Indian environmental scientist holds “fast-unto-death” against damming Ganges River, India, 2008-10

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Time Period:  
April 14,
Location and Goals
Location City/State/Province: 
To stop all hydroelectric dam projects on the Ganges River for 125 kilometers upstream of Uttarkashi.

The Ganges River is a sacred river in Hinduism and an important aspect of India’s cultural history and current society. Most of this river is already polluted or dammed for electricity. There is a 125-km stretch at the beginning of the river, part of the Baghirathi tributary, which was mostly untouched. In 2008 the Indian and regional Uttarakhand governments had plans for 6 hydroelectric dams in this stretch of the river, some of which were already in construction.

The dams were designed to provide energy for economic development in the area, but would disrupt the natural flow of the river, which would have negative environmental and cultural effects by destroying habitats and religious history. The dams would also be built in an earthquake zone, endangering local inhabitants if an earthquake were to destroy the dams.

Professor G.D. Agarwal, a seventy-six year old environmental scientist, had been fighting the construction of these dams since early in the planning process. Agarwal was a civil engineer and environmental science professor and understood the effects of such hydroelectric dams. Also a devout Hindu, his arguments against the dams were both religious and environmental.

On April 14, 2008, Agarwal sent a letter to the government announcing his plan to “fast-unto-death” unless all works that disturb the natural flow of the Ganges River upstream of the town of Uttarkashi were stopped. The hunger strike, as well as a vow of silence, would begin on June 13, the “birthday” celebration of the Ganges River.

Agarwal began on the stated day from the banks of the Ganges, joined by groups of supporters who also held a day-long fast in support. Thousands throughout India also participated in this show of support. Several other activists and scientists fasted with Agarwal for a longer period of time. He also had the support of the National Committee for the Protection of Natural Resources, which urged the Indian Prime Minister to stop the hydroelectric projects on the Ganges River.

The Chief Minister of the Uttarakhand government said that he would stop the six hydroelectric projects if the state’s energy needs could be met by other means. On June 19, the Chief Minister announced that he would stop the building two dams already in construction. Professor Agarwal said he would continue his hunger strike until the Ganges could flow freely and the water above the Tehri Dam was released.

Two days later the Uttarakhand government forced Agarwal from the region so that he had to continue his strike from Delhi.

On June 30, the 18th day of the fast, Agarwal called off his strike after receiving a written promise from the government stating that they would stop work on two of the six dams and had created a committee to investigate the effects of the proposed dams.

After six months, the government had not followed through on their promise and Agarwal found the committee’s investigation to be insufficient. On January 15, 2009, Agarwal resumed his “fast-unto-death.” As a result of this second fast the local government agreed to stop work on a third dam and the national government promised to increase inquiry into the dams’ environmental effects. Professor Agarwal ended this strike on the 38th day.

Despite the Nainital High Court’s decision against the construction of this third dam and the government’s written promise to Agarwal, work continued on the dam through the summer. Agarwal, therefore, announced he would take up his fast for a third time. He planned to begin on August 5, 2009, but agreed to urgings of local inhabitants to delay the strike for one month.

It was not until mid-July 2010 that Agarwal began his third hunger strike. Agarwal held this strike for 31 days and ended it when the government finally reversed its decision to continue building the third dam.

As of March 2011, Professor Agarwal and many other water experts, environmentalists, and citizens were in the midst of drafting a National River Policy to protect the free flowing of rivers in India. Time will tell the effectiveness of this new policy and if the government continues to refrain from building more dams at the Baghirathi at the beginning of the Ganges River.

Research Notes

Gandhi’s Independence Movement (1)

"Himalayas Hydro-electric Dam Project Stopped After Scientist on Hunger Strike Against the Project Almost Dies." Guardian Unlimited [London] 13 Mar. 2009: 1. Accessed through Newsbank. 2009 Nov 22

"Septugenarian's Fast Forces Uttaranchal to Scrap 2 Dams." Indo-Asian News Service [India] 20 Jun. 2008: 1. Accessed through Newsbank. 2009 Nov 22

"India : Prof Agarwal Continues Save-Ganga Fast in Delhi." TendersInfo [Mumbai] 23 Jun. 2009: 1. Accessed through Newsbank. 2009 Nov 22.

Singh, Binay. "It Pains Me to See Gangaji Being Ravaged: Agrawal." Times of India 7 Aug. 2009: 1. Accessed through Newsbank. 2009 Nov 22

Fast to Death Against Ganges Dams. Saving Iceland, 24 June 2008. Web. 22 Nov. 2009 <>.

Subramanian, Rama Tapasya - Professor G.D. Agarwal's Fast-unto-death. Friends of Prof G.D. Agarwal. Web. Accessed 23 Jun 2011. <>.

"India Scraps Controversial Dam On River Bhagirithi In The Himalayas." TendersInfo (Mumbai, India). 23 Aug 2010. Accessed through NewsBank on 23 Jun 2011.

Das, Dipannita. "River policy addresses issues of water availability, pollution." The Times of India (Mumbai). 23 Mar 2011. Accessed through NewsBank on 23 Jun 2011.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Max Rennebohm, 23/06/2011