To Sir, with love and belief

Dr G.D. Agarwal fought to protect the river Ganga till his last breath.
15 Oct 2018
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Dr G.D. Agarwal (Pic by Sidwanshu Kumar)
Dr G.D. Agarwal (Pic by Sidwanshu Kumar)

Dr G.D. Agrawal passed away on October 11, 2018. He was 86 years old. But he didn’t die of old age. After 111 days of fasting, he died of a heart attack. Why was he fasting? We will come to that in a while. 

I knew him as G.D. Sir. A man who taught me concepts and practice of environmental science. G.D. Sir was born in Kandhla, a small town near Delhi. He was raised by his aunt. He began his career as an irrigation engineer. He went on to do his PhD in Berkeley and later became a professor of environmental engineering at IIT-Kanpur. G.D. Sir also had a short stint at the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). He was the first member secretary of the CPCB. Following his retirement from IIT-Kanpur, G.D. Sir started living in Chitrakoot. He also taught at the Mahatma Gandhi Chitrakoot Gramodaya Vishwavidyalaya as an honorary professor. During a long career as a teacher, G.D. Sir supervised and mentored many students.

I met G.D. Sir at the People’s Science Institute (PSI), a voluntary organisation based out of Dehradun. We had an awkward first meeting. G.D. Sir was an advisor at the PSI. It was my first job. I was presenting a set of research findings. He was asking a series of conceptual questions and I had no clue how to answer them. A senior colleague of mine came to the rescue. He answered on my behalf and bailed me out. 

I began to meet G.D. Sir often. Sometimes to discuss the design of a wastewater treatment plant and sometimes to discuss studies related to water or air pollution. I became assertive and confident. Our relationship grew during a feasibility study of Ken-Betwa river interlinking project. G.D. Sir was supervising the study. I was one of the project leaders. We spent a lot of time together. Beneath the veneer of a tough exterior, G.D. Sir had a kind heart. I became very fond of him and he was deeply affectionate towards me, too. 

During a trip to Uttarakhand in 2006, G.D. Sir and a couple of us from the PSI discovered that large stretches of river Ganga were running dry. The hydroelectric projects were literally destroying the river—creating pond-like storage structures and connecting them via tunnels. The Ganga as we knew it, would have ceased to exist. G.D. Sir was deeply disturbed. He was a devout Hindu. The river’s plight affected his sense of reverence. It had also stirred his scientific soul. G.D. Sir took some time to think through his response. A few months later, he announced that he will fast for the Ganga. He sought immediate abandonment of the hydroelectric projects. He also demanded that the upper stretch of the river (from Gangotri to Uttarkashi) should be left untouched.  

I was not very happy that G.D. Sir chose to fast. I remember having long arguments with him. But G.D. Sir was unrelenting. He believed that the Ganga represented the soul of our cultural and religious identity. That soul needed cleansing. And fasting was the only way to capture popular imagination and influence necessary action from the society and the state. I was worried about his health. But G.D. Sir seemed determined. His belief overcame the fear of death.

Around this time, G.D. Sir became a sanyasi. He came to be known as Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand. G.D. Sir did four fasts for the Ganga. Some of these fasts prompted action from the erstwhile UPA government but the efforts were not serious enough. A basin authority was set up, a temporary moratorium on the hydropower projects was ordered. G.D. Sir bought into some of these promises but the execution belied the promise. His fasts continued. Twelve years and four fasts later, G.D. Sir began his final fast on June 22, 2018. His demands to the government included:

  • Introduction of a comprehensive Bill in the Parliament and enacting a law for conserving and protecting the Ganga.
  • Put a stop to all under construction or proposed hydroelectric projects in the upper reaches of the Ganga and its major tributaries.
  • Ban sand mining in the main channel of the river Ganga.
  • Form an autonomous people’s body capable of managing the river and ensuring its well-being. 

G.D. Sir sought assurance from Prime Minister Modi that until the Bill is presented in the Parliament, construction of all hydroelectric projects and the National Shipping Waterway, will be suspended. G.D. Sir wrote three letters to Prime Minister but he received no response. The situation took a turn for the worse. 

On October 10, 2018, G.D. Sir stopped drinking water. He was forcibly moved from Matri Sadan, Haridwar where he was fasting to All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Hrishikesh. When a group of policemen came to move him to AIIMS, G.D. Sir resisted. But he was too frail to stave them off. A protest note is all he could manage. At 1.11 pm on Thursday, after 111 days of fast, G. D. Sir had a heart attack. He was no more.

G.D. Sir died to protect the river Ganga. Dying for a river may sound absurd to a lot of us but not to G.D. Sir. He was a believer. He firmly believed that the Ganga was his mother. G.D. Sir also believed in the power of sacrifice. On the contrary, I have been a non-believer. In fact, I have had arguments with G.D. Sir about the importance of scientific temper vis-à-vis the power of beliefs. But G.D. Sir’s death has shaken me. Amidst the apathy and utter hopelessness, it is my belief that sustains me. I am beginning to believe, too—that G.D. Sir’s death will not be wasted; that the times will change; that the Ganga will flow, unfettered. 

Ayan Biswas is a consultant development practitioner who works on water management, disaster mitigation, air quality, natural resource management and governance issues. He can be reached at

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of India Water Portal.


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