be able to guess that he is one of the most notable and respected Environmental Engineer in India. He graduated in Civil Engineering from the University of Roorkee, now known as IIT Roorkee and started as a Design Engineer in the Uttar Pradesh State Irrigation Department. He completed his PhD fromUniversityofCaliforniaatBerkeleyin Environmental Engineering. Author of many scientific publications, he was the Head of the department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at IIT Kanpur. He was also the first Member- Secretary of the Government of India’s Central Pollution Control Board. His students always have words of praise and admiration for him. He was awarded the Best Teacher Award from his former students at IIT Kanpur in the year 2002. He is a very sought-after Environmental Impact Assessment consultant throughout the World and he is also the Director of Envirotech Instruments (P) Ltd. established by him and some of his former students. All his life, he used his career for the betterment of the environment, specifically working on the Gangetic plain and the quality of river Ganga and even after he retired, he could not and did not stop working for the betterment of the river. He became a Swami, started a penance at the age of 80 and is still putting his life on the line so that the next generations can have better situations.

Breaking his fast. Source: NDTV.com

Dr. Agrawal started a fast on June 13, 2008 at Uttarkashi demanding free undisturbed flow of the Gnaga in its original channel in the 125 kms stretch from the river’s origin as this stretch is now the only part of theGangauntouched by human presence. He suspended his fast on June 30 after the Union Ministry of Power decided to appoint a high level expert group to investigate the technical issues pertaining to ensuring adequate environmental flows in all stretches of the Bhagirathi river and keeping it alive. The government gave written agreement to arrive at a mutually acceptable solution in three months. After six and a half months there was no solution shown by the Central Government, so Dr. Agrawal resumed his fast on January 14, 2009 inNew Delhi. Work on the Loharinag Pala Hydro Power Project was stopped when Dr. Agrawal came close to dying on the 38th day of his fast in protest of the harnessing of the river Bhagirathi. In a letter dated February 19, 2009 to Dr. Agrawal, the Ministry of Power stated that it had ordered immediate suspension of work on the Loharinag-Pala Hydropower Project on theBhagirathiRiver. In response Dr. Agrawal ended his fast the next morning at 11:00 am..The Indian government agreed to speed up its inquiry into how electricity could be generated without the flow of the Ganges being impeded.

After his relentless protests and determination, the Government of India declared the Ganga a national River and  set up the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) as an empowered planning, implementing and monitoring authority for the Ganga. The authority also received a package of Rs. 15000 Crore (2.2 Billion Euros approx.) for various projects under the authority. But after nearly 4 years, still no significant change is visible throughout the Gangetic plain. Despite of bestowing of National River status to the Ganga, no strict laws have been formulated to make desecration of the river in any manner a punishable offence, as it is done with other national symbols of our country. For a river of such large size, which flows through five states and has tributaries in 12 states, one set of central government laws are necessary which are to be followed by all. Dr. Agarwal and the Ganga Sewa Abhiyanam started another campaign on 25th December 2011. The head of the campaign is the Jyotish Peeth and Dwarka Peeth Shankaracharya Swami Swaroopanand. There are three major grouses listed by the the Ganga Sewa Abhiyanam: (1) Damming of the Ganga at regular intervals, which leads to a tardy flow, (2) Diverting more than 90% of the river water to canals, (3) Towns on the banks of the river dumping their waste into the Ganga.

On the first day of the campaign, an open letter was drafted and sent to the Prime Minister of India. On 14 January, five people took a pledge at the Ganga Sagar inWest Bengalto sit on an indefinite fast on a rotational basis. Swami Avimukteswaranand, another activist in this campaign, invited nine NGO members of the Ganga Basin Authority to a meeting. Seven of the nice members came and after the meeting it was revealed that Rs. 2,600 Crore (380 Million Euros approx.) had been already spent, but no one knows where or how. Also, Rs. 12000 Crore (1.75 Billion Euros approx.) has already been spent on the Ganga Action Plan I and II with absolutely nothing to show in the betterment of the River water quality or decrease of degradation rate. As a matter of fact, the situation for the River Ganga has gone from bad to worse for the past decade.

Dr. Agarwal’s present protest has been halted on 30th June 2012 for three months, after the Union Coal Minister assured that an inter-ministerial committee constituted by the Prime Minister will submit its study report on dams creating  hurdle in the flow of Ganga. Till then no new dam project would start and work on already started dam projects would be stopped.

What Dr. Agarwal’s life teaches me is that in a country like India, it is very difficult for anyone to say to the government that they are doing something wrong or in a wrong way. A scientist who has given his/her whole life to be expert on something, if you are not going to listen and give attention to the point he/she is making then the whole point of research is dead. If a revered scientist like Dr. Agarwal, had to become a Swami and start a penance for attention, I do not know how much difference my research will make in the betterment of situations.

  1. I assume these projects were initiated to meet the power requirements of these regions. what happens to those? how do we cope with the acute shortage of electricity??

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