I have no teenage recollections of the river that flows through my place of birth and schooling. This is a most unhappy reflective statement from someone who now works for an organization that campaigns and advocates for healthy and flowing rivers. For as long as I can remember, the Yamuna, a putrid sludge like sewage canal has been the shameful refuse of Delhi, my home city.
The river sluggishly flows 22 kilometers through the city limits. On entering Delhi, a hydraulic structure (the Wazirabad barrage) impedes and diverts all available water to assist in meeting the demands of its 16 million inhabitants. All that flows downstream is a partially treated noxious mix of sewage and industrial effluent. There is no aquatic life; the pollution-monitoring laboratory each month predictably publishes data that tells us the dissolved oxygen in the river is nil.
Of course the river was not always like this. According to the Gazetteer of the Delhi District 1883-84, species of carp, such as the Mahseer or Rohu thrived in this stretch. The entire stretch was infested with muggers, which were “…seen any afternoon in hundreds swimming about or basking on the edge of the water”. Much later, even in the 20th century the Yamuna teemed with fish and other life forms.
But over time little was done to deal with the city’s solid waste, which each year continues to find its way to the river when the monsoonal rains flush the dirty city drains. The sewerage infrastructure too failed to keep up with the quantum of sewage. Each day, of the roughly 4500 million litres of sewage, 3000 million litres finds its way to the river untreated.
Environmental groups have for long urged the Delhi (and Haryana) government to draw up plans to clean the river, and allow it to flow. Several books have been published, documentaries produced, while steady reports in the media continue to tell the story of gross neglect. But in spite of a strong civil society presence in the capital, there has been little to show for improved river flows or pollution abatement.
Judicial intervention too has been attempted and failed to improve the state of the river; the Courts entertained several public interest litigations on the matter. In 1994, the apex court even stipulated release of 10 cumec of water in the lean months. But two decades on, the barrage gates are opened only to release floodwaters during the monsoon months. To add insult to injury, untreated sewage continues to find its way to the river as investments in conventional and expensive sewerage systems have failed to expand as needed. Few low cost sewage treatment alternatives were piloted, neither with the sincerity nor the urgency needed to give them a fair chance to succeed.
Sadly, the “great stink of 1858” in London never happened in Delhi. The parliament located a fair distance from the river never troubled the olfactory senses of parliamentarians as it did their counterparts on the banks of the river Thames. Those residing in buildings near the banks of the Yamuna have little choice but to turn their back, both literally and metaphorically on the river. The well-heeled stay away, connected to the watercourse only through their respective water closets.
The Yamuna, like many rivers in India is in desperate need of a people’s movement. If people congregate for a cause one can affect the body politic. I am hopeful that India Rivers Week, a first of its kind, will be a big step in this direction.
*This short essay was submitted to the organizers of India Rivers Week (2014) and published in a booklet distributed to the attendees.