G.D. Agrawal – Scientist, Nation-Builder, Sage
Photo Courtesy: Ravi Chopra
G.D. Agrawal was a hero in every sense of the word. Passionate about reviving and protecting the Ganga river, he dedicated his entire life to this task. Ravi Chopra, a water warrior in his own right, asks Sanctuary readers to recognise the worth of a hero lost to us. G.D. Agrawal’s fast-unto-death was not a battle for a river, it was a wake-up call to protect the very idea of India.
Many Indian irrigation engineers believe that any water flowing to the sea is water wasted. They tend to miss the river for the water. Not so Dr. G. D. Agrawal, a.k.a. Swami Sanand, who died on October 11, 2018 after 112 days of fasting, hoping in vain that the Government of India, would do the right thing for his ‘Maa Ganga’. When he found no response, he quietly chose to give up even drinking water. He died two days later.
Born in a well-to-do, progressive land-owning family in Kandhla, western Uttar Pradesh, his devotion to the Ganges river was nurtured during his childhood by his grandmother. Witnessing farm work in early childhood left him with a life-long appreciation of land and farming.
GD, as he was called by friends and associates, was gifted with a phenomenal intellect, a logical mind and an amazing memory, which remained razor-sharp until his end. He attributed his logical thinking to his learning Sanskrit at home as a young child and his strong grounding in science to his childhood tutor, Banarsi Das Vaishya.
Maturing into young adulthood in the early 1950s, GD was fired by a vision of nation-building. He obtained a B.Sc. degree from the Banaras Hindu University and after graduating in Civil Engineering from the University of Roorkee, he joined the irrigation department in Uttar Pradesh state in 1953 as a design engineer at the Rihand Dam in Mirzapur (now Sonbhadra) district. Asked once what he thought then about being a dam builder, he answered, “I did not think I was building a dam. I thought I was building a nation.”
In 1960, GD joined IIT-Kanpur and went on to pursue his postgraduate degree in U.S.A. in 1963. A brilliant mind, he obtained a Masters degree and a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley in under three years, a rare achievement. Later, he inevitably credited his understanding of modern ecological science to his Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Erman Pearson. What was so unique about Dr. Agrawal was his ability to blend this modern understanding of ecology with his farming experience and his knowledge of Indian nature conservation traditions.
GD was fiercely independent. As Dean of Student Affairs at IIT-Kanpur in 1977, he invited Jayprakash Narayan to address the student community. When he was reproached by the Institute’s Director, GD tendered his resignation and returned to farming in Kandhla.
In 1980, Dr. Agrawal joined India’s Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) as its first Member-Secretary, on the invitation of its Chairman, Dr. Nilay Chaudhry. At the CPCB, he put together a team of dedicated scientists and guided them in developing deeply-researched environmental standards, specific to Indian conditions rather than blindly borrowing them from abroad. Then he quit in 1983 when he differed with Dr. Nilay Chaudhry over an issue of the Board’s autonomy.
Later GD joined a few former students from IIT-Kanpur who had formed a start-up company, Envirotech Instruments (P) Limited, New Delhi, to manufacture air quality monitoring instruments and procedures for air quality monitoring. In 1992, at the invitation of Shri Nanaji Deshmukh he moved to the Mahatma Gandhi Grameen Vishwavidyalaya in Chitrakoot to teach as an Honorary Professor. Here he settled until his initiation as a sant in 2011.
Dr. Agrawal was a legend in his lifetime and an inspirational teacher. His students still speak of him with awe, admiration and affection. In 2002, his former students at IIT-Kanpur conferred on him the ‘Most Distinguished Teacher Award’, the only faculty member ever to receive it so far. An engineer’s engineer, senior professionals would routinely turn to him for solutions to difficult technical problems that eluded them.
GD’s signal contribution was to mentor young activists and institutions, including such well-known development activists as Dunu Roy (IIT-Bombay,’67) who set up the innovative Vidushak Karkhana in Anuppur (M.P.) and later The Hazards Centre, New Delhi, Anil Agrawal (IIT-Kanpur, 1970) who established the Centre for Science & Environment in New Delhi, and Rajendra Singh, a Magsaysay awardee and founder of Tarun Bharat Sangh. Prominent institutions he mentored include People’s Science Institute (PSI) in Dehradun, Banwasi Sewa Ashram in Sonbhadra district (U.P.), Sahjeevan Samiti (M.P.) and more recently Purnapramati, a new alternative school in Bengaluru.
