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Prof. Agarwal on a fast in Delhi in March 2009

Engineer, green guru: GD's story and his last fast

Dunu Roy, New Delhi

Published: Oct. 31, 2018
Updated: May. 06, 2019

We were on the bus from Shahdol to Varanasi. Suddenly, “Roko, roko!” my companion urged the driver. He leapt out of the bus, and disappeared. A few moments later he returned, beaming, clutching a leaf plate of hot jalebis! This was the quintessential Guru Das Agrawal, who knew every delicacy (and cinema hall) on any route he covered, and this one he had travelled many times in the early 1960s when he was a young engineer building the Rihand dam, one of the pioneering ‘temples’ of Nehruvian India near Renukoot.

GD who took sanyas and came to be known as Swami Sanand fasted four times to put an end to construction of dams in the upper reaches of the Ganga. The last fast, which, lasted 111 days, ended in his tragic death on 11 October.

GD joined IIT Kanpur after building the dam. He then went somewhat unwillingly, after the director of the institute told him it would be a violation of the technical collaboration agreement signed by the IIT with the US, to the University of California at Berkeley to complete his PhD.

Once there, he revelled in the opportunity for learning that the university offered. But, apart from his academic pursuits, he also founded, along with some other remarkable expatriates, the Front for Rapid Economic Advancement of India (FREA India) as part of his continuing contribution to national rejuvenation.

This curiously named ‘Front’ was a product of the thinking in those early days that without economic progress India would not be freed of poverty, and that science and technology were the chosen instruments for that progress. In 1969, some of my fellow students at IIT Bombay set up FREA in India and hatched a conspiracy that lured me into joining. I was advised to go and meet GD who had returned to India and was again teaching at IIT Kanpur.

The opportunity to do some good offered itself when the new FREA in Bombay received a request for help from the publisher of a small Hindi weekly in Shahdol, complaining that people were suffering from the effluents released by the largest paper mill in Asia but the company refused to acknowledge that it was polluting the Sone river. This was well before there was any environmental legislation in India.

So I boarded the earliest train to Kanpur and met GD. He asked me what I thought could be done. All I could think of was to somehow measure the pollution levels. He proceeded to dismiss every one of my ideas, and then slowly rebuilt all of them into a coherent whole. I was to discover that this was a characteristic pedagogic style of his: listen patiently to what the learner has to say; demolish it ruthlessly so that the learner is left shattered; then provide a much more elegant structure to rethink (accompanied, of course, with generous helpings of aloo puri and kheer malai!).

Four wide-eyed students were recruited from IIT Kanpur and that summer they conducted in Shahdol what was probably the first community-based environmental impact study in India. Sudhindra Seshadri was one of those students and he recalled that GD later said to him, “The value of something is what it leads to”.

GD’s concern for his students was legendary. Once, when three of them found they could not complete their course work because they had to leave for the US, GD literally hauled them back from the railway station, took extra classes, and saw to it that they completed the course. It was probably the same kind of mentoring that led Anil Agarwal to set up the Centre for Science and Environment in 1980; and me, with a few other hare-brained fellow travellers, to move to Shahdol in 1973 to design an Environmental Plan. GD was a frequent visitor to Shahdol. He kept pointing out other ways of looking at the problem.

We had acquired a second-hand Fargo pick-up truck and Arvind Gupta converted it into a diesel version. Much to his dismay GD rechristened it, first as no-Far-go and then as Nearstop, on the basis of its erratic performance; although he was happy to bounce along in it as it rattled all over the district.

Many arguments raged with him as we mined his encyclopaedic knowledge of chemistry, physics, biology and botany to understand the society we were living in; and GD was often arrayed on the other side. As Arvind later confessed, “I was too much in the ‘Left’ mode to understand and appreciate a gentle soul like GD”; but Sudhindra remembers GD saying, “I don’t agree with you guys, but I love you.”

It was this love for learning and teaching that remained at the core of his being. Atul Jain, one of his close students at IIT-K, once asked him why he did not get married. GD’s response was, “The day I stop teaching you can ask me to get married. I can’t do both.” That, of course, did not prevent him from vigorous match-making as he would ask, with a twinkle in his eye, “What do you think of A’s suitability for B?”

Guru for all

GD moved on from IIT-K to become the first Member-Secretary of the newly formed Central Pollution Control Board — he was, as Sanjeev Ghotge, yet another IIT-K product, reminded us, India’s first ‘technically qualified’ environmentalist. From that period, his teaching and learning began to extend into the realm of all those young people outside the university system who were trying to tackle the problems of the environment.

It was in the same spirit that he came to guide me through World Wide Fund for Nature’s first (and last) workshop in 1990 to develop low-cost pollution monitoring techniques that would be useful for communities. The week-long workshop attracted an array of scientists, community organisers, activists, and trade unionists, and he was hugely influential in taking environmental science to the grassroots.The Air Pollution Act was passed at this time and GD realised that Indian companies did not have the monitoring equipment required by the Act. When the big firms he called did not respond he roped in another ex-student, S.K. Gupta, to set up Envirotech to produce high-volume air samplers. When GD finally resigned in disgust from the Pollution Board, SK reminisces with a chuckle, “I roped him in right back and he managed Envirotech into a successful company.”

Meanwhile he also began the move to Chitrakoot where he helped to set up a department of environment at the new Mahatma Gandhi Gramodaya Vishwavidhyalaya, and also began preparing for retirement to a vriddhashram there. But the Banwasi Sewa Ashram in Sonbhadra sent me an appeal for help in monitoring pollution. I asked GD, and he happily jumped at the chance to return to the area where he had begun his career as an engineer. What he saw of the complex of thermal power plants that had come up around the Rihand dam he had built and its reservoir, and the ensuing massive degradation, appalled him. This sparked off yet another experiment with community-based impact assessment with the Ashram, although GD would keep prodding me, “Where is the people’s movement?”

He would often put this question to Shubhabehn of the Ashram, and she remembers how at a public meeting on environment, after all the heads from different villages had spoken, GD gave vent to his flaming temper at all talk and no action. He could be calmed down only after they gave him a written plan of action and took an oath that they would follow the plan and produce results by a given date. Shubha recounts, “Even his anger was for us a prod to think and learn. He tore apart our note and helped us build a more practical plan.”

Ramkumar Vidyarthi, a child rights activist with Sahjeevan Samiti at that time, posted on Facebook a different pedagogical approach which GD adopted in Tarang village. The primary school teacher there was often drunk and no amount of persuasion would get him to kick the habit. When GD expressed a desire to visit the school on Teacher’s Day everyone was in a quandary. Sure enough, the teacher came smelling of mahua, but GD offered him flowers and a copy of the Gita and then touched his feet before explaining to the children the importance of the day. According to Ramkumar, “there was great improvement in both the teacher as well as the villagers, who rebuilt the dilapidated school”.

It was, I think, a combination of all these stints — at teaching, in the government, a consultancy firm, with activists, and community groups all over the country that gradually led him back to his roots in western Uttar Pradesh. As he said, “I have to live my life by my code so why should I have to listen to what others say?”

He became a swami to singlemindedly pursue his goal to see a clean Ganga once again. He brought his vast scientific knowledge to bear on the subject and tried to persuade the government as well as religious and social organisations to take some action, but he failed. He finally embarked on his final fast – unto death – on June 22 this year. In August, Ravi Chopra (another old FREA hand) and I drove down to Haridwar to see him and he was as matter-of-fact and lucid as ever. He gave us a clinical description of his symptoms and said, “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.” What could be more inspiring as guru darshan?


Dying to save the Ganga

Bharat Dogra, New Delhi

The guru of the Indian environmental movement breathed his last as his fast to save the Ganga entered the 111th day on October 11. It was one of many fasts that Prof. Guru Das Agarwal, who in his later years was known as Swami Sanand, undertook to convince governments to protect the river and preserve its flow.

From October 9 he began ingesting only water as he tried to get the Union government to see the merit of his demands and act decisively to save the Ganga.But when he saw that his demands were still not being conceded, he gave up even water. He was then forcibly removed to AIIMS in Rishikesh by the government. He breathed his last there.

A devout Hindu, Prof. Agarwal’s family had close affiliations with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) for  generations. He supported  the Bharatiya Janata Party.  

He wrote several letters to the government, addressing Prime Minister Narendra Modi personally, with four demands. These were:

  • A comprehensive Bill in Parliament, based on a draft prepared by the Ganga Mahasabha in 2012, for enactment of a law to effectively  protect the Ganga. 
  • A stop to all hydroelectric projects under construction or proposed in the upper reaches of the Ganga and its major tributaries: that is, the Bhagirathi, Alaknanda, Mandakini, Dhaulagiri, Nandakini and Pinder.
  • A ban on riverbed sand mining in the main stem of the Ganga, particularly in the Haridwar-Kumbh Mela area.
  • Formation of the Ganga Bhakt Parishad, an autonomous body of 20 persons nominated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to manage and ensure the well-being of the river. This body would be the sole and final decision-making authority in all matters pertaining to the Ganga.  

With time running out, after he gave up drinking water, Prof. Agarwal just sought a written assurance that legislation on protecting the Ganga would be presented in the winter session of Parliament and that all construction projects on the Ganga — dams in the upper reaches and dredging by the National Shipping Waterways in the lower reaches — would be suspended immediately.

Prof. Agarwal was a man of science. He realised the importance of a free-flowing (aviral) Ganga. He had studied all the facets of the Ganga. The Ganga was for him a symbol of India’s cultural heritage, the nation’s soul. “I have failed,” he said before he passed away.

Charismatic teacher

Prof. Agarwal was a leading authority on environmental engineering. After his doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley, he taught at IIT Kanpur and other renowned engineering institutions at Roorkee and elsewhere. A learned and charismatic teacher, he inspired  students like Anil Agarwal, Ravi Chopra, and Dunu Roy, who went on to be well-known environmentalists. He encouraged one of them, S.K. Gupta, to set up Envirotech, India’s first pollution control technology company. Prof. Agarwal was also the first member-secretary of the Central Board of Pollution Control.

In 2007, he travelled to Gangotri above which the Ganga originates, where it is called the Bhagirathi. He came to know that the government was building a series of dams. Prof. Agarwal realised that those dams would destroy this pristine stretch of the river and limit the flow of water downstream. The Ganga is one of India’s most polluted rivers which gets filled with sewage, garbage and industrial effluents as it flows downstream. Without a constant flow of water, the river would go dry as it ran its course. Prof. Agarwal resolved to do whatever he could to protect and rejuvenate the river, sacred to millions.

His strategy was Gandhian. He went on hunger strikes, in 2008, in 2009 and in 2010. He first demanded that  dam building be stopped between Gangotri and Maneri.  His fast drew attention to the importance of having a free-flowing river. The government designated the Ganga as India’s national river. His second fast in 2009  led to the formation of the National Ganga River Basin Authority to oversee all aspects of protecting and rejuvenating the river. His third fast in 2010  got the UPA to cancel three dams between Gangotri and Uttarkashi.

In 2012 the central government even issued a notification declaring a 100-km stretch of the Bhagirathi between Gaumukh and Uttarkashi an eco-sensitive zone, where hydro projects wouldn’t be allowed. The move was welcomed by Prof. Agarwal. But development projects are now underway in this sensitive zone along the river.

In 2011, Prof. Agarwal joined an order of Hindu monastics in Uttarakhand and took the name, Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand. He decided to devote himself wholly to saving the Ganga. The present phase of his struggle started on February 24 this year when he wrote a letter to the Prime Minister saying that he had high hopes from his government on Ganga protection but they had been belied.



A fast-flowing stretch in the upper reaches

A dam reduces the river to a trickle


  • Padmini Raghavan

    Padmini Raghavan - April 2, 2019, 5:29 a.m.

    I feel so sad to understand that such a capable and highly qualified intellectual should have have pinned all his hopes on the vagaries of our government. Surely if he had not given up the good fight, he could have stayed to mentor those honest environmentalists keen to pursue his noble work.