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Science, Spirituality And Satyagraha: Life and Times of G.D. Agarwal

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G.D. Agarwal passed away on 11 October, after a four-month hunger strike to push the government to clean up the river Ganga. In this obituary, Rajesh Tandon remembers the man and the times he lived in.

I first met Prof G.D. Agarwal in the civil engineering department of IIT Kanpur in late 1960s. He had joined the institute after completing his PhD from Berkley, USA. As a professor, we liked his straightforward and very methodical teaching style.

I next met him in late 1970s when he was the first member-secretary of Central Pollution Control Board in Delhi. He was enthusiastic about undertaking locally relevant scientific studies about air and water pollution in the country for evidence-based regulation.

A decade later, G.D. visited PRIA to discuss our work on occupational and environmental health. He had set up Envirotech, a technical consultancy firm for undertaking design and conduct of rigorous and scientific environmental impact assessments. We became colleagues in the then nascent field of environment impacts.

In the late 1990s, Prof Agarwal returned to teaching again; this time not to elite foreign-headed IIT students but to those with simple rural backgrounds studying in Gramodaya University in Chitrakoot (Bundelkhand), set-up by late Nanaji Deshmukh. We discussed the methodology of teaching such students. He became curious about participatory research, and we had some interesting conversations about people’s knowledge and modern science.

It was here in Chitarkoot that Prof Agarwal began to develop a spiritual perspective on nature, people and society. He began to articulate ecological understanding through the lens of spirituality, a deep belief in all life and living beings. He was concerned about environmental degradation all his life, but focused on river water flow and its pollution  early this century when he began his vocal opposition to unending ‘damning’ of our rivers, including the Bhagirathi.

His ‘sanyas’ was aimed at redefining his own being. Changing name and attire was a small part of it. I believe Prof Agarwal turned into Swami Sanand as he revised his science with spirituality. He began to value local, indigenous and ecological knowledge systems more than his engineering education. He perhaps realised that civil and environmental engineering without spiritual anchoring is destructive to society and humanity.

In that sense, the life journey of late Guru Das Agarwal was on the path of knowledge democracy.

Nearly a century ago, barrister Mohandas Gandhi became a Mahatma and Bapu when he valued native and local wisdom of people in India. He was smart enough to realise that British colonial masters would respond to ‘Satyagraha’ and fast-unto death, since they were willing to lend their ears to truth; Gandhi was not allowed to die fasting, in pursuit of truth (satyagraha).

Sacrificing your life to speak truth to power these days is risky, because we live in an era of post-truth.
Prof G.D. Agarwal’s life, and death, symbolises that reality.

Rajesh Tandon graduated from IIT Kanpur in 1972. He is Founder-President, PRIA, New Delhi and UNESCO Co-Chair in Community Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education

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