‘For The Love Of A Dying River’: How I Found Yamuna Abandoned By Delhi

By Ishan Marvel:

For obvious reasons, great cities have often cropped up around rivers. And over time, the connection evolves beyond practicality, so that the river does not remain simply a source of water, but becomes an integral part of the city’s pulse and memory. In the case of Delhi and Yamuna, the relationship between the two was imbued with faith and continued to flourish till the time of the Mughals — for whom the Yamuna was a source of pride, as indicated by the glorious monuments they built on its banks at Delhi and Agra.

But things began to change with the British — who with the help of dams, pipelines and drainage systems, pulled the old city away from the river to what is now known as New Delhi. Then, independence brought industrial expansion and agricultural revolution in its wake, and the Yamuna became one of the many rivers that had to pay the price. Somewhere down the line, the city lost touch with its river.

Today, most denizens only glimpse the Yamuna while travelling along the bridges, metro lines and railway tracks built over it. The religious significance has deteriorated into a conditioned response, whereby the river has, in effect, been reduced to a dump. Since the ’90s, various government stakeholders have spent over Rs. 5000 crores on cleaning the Yamuna, with no tangible results. Public resentment, if at all, usually manifests itself through impotent platitudes. Thus, in spite of all the policies, reports, cases, petitions and media attention, the Yamuna remains quiet and ‘maili’ as ever.

okhla ghat
At Okhla Ghat. In the distance, an upcoming skyscraper complex in Noida.

Saturday, 2 April 2016, around 8:30 am: Akash and I set out to retrace the Yamuna’s 22-kilometre journey through urban Delhi on my 106 cc Yamaha motorcycle. The idea was to observe the various points of interaction between the city and the river, from Okhla in the south to Wazirabad in the north.

About an hour later, we entered Okhla Bird Sanctuary through a gap in the fence. It was a bright hot day, and the birds seemed to have migrated northward. We were instead greeted by verdant expanses (mostly hyacinths carpeted across the dark water) and the characteristic stench (simultaneously reminiscent of public toilets and chemistry labs) that we’d follow for the rest of the day. The river was calm, barraged about a kilometre downstream, right on the Delhi-UP border. On the opposite banks, Noida loomed large on the horizon.

okhla bird noida horizon
At Okhla Bird Sanctuary. Water hyacinths in the foreground, and Noida on the horizon.

“Mangur (a species of catfish) is the only fish you’ll find in the river now. Tough bastards, they can weigh up to five kilogrammes at times!” a fisherman exclaimed while getting his boat ready. “But in the smaller ponds, you can still find other varieties like the rohu and sole,” added Abdul Qayum, a retired government engineer living in Okhla since 1984, and who often comes down to the sanctuary with some bidis and a rudimentary fishing tackle.

abdul qayyum
Abdul Qayum, a retired government engineer living in Okhla since 1984, shows off his rudimentary tackle.

“Back in the ’80s, the river was much cleaner and full of all kinds of fish. And it used to flow! Families used to come here in the evening. Now, it only attracts junkies, gamblers or old men like me,” he said and laughed.

gotakhors okla
Gotakhors at Okhla barrage. The Yamuna begins to foam at various points. In the background, another metro line under construction.

Later, at Okhla barrage and the adjoining ghats, we met three young men in their underwear, sifting the surreal milky river for scraps. The foraging gotakhors, or divers are found across the Yamuna, trawling its depths for the detritus of the city — waiting under bridges for coins and offerings that people toss into the holy river; neck-deep at the ghats, scratching at the riverbed, and every now and then, raising their hands to assess the loot; sailing on thermocol-stuffed rafts; and diving in to retrieve, among other things, coconuts and red-clothed earthen pots.

ito ghat
An idyllic scene at ITO Ghat, except for the anomaly in the middle, and the general stench.
ito ghat raft
At ITO Ghat. The rafts are made from plastic sacks sewn together and stuffed with thermocol found in the river.

“Over the past two to three years, people have stopped throwing valuables like gold and silver. Now, puja offerings only contain small change. Coins and trash, that’s all we get these days,” lamented 22-year-old Badal, a forager since the age of fourteen, and one of the most foul-mouthed people I have ever talked to. After rattling off myriad invectives at targets ranging from PM Modi to the barrage officials, he added with a wink, “I should just murder someone and relax in jail.”

Noon, while smoking on a bridge over the Agra Canal, less than a kilometre away from the barrage: In those ten minutes, I counted at least five two-wheelers that stopped on the bridge. Their occupants either lobbed their trash-parcels over the tall grilled fence or approached a gap therein and said a brief prayer with folded hands, before dropping a plastic offering. Meanwhile, a lone gotakhor lurked underneath.

sarai kale
Near Sarai Kale Khan. One end of the sandy expanses is taken up by a PWD construction site.

2 pm, near Sarai Kale Khan bus depot: A desolate stretch of sandy land on the Yamuna floodplains, riddled with buffaloes and pylons carrying high-tension wires that crackled in the toasty afternoon. There was a construction site on one end, with men wearing yellow hardhats, and heavy vehicles running amid chunks of iron, concrete and Public Works Department (PWD) banners. Nearby, the Barapulla drain (one of the 17 Yamuna tributaries running through Delhi, now classified as drains), separated the present tract from the venue of the controversial World Culture Festival (WCF) held this March. A month later, the iron framework of the gigantic stage was yet to be dismantled (this was finally done about ten days later on April 13, more than a week after the promised deadline).

wcf stage
Barapulla Drain, against the backdrop of the WCF stage. The photograph was clicked from the ‘parking area’ for the festival.

“This was all farmland till those [Delhi Development Authority (DDA)] bastards came and evicted us last year. But my god, that festival! Lakhs of people! This entire area was filled with cars!” rambled 55-year-old Budh Ram who has been cultivating the floodplains for around 25 years. “I was born here. Back then, you could even drink from the Yamuna. Things got bad after the ’80s. By the ’90s, the river turned completely black.”

Farmers near Sarai Kale Khan. One of the many places on the Yamuna floodplains that supply Delhi with its all-year-round spinach.

We found him, Rakesh (40) and Raj (18) — all residents of Sarai Kale Khan — spread out on a charpai under a lone tree, listening to hits like ‘Tum Toh Thehre Pardesi’ on the radio. “Tomatoes, spinach, gourds, mustard, cabbages — we grow everything! Carts and camels are hired to transport the harvest to Azadpur mandi. What you see growing around right now is just fodder. The festival people ruined the land, it’ll take at least a year before we can use it again,” Raj said and spat.

All three, however, deflected questions regarding their earnings and ownership of the land. Meanwhile, we were joined by 65-year-old Kanchu, a migrant from Badaun (UP) who has been farming around the area for more than a decade. I asked him where he lived and he pointed to a distant cluster of around fifteen thatched huts on the other side of the river — a colony of migrant farmers.

After reaching the main road and stopping for chai:
Shook off the time-warped scene from our nerves,
and the unnerving sense of limbo it offered
—stagnant, just like the river.

3 pm, riding up the Grand Trunk Road: Akash and I spotted a couple of sewage lines gushing out liquid filth into the drain opposite Indraprastha Metro Station, but it stopped before we could get the camera ready. We decided to wait, and after about half-hour of playing Japanese tourists at the nearby slum, we finally got the money shot. Ironically, this was all happening right next to the World Health Organisation (WHO) office — where at that moment, a Spring Carnival was being held, blaring ‘Mere Desh Ki Dharti Sona Ugle, Ugle Heeray Moti..’ The WHO building was bordered by tall trees so as to keep the filth hidden from its air-conditioned windows. Out of sight and out of mind – pretty much the public response to the river.

affluent WHO
Filth being deposited into Yamuna, right next to the WHO office at Indraprastha Estate.

4 pm, ITO barrage under Vikas Marg, about halfway through our route: I had previously visited this ghat, and talked to some of the forty-odd gotakhors who operate here — ranging from pre-pubescent boys to old men who had been feeding off the Yamuna for over 40 years. They claimed to never fall sick, perhaps having developed a mutant immunity against toxicity. Today, along with the scavenging kites and crows, seven-odd divers worked the river, interspersed with naarangi (orange-flavoured country liquor sold in plastic bottles) breaks while a number of faithful went about their curious rites at the ghat.

ghat ritual
One of the many bizarre rituals at Chat Puja ghat, ITO.

Nasir (30) has been diving since the age of 12, and is usually seen around the ghats accompanied by young boys, for whom he serves as a swimming coach. They, like most people here, know Nasir as Deva bhai, after the character played by his favourite hero, Sunny Deol in the 1997 Bollywood film, Ziddi. Moreover, the police often seek his help in finding weapons and bodies dumped into the river. Alluding to his chumminess with the local cops at the IP Estate police station, Nasir bragged, “I never wear a helmet — if the traffic cops stop me, I just call up my beat guy and he takes care of it.”

Nasir aka Deva bhai

6 pm, near Wazirabad: Thanks to GPS, we located the exact spot where the water from the Western Yamuna Canal (WYC) — after its journey through upstream Haryana, serving fields and industries alike, and absorbing pesticides and effluents in turn — meets the city’s most polluted water body, the Najafgarh drain (or the Sahibi river), which gets dumped into the Yamuna. Ladies and gentlemen, the heart of darkness! This is what we do to the river as soon as it enters our city. No wonder the 22 km Delhi stretch of the Yamuna accounts for about 80% of its pollution. A river that otherwise runs over 1300 km from the Himalayas to Allahabad (UP), where it joins the Ganga.

filth in yamuna drain
On the left is the water from the WYC, frothing and foaming; while on the right, the calm untreated filth of the Najafgarh drain.

6:30 pm, Wazirabad: A chorus of temple bells and amplified voices welcomed us at Ram Ghat. Here, amid the little shrines and mud huts, the Yamuna — almost a shade of dark green — was yet to meet the drains and the callous residents of the city. The ghats were full of activity — sadhus, fishermen, smokers, divers, children, cows and birds going about their routines — while hyacinths floated into the distance, against the brick-and-concrete horizon.

ram ghat
Ram ghat at Wazirabad, before the river enters the city.

It was time to retrace our steps and visit our last stop: Majnu ka Tilla, a lively Tibetan colony that sprung up next to the Yamuna in the sixties. While gorging on buff delicacies and cheap beer on a rooftop, Akash and I tallied the day: 12 hours, 100 kilometres, 52 voice notes, 478 photographs and three cigarette packs — all for the love of a dying river.

Photos By Akash Sangma

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