While GD the person worshipped Ma Ganga as a goddess, GD the scientist saw the river as an ecosystem with water, sediments and aquatic biota. In 2007, on a visit to Gangotri, he became aware of plans to build three new hydroelectric projects upstream of Uttarkashi town, besides the existing Maneri-Bhali I dam. He realised that they would destroy the only remaining near-pristine stretch of the river. After considering a number of options, in April 2008, GD decided to begin a fast-unto-death from Dussehra day in June the same year, asking that all the projects on the river between Gangotri and Maneri be permanently closed to allow the natural flow of the river to be restored.
That was the start of his decade-long struggle to unshackle his beloved Maa Ganga.
Often asked why he was opposing dams and barrages, GD would reply: “Ganga is no ordinary river. It has unique properties.” He would then go on to patiently explain the science behind his opposition. Focused on real solutions, he restricted his opposition to dams and barrages on the Himalayan headstreams of the Ganga. For the others he demanded the release of environmental flows.
Experimental work in the 1970s with his research students at IIT-Kanpur revealed the Ganga’s self-purifying capacity. Its ability to destroy coliform bacteria was, for instance, much higher than other rivers studied elsewhere, including its Himalayan tributary the Yamuna. He attributed this special characteristic of the Ganga to the Himalayan sediments and vegetative debris transported by the river.
This is why Dr. Agrawal opposed the construction of dams, tunnels and barrages on the Ganga. He pointed out that these structures would obstruct the downstream flow of the water and sediments – thereby diminishing its unique self-purifying ability. Before starting his first fast-unto-death in 2008, GD guided a brief study at PSI that confirmed that the self-cleansing and self-purifying capacities of the Bhagirathi decreased progressively after each constructed dam, thus weakening the very property, which made Gangajal unique.
It was only in 2013, that a research report from NEERI (National Environmental Engineering Research Institute) ratified the earlier work done by Dr. Agrawal and his researchers at IIT-Kanpur and PSI. It confirmed that the Himalayan sediments provided sites for bacteriophages (bacteria-destroying viruses) to adsorb and proliferate and that 90 per cent of the sediment load in the river had been blocked behind the Tehri dam.
Dr. Agrawal’s first fast prompted the UPA government at the Centre to designate the Ganga as India’s National River. His second fast in 2009 led to the formation of the National Ganga River Basin Authority. The third one in 2010 forced the Central Government to cancel all the new projects between Gangotri and Uttarkashi and establish the Bhagirathi Eco-Sensitive Zone.
In February 2018, after waiting for almost four years for Prime Minister Modi to fulfill his election promise to rejuvenate Ma Ganga, Swami Sanand wrote stating that unless his four demands were fulfilled, he would fast-unto-death from June 22, 2018. His demands were:
1. That a comprehensive Bill be introduced in Parliament to conserve and protect the Ganga river, based on a draft prepared by Ganga Mahasabha in 2012.
2. That all hydroelectric projects under construction or proposed in the upper reaches of the Ganga and its six headstream tributaries be cancelled.
3. A ban on riverbed sand-mining in the main stem of the Ganga, particularly in the Haridwar-Kumbh Mela belt.
4. That an Autonomous Authority, with capable and committed persons heading it, be appointed to ensure the well-being of the river.
The Prime Minister never responded. On September 9, 2018, Swami Sanand announced that he would give up drinking water from October 9, the first day of the Navratras. Negotiations thereafter with government officials, cabinet ministers and senior leaders of the BJP and RSS were unproductive. The Government of India did not concede to a single one of Swami Sanand’s four specific demands.
In the face of the government’s obstinacy, the iron-willed Swami Sanand chose martyrdom in the hope that his death would awaken the conscience of the Government and the people of India.
“I think my body will last for another six weeks. But don’t worry about me. I am satisfied with what I have done and my going will only give you more strength to do what needs to be done,” he said to Dunu and to me on August 24, 2018.
Prescient to the very end, his message is clear.
First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVIII No. 12, December 2018.