RIP, GD Agarwal
Leading environmentalist GD Agarwal, who was on an indefinite fast since June 22 urging the government to clean the river Ganga and bring in a legislation to prevent further damage to the river's ecosystem, passed away yesterday at AIIMS, Rishikesh. The 87-year-old saint-activist was at one point of time a Professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. He had also served as a member Secretary of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and was a big name in environmental engineering. Agarwal had undertaken several fasts in the past to protest the construction of dams, barrages, and tunnels on the Ganga and its tributaries. He was a longstanding environment activist, who studied the eco-system of the river thoroughly over a long period of time. Not only did he live on the banks of river Ganga, but he had also dedicated his life to the cause of cleaning the river. It is rare that we have such a learned and dedicated activist working on a cause that does not offer immediate recognition or appreciation. Till he died on Thursday, few people knew that Agarwal was on a fast since June 22. But the Uttarakhand government, which forcibly admitted him to AIIMS (Rishikesh) after he stopped consuming even water, cannot claim innocence in the matter. The state government was well aware of his fast and demands but it did not engage with the activist in the initial phase of the fast. It was only when the fast entered a crucial phase and Agarwal's health began deteriorating rapidly that the state government representatives held talks with him which failed to arrive at any conclusion. Agarwal was demanding an uninterrupted flow of the Ganga from Gangotri to Uttarkashi. Naturally, if the government accepted his demand, it would have had to forego some of the development projects that it intended to build in the region.
The death of an activist while he was on a fast demanding the cleaning of a river that has sustained the civilisation for ages, is a sad commentary on the state of activism and the government's indifference to activists' demands. Despite it being a BJP's favourite topic, the cleaning of Ganga has not been undertaken on a serious note. The Central government had launched a number of schemes for cleaning the second longest river in the country but most of these schemes remain on paper while the river is polluted beyond redemption at many places, especially near industrial towns. A major source of pollution comes from industrial units that flush out highly toxic effluents into the river. Though there are laws making it mandatory to treat the dirty water before allowing it to enter the river, the non-compliance of these laws is commonplace and a serious problem. Installing effluent treatment plants for different types of industries is both cost-intensive and impractical at times, making the industries ignore their duty and responsibility with regards to environmental concerns. As most of the factories are housed in small units and residential areas, they continue to pollute by draining out dirty water into the river while installation of effluent treatment plants is practically not possible given the small size of the individual factories. The government can request and put pressure on big industrial units to set up their separate treatment plants but the same is not possible with thousands of small industries and factories spread across the entire city. So, there are practical difficulties in cleaning the river and the government cannot fast-track it.
Irrespective of the challenges, the government will have to do something tangible about the rivers in the country, especially the manner and pace at which the rivers are getting polluted. The Yamuna in Delhi is considered worse than an open drain, such is the level of pollution. Forget taking a bath, the stench coming out of the river is so strong that it would desist anyone from coming close to the river. The reason why the Yamuna is so polluted in the national capital is no different from the reason why the Ganga looks so dirty, for example, in Kanpur. All the dirty water from factories to homes in Delhi finally ends up joining the streams of Yamuna through thousands of drains that carry untreated dirty to the river. The agencies responsible to ensure that this does not happen have simply failed to make any difference to the situation. Both the state and the central governments have too failed to take any measure that effectively brings about a turnaround in the situation. The Union government has a ministry called Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation and a similar ministry is also functioning in most of the states. But few people know what exactly they do or what their achievements are. If making the rivers clean is part of their brief, the ministries have failed miserably to perform. These ministries should have hailed Agarwal as a hero and rewarded him for his relentless work. But his death while on agitation is another example of how the ministries concerned have failed to accord due priority to issues on their hands.