09 Nov 2018 Blogpost Environmental rights and governance

Environmental activist gives up his life for a clean Ganga river


Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand, an 86-year-old environmental activist from India, died on 11 October 2018, 111 days into his fast. He was protesting inaction on keeping the Ganga (also known as Ganges) River free from pollution.

Swami Sanad, otherwise known as G.D. Agarwal, demanded that the government fulfill its promises, policies and programmes. He called for a free-flowing Ganga River with no illegal mining and dams, as well as a Ganga Protection Management Act.

Swami Sanad had been on a diet of water and honey since June but gave it up two days before his death stating: “My fast will end with my death.” He diedfrom a cardiac arrest at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Rishikesh where he was admitted, against his will, the night before.

Earlier in July, Swaroop was forcibly taken to some unknown location by the Uttarakhand police. He was released only on an Uttarakhand High Court order.

“Swaroop is an 86-year-old sanyasi who has been a scientist and professor at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur. He has devoted his life to preserve, protect and conserve the holy river Ganga. He has raised his voice against the construction of power projects on holy river Ganga,” Uttarakhand High Court stated.

The Ganga River

The Ganga river is both incredibly sacred and exceedingly polluted. A lifeline to hundreds of millions of Hindus and worshipped as a god, the sacred river is ecologically dead in stretches over 600 kilometres, and the receptacle of tonnes of human and industrial waste.

The government counters that work is being done to reduce pollution in the Ganga and that several projects have been completed. Indeed, the Namami Gange Project—announced in 2014—spent around US$460 million in two years in various efforts to clean the Ganga. Nitin Gadkari—current Minister for Road Transport and Highways, Shipping and Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation—wrote in his letter requesting Swami Sanad to end his fast, that works will end in 2019 and that in Kanpur 80 out of 140 million litres per day of sewage are already being diverted.  

However, Swaroop states that the government’s efforts so far have either been slow or non-existent, ad-hoc or harmful. The capacity of common effluent treatment plants and sewage treatment plants is simply not adequate. For example, Varnasi city only has enough capacity to deal with a quarter of the 400 million litres of sewage generated every day, and some of its plants are out of order. When the Environment Minister Saifuddin Soz visited the Rajendra Prasad Ghat sewage pumping station in Varanasi, he was told that it had not been functioning for a month and a half. When the plants stop operating or when there is no electricity, the waste flows directly into the river, untreated.

Swaroop’s history of activism

Swami Sanad has a history of fasting to demand accountability from the government to protect the Ganga. He began with a fast in 2008 which ended when the government assured him that it would set up a committee to look into his demands. He went on a fast again from January 14 to February 20, 2009 and July 20 to August 23, 2010 against hydroelectric projects, and was able to stall them all, even getting the government to declare 125 kilometres of the Bhagirathi an eco-sensitive zone. The government also formed the National Ganga River Basin Authority. Despite these decisions, Swaroop again fasted in 2012 and 2013 alleging inaction by the River Basin Authority. The 2012 fast ended when the River Basin Authority was forced into the small concession of holding a meeting. Swaroop was held in jail during the 2013 fast.

Narendra Modi and Swami Sanad

Following Swaroop’s history of lobbying the government concerning the Ganga, he was promised that when the Narendra Modi government came to power it would accept all his demands related to the Ganga. In fact, Modi made cleaning the Ganga one of his primary electoral promises.

When news broke of Swami Sanad’s death, Prime Minister Modi gave his personal condolences on Twitter, recognizing Swami’s passion and work. At the same time however, India Today reported that at least three letters from Swami Sanad to Modi remain unanswered.

UN Environment has deservedly awarded Narendra Modi a Champions of the Earth recognition for his leadership in the fight against plastic pollution in India, and his unwavering commitment to tackling climate change around the world. Under Modi’s leadership, Indian sustainable policy implementation and green grassroots initiatives have flourished and the nation is now the fifth largest producer of solar energy and the sixth largest producer of renewable energy worldwide.

However, the Ganga River is still woefully polluted and efforts to clean it severely lacking. Despite the Uttarakhand High Court ordering the state government to ensure no untreated sewage be dumped in the Ganga, the practice is still widespread. A staggering 75 to 80 per cent of sewage discharged in the Assi and Varuna tributaries of the Ganga are untreated. These rivers also being used as landfills.

Swaroop was born G.D. Agrawal in western Uttar Pradesh. He did his BSc in Banaras Hindu University before earning a BTech in civil engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology in Roorkee. He obtained a doctorate in environmental engineering from California University and returned to teach at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur. In 2012, he formally renounced the world and adopted the name Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand. He devoted his life to the cause of saving the River Ganga.

Sadly, he is the second activist to have died campaigning for the Ganga in less than a decade; in June 2011 Swami Nigamanada Saraswati died after fasting for 114 days demanding an end to quarrying in Ganga.

UN Environment does not wish to see more environmental defenders die in an effort to clean up the Ganga. We urge Modi and his government to enact all activities and follow up on all promises to bring back life and health to this sacred river.