This piece first appeared at National Geographic, and was updated Saturday night.
G.D. Agrawal is determined to die.
“At the moment I am quite resigned to my fate,” Agrawal, the 80-year-old dean of India’s environmental engineers, tells me by phone from his hospital bed in the holy city of Varanasi.
Agrawal hasn’t eaten since February 8. He hasn’t taken a drink of water since March 8; an intravenous drip of dextrose and vitamins keeps him lucid.
At 5 pm Saturday, Agrawal says, he will pull those tubes from his arms, his next – and maybe last – escalation in a years-long battle to force the Indian government to honor its promises to protect the Ganges River.
The 1,569-mile holy river is increasingly choked by dams, drained by irrigation canals, and fouled by industrial, agricultural, and human waste. Since 2008, Agrawal has engaged in four hunger strikes seeking to prevent the construction of hydroelectric dams on the Ganges’ Himalayan source rivers.
His devotion to the river is more than scientific. Last summer, Agrawal, a former chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, renounced the material world and became a swami. He is now known by his disciples as Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand. Agrawal is a national figure, and he’s won concessions in the past.
In July 2010, when the Indian government decided to resume work on several hydroelectric plants on the Bhagirathi River, Agrawal went without food for 34 days before the government, represented by Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, agreed to cancel dam projects on the river’s upper reaches. Despite these and other successes, the condition of the river continues to deteriorate. An estimated 90 percent of its flow is diverted into irrigation canals and to meeting the water needs of the fast-growing New Delhi capital region.
Agrawal and his supporters say a national body created in 2008 to safeguard Hinduism’s holiest river has been a sham. The National Ganga River Basin Authority has met only twice in three years, and not at all since November 2010. On March 9, board members Rajendra Singh, a Magsaysay Award winner for his work on protecting freshwater resources, Ravi Chopra of the People’s Science Institute, and environmentalist Rashid Hayat Siddiqui resigned from the authority in solidarity with Agrawal. The government body has cost $1.19 billion during its short life, “but we do not have any details about how the money is being used…There is no accountability,” Singh told The Hindu newspaper. Agrawal and the others want a real commitment from the government to protect the Ganges. So far, they say, they’ve received nothing but half-promises.
This week, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh dispatched the coal minister, Sriprakash Jaiswal, to ask Agrawal to stop his fast. Jaiswal left empty handed. “There are a few options that I am willing to give them,” Agrawal told me: Call an immediate meeting of the river authority to formulate plans for effective regulations, or call an immediate halt to upstream dam projects. “So far, there’s been no significant response,” he says.
If Agrawal goes through with his promise to remove his intravenous line, it’s almost certain police will restrain and feed him through an IV drip or a nasal feeding tube. “It depends on how much force they want to use,” he says. “I am not willing to go on like this.” Last year a young swami called Nigamanand died after an epic fast to stop illegal mining of the Ganges riverbed in the northern city of Haridwar. (His comrades insist, somewhat persuasively, that he died not of malnutrition but that he was poisoned by local mining interests.) Nigamanand’s leader, Swami Shivanand, has also engaged in several fasts to protect the river.
This activism isn’t taking place in a vacuum of good deeds (or bad ones). Bolstered by a $1 billion loan from the World Bank, the Indian government recently started a new Ganges clean-up plan. As I mentioned in this piece, this good faith plan teems with expensive lessons learned. It’s obvious that it will take more than a few men starving themselves to death to preserve the Ganges. The question is, why should it require any?
[UPDATE, 9:45 pm Saturday, Indian Standard Time: According to Govind Sharma, secretary of the Ganga Mahasabha organization in Varanasi, Professor Agrawal has removed his intravenous line against the advice of his doctors and is now resting in his hospital bed and reading Hindu scriptures. He has not as of this writing been forced to re-insert the intravenous line, although there is still a possibility that the Varanasi district administration could apply for a court’s permission to force feed him.]