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Posted at: Oct 12, 2018, 12:06 AM; last updated: Oct 12, 2018, 12:06 AM (IST)

Fusing the sacred and science of the Ganga

Shiv Vishwanathan
Shiv Vishwanathan
A love affair with science and a deep love for the river combined to create one of the great ecological battles of the times, one man fighting to save the sacredness of a river. The sadness is India did not respond to him. The government which succumbs to agitations in a day ignored GD’s fast for over 100. It then forcefully evacuated and tried to force-feed him.
Fusing the sacred and science of the Ganga

Shiv Vishwanathan
Academic Associated with compost heap

A man died today to keep an idea and an ideal alive. A man died today to live up to what he believed men should do, to keep utopias alive and sustain a sense of the sacred. For Dr. G D Agarwal, the Ganges was more than a river. It was a source of life, of myth, of the sacred, yet the river was the basis of his science. GD dreamt of a pollution-free Ganges and all his life was dedicated to a satyagrahic defence of the river. One cannot talk of GD in secular or religious terms. His life went beyond those dualisms. Because GD was not an abstract intellectual, impersonal, objective. A love affair with science and a deep love for the river combined to create one of the great ecological battles of the times, one man fighting to save the sacredness of a river. The sadness is India did not respond to him. The government, renowned for its environmental illiteracy, saw him as a nuisance and an embarrassment. Yet GD was that rare species who could speak both the dialects of science and the sacred, arguing for a different perspective. 

Tourist as pilgrim

G. D. Agarwal was not an easy man to live with. He set high standards and demanded as much from students and the people around him. He was no populist and he loathed the idiocy of tourism destroying the world of the sacred. A citizen, to GD should be a pilgrim, because a pilgrim learned to touch and touch gently. Tourists polluting a river had no sense of citizenship. One wishes scientific academics would model themselves on Agarwal, create an ethics of science which science could be proud of. Scientific ethics today is more of table manners and etiquette, a blend of correctness that lacks the courage of risk. GD understood the Gandhian sense of ethics where one’s body and one’s lifestyle matched one’s ethical and cognitive argument, where scientific and Gandhian truths stood side by side arguing for a different world. 

GD understood what swachchandolan was about. It was a whitewashing of truth, but not the courage to confront it. The regime stood confused before him as it did a few years before with Irom Sharmila. Both knew that life is something one must be ready to die for. In fact, one must contrast the integrity of GD’s sense of environment and Modi’s antics regarding it. GD died for an idea while Modi got the UN prize. Modi would never understand that ecology and citizenship begins when science and the sacred meet. GD was the sangam, the confluence of holistic ideas, while Modi and the regime’s policy reveal the deep dualisms that confront them.

No certificates needed

An obituary cannot be a mere recital of achievements. GD does not need a certification stating that he was the first Chairman of the Central Pollution Control Board, Dean of Envionmental Engineering at IIT Kanpur, with a PhD from Berkley. GD would have preferred to be known as the man who mentored Anil Agarwal and Rajendra Singh. One has to ask questions of the government which succumbs to agitations in a day but ignores GD’s fast for over a 100 days, and forcefully evacuates him from his ashram, attempts to force-feed him. GD resisted the act like a Gandhian, but the sadness is that this regime made no attempt to talk or dialogue with him, or respond to his ethics with at least a promise of better management. 

GD showed how the Ganga was no ordinary river because of the little miracle of bacteriophages cleansing the river. GD also showed that myth and science cannot be separated. The government could have and should have responded with grace. It could have apologised to him. One mourns not just the dyingness of the river but the unnecessary death of the man, playing conscience to an India which is more interested in consumption, which thinks sustainability can be created without an ethics of consumption. 

GD was 86, he was now known as Swami Sampoornand. But either as a Swamiji or as a scientist the government felt embarrassed before the truth of the man. Yogi Adityanath’s homilies sound like morsels of hypocrisy before the authenticity of the man. The regime should have used GD’s suggestion to stop the excess of dam building across the Ganges. GD wanted Ganga to be a society of free flowing ideas and a free flowing river.

A moment of resistance

How does one salute GD? Not by listing his achievement, but by following his dreams and respecting the authenticity of his science. One does not need the ritual minute of silence when a man dies. One needs to articulate what he said in a thousand voices. Voices like those of GD, the great chemist C. V. Seshadri, alumni like Anil Agarwal gave a poetics to IIT Kanpur’s ecological eloquence. 

Today, the IITs cannot ignore what GD said. They have to keep the style of his science alive. At a time when the government is destroying by either science starving it or freezing it into a circus called ‘Big Science’, when Indian science imitates the termite Organisation of Chinese science, individual voices like GD’s must be remembered. Their lives purified both Indian science and the Ganges. I do not think G. D. Agarwal’s passing is a moment of mourning. It has to be a moment of resistance, of consolidation of the truths he advocated. It is scientists who have to stand up for science, for the academe instead of wilting before ideologies and clerks. GD deserves at least that, the promise of a satyagrahic science as a prelude to a satyagrahic India. His Ganges or dream of the Ganges would have been a celebration of that.


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