Yamuna: The Dying Divinity
Due to high density population growth and rapid industrialisation, now especially around Delhi, the Yamuna is one of the most polluted rivers in the world, as the capital city dumps about 58 per cent of its waste into the river
An eyewitness to several thousand years of Indian culture and civilization, Yamuna river is now virtually on the death-bed. The sacred river that finds its mention in the Vedic literature has been the natural sight, where the Hindu God Lord Krishna was born and brought up. The holy river also saw the rise and fall of the Mughal empire. Historic monuments Red Fort and