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The Bitter Reality Of The River That Fulfills 70% Of Delhi’s Water Needs

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With the end of the festive season, many of us in Delhi are ushering in winter with Instagram posts featuring glowing trays of lights and flowers. But take off those Valencia-tinted-glasses, and you see one of the biggest casualties of all these celebrations – the Yamuna.

For a river that fulfills 70% of Delhi’s water needs, it is shocking to think that its waters were declared ‘E Class’, suitable only for industrial cooling, and controlled waste disposal. Much of this has been due to waste generated from immersions during festivals. So, on a smoggy morning soon after Diwali, I set out for the river banks to see just how bad things were.

At 8am, a chill surrounded me as I approached the Yamuna from Madanpur Khadar. The air was heavy with a cloying mixture of incense and sewage. In the distance, hazy, shirtless figures offered prayers, knee-deep in water. A familiar scene in India, but something was off. This wasn’t the playful, gushing river of the mountains. Nor was it the slow, lapping waters of the plains. I’d never been around a river this deathly quiet.

Worshippers floating offerings on a smog-covered Yamuna at the Kalindi Kunj ghat.

Still, even through the gloom, there was laughter, conversation, and the low murmur of hymns from the 60-odd people gathered there. Among them was 58-year-old Somvarti Kunwar who came to observe Karthik Poornima. Originally from Aurangabad, Bihar, she told me that back home, people were bathing in the Ganga. That morning, she was doing the same in the charcoal grey waters.

As part of India’s commitment to the United Nations Sustainable Development Agenda, we have 13 years to eliminate dumping, minimise the release of hazardous chemicals and materials into our waters, and reduce the proportion of untreated wastewater by half. But is enough effort being made?

Closer to the ghat, I met Ramdev, a self-appointed watchman. Formerly an employee of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, he had begun working at the ghats about two decades ago. Today he makes his living from the donations people give him.

“We used to drink straight from the river,” he said. The 56-year-old remembers a time when silver coins offered at the river could be seen through five feet of water. “Now, you can’t see anything once it’s in the water.”

Ramdev, 56, remembers a time when he could see silver coins in the river through five feet of water.

Ramdev took me to meet Asheshwar Sahni, a devotee at a small temple on the banks. Sahni came from Muzaffarpur in Bihar to live by the river 27 years ago. For a long time, he worked as a boatman, often catching fish in the Yamuna. That was before the river became a drain. “The number of fish you get to see now is not one cent compared to the number you saw earlier,” he said.

It seems like a cruel joke to have named the river after the sister of Yama, God of Death. It’s pretty much dead on arrival in Delhi, where it is forced to absorb 1500 litres of sewage from 15 drains every day.

Apart from some clean-up after major festivals, the area is completely neglected all year round.

The sheer scale of idol immersions only adds to the problem. On occasions like Durga Puja, Vishwakarma Puja, Diwali, Chhatt Puja, and Ganesh Chaturthi, Ramdev and Sahni said it’s packed. And with loads of people, comes loads of waste. Apart from some clean-up after major festivals, the area is completely neglected all year round. Ramdev mentioned that he has personally written to the SHO of Badarpur, demanding that the banks be cleaned regularly. But to no avail.

Enough effort is not being made to eliminate dumping and minimise the release of hazardous materials into the Yamuna.

The problem isn’t just limited to Delhi. As far back as 1993, a case study in West Bengal revealed that 16.8 tonnes of varnish and garjan oil as well as 32 tonnes of toxic colours were released into the Hooghly during Durga Puja.

Faith was primarily supposed to be something that helps the environment, but now we see faith is in direct conflict with the environment.” So says Vimlendu Jha, the founder of Sweccha, a non-profit that works on sustainability. Jha spearheaded the ‘We for Yamuna’ campaign in 2000. He says that rivers have taken a backseat with all governments.

Sure, efforts exist. Since 2015, the National Green Tribunal has categorically stated that only biodegradable materials are allowed during immersion. Some state pollution control boards have also released helpful guidelines to make festivals eco-friendly. The Delhi Jal Board has been charged with running the ‘Maili se Nirmal Yamuna Revitalisation Project 2017’. In its first phase, this project will target Najafgarh, and in its second phase Shahdara and Barapulla. All of this is being closely monitored by the NGT.

However, Jha remarks: “Things like the Yamuna Action Plans have existed for a long time, but have any of them been transacted on ground by governments? Blueprints are of no use without the imprint of your policy!

There is a widespread callous attitude towards the environment. A perfect example of this was the World Cultural Festival organised by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. The three-day event in March completely destroyed 170 hectares of the Yamuna floodplains. In situations like this, the lack of political will (both among the political class and civil society), is the proverbial nail in the coffin.

The river is suitable only for industrial cooling, and controlled waste disposal.

The State is partly to blame for its many shortcomings. Jha adds, “The young people we interact with feel that a change in the GDP cannot be the only interest of our government. Apart from the number of jobs created, and roads built, I think their report card should also have the water and air quality of states and cities.”

The river leaving the Kalindi Kunj ghat remains covered with froth, because of waste being added from multiple sources.

Sadly, folks like you and me are to blame as well. “We don’t see ourselves as stakeholders,” says Jha. And that’s where Sweccha’s ‘I’-centric approach comes in really handy. “Just as the problem has been created by us, the solution to be solicited must come from us.

It’s time to have local communities participate in improving water and sanitation management. And according to Jha, one of the most vital things we can do is to complement the State in its efforts. “We don’t ask the right questions of our government, and we don’t follow up on plans that already exist,” he observes. “Civil society needs to put pressure and manufacture political will.

As I walked away from the Yamuna, I wondered how we would seal its fate. Through our continued apathy and negligence? Or through concern, cooperation, and sustained effort?

With inputs from Abhishek Jha.

Featured image for representational purposes only.

Featured image source: Getty Images
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