India’s Hunger Games

Written by  //  March 26, 2012  //  Economic & Social Policy  //  No comments

India has its own version of the “hunger games” playing out that is turning out to be every bit as dramatic as the movie.

A renowned Indian academic and environmentalist, GD Agarwal, has been fasting since February to protest the reckless pollution of the Ganges, a river considered holy by Hindus. Agarwal gave up drinking water two weeks ago, and is currently lying on his deathbed, having removed a saline drip feed that has been keeping him alive for the past few days.

Agarwal demands that the building of all hydroelectric projects on the tributaries of the Ganges be stopped. He is also protesting against the ineffectuality of the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA), a government body formed to conserve the river basin. In the midst of illegal sand mining, reckless dam building and severe lack of adequate water and waste treatment facilities, the NRGBA has only met twice since it was formed three years ago. However, while Agarwal fasts for a free-flowing river, there are currently almost 200 proposed hydroelectric projects to be constructed on the major tributaries of the river. Despite severe objections from experts from environmental experts, many of these projects have already been given clearance, and are in the process of being built even as legal cases against them continue to stack up.

“Fasting unto death” to draw both the public and government’s attention to issues that need urgent attention is a famous Gandhian technique often used in India politics. In fact, this is Agarwal’s third fast in four years. However, while Anna Hazare’s fasts against corruption in the country garnered both wild media coverage and popular support last year, a life has already been claimed in the struggle for a clean and free-flowing Ganges.  Swami Nigamanand asted to death last year to end illegal sand mining in a Haridwar, and yet his death was largely ignored.

It seemed that Agarwal might suffer the same fate as the government disregarded Agarwal’s fast for seven weeks, until the 80-year-old suffered a heart attack, whereby he was taken into state custody. The story attracted further media attention when three experts appointed to the NGRBA resigned in response to authority’s inaction. Hazare, unsurprisingly, jumped on the publicity bandwagon as the movement gathered momentum, leading to further public scrutiny. As the story continued to gain coverage, the Prime Minister himself appealed to Agarwal to break his fast. The saga, however, continues as Agarwal refuses to eat or drink until he gets the government’s written assurance that they will stop building the hydroelectric dams.

Agarwal, of course, has a point: in the face of impending water scarcity and acute pollution, uncontrolled dam building cannot continue unchecked. Nevertheless, India is also starving for electricity; and a vast quantity of both money and vested interests are locked into the hydroelectric projects. It is highly unlikely that Agarwal will win this battle; and yet the much-battered government cannot afford to le the revered professor die in the midst of international media scrutiny.

As the country watches, the production continues to mix religion, non-violence, corruption and chaos in a unique way, characteristic of the nation’s messy politics. Ultimately, irrespective of the ending to this particular story, India faces a long road ahead, as it continues to struggle to find a sustainable balance between environmental protection, human rights and economic development.

 

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