A boy searches for coins and gold in the polluted waters of the Ganges River in the city of Allahabad, India.

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Indian scientist dies after Gandhi-style hunger strike to save the Ganges River

One of India’s leading environmentalists paid the ultimate price last week in his efforts to protect and restore the Ganges River, also known as the Ganga. Guru Das Agrawal, a former professor of environmental engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, died on 11 October following a 111-day fast that he hoped would compel India’s government to make good on its promise of cleaning up the Ganges.

Agrawal, 86, was a former graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, and served as the first head of India’s Central Pollution Control Board. He became a Hindu ascetic in 2011, dedicating himself completely to revivifying the dying Ganges and taking on the name of Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand.

Environmentalists have long deplored the state of the Ganges. Numerous hydroelectricity projects on the river and its tributaries have blocked the free flow of water; villages and cities are withdrawing ever larger amounts of water while releasing huge amounts of sewage into the river.

The current prime minister, Narendra Modi, launched his 2014 election campaign from the banks of the Ganges in the city of Varanasi, saying he had been called on by “Mother Ganga” to restore the river, which is considered the holiest of rivers by millions of Hindus. “But in the past 4 years all actions undertaken by your Government have not at all been gainful to Ganga and in her place gains are to be seen only for the corporate sector and several business houses,” Agrawal wrote to Modi in August, in a stinging letter.

Indeed, the Modi government has initiated a plethora of projects—including development of waterways, riverfront development, dredging, and interlinking of rivers—that has adversely affected the Ganges, says Himanshu Thakkar, a river expert and coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, a nonprofit based in New Delhi. Commerce has taken priority over conservation, Thakkar says.

Guru Das Agrawal, a former graduate student of the University of California, Berkeley, began his fast on 22 June. He died on 11 October.

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Agrawal started his Mahatma Gandhi–style hunger strike on 22 June. Among his demands were an end to all hydroelectric projects on the Ganga and its tributaries and to sand mining activities, the constitution of an independent body to manage Ganges affairs, and legislation to protect the river.

Earlier fasts by Agrawal had been successful. In 2009, for instance, then–Prime Minister Manmohan Singh decided to cancel a hydropower project on the Bhagirathi River, a source stream of the Ganges in northern India, and declared part of the river an “eco-sensitive zone.” Modi, by contrast, did not take action and didn’t respond to Agrawal’s letters. On 9 October, Agrawal, who until then had survived on a honey-water mix, decided to stop drinking water as well. He was picked up by the police and taken to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Rishikesh on 10 October to be force-fed, but he died the next day.

Modi promptly sent out a tweet saying he was “saddened” by Argrawal’s demise, further upsetting environmentalists. “There was no response at all to Agrawal’s letters from Modi, which is what killed him,” Thakkar says. “Now, that man is sending an obituary tweet—how far can we go in hypocrisy?” Some were also angered that government spokespeople claimed on TV that Agrawal’s demands had been met.

“The state of Ganga today is worse than what it was in May 2014 when the Modi government took over and is worsening,” Thakkar cautions. “Implementing Agrawal’s demands would help,” he says, but more is needed. The government needs to adopt a more transparent, accountable, and participatory approach toward cleaning and protecting the Ganges, Thakkar says, and needs to build more eco-friendly sewage treatment plants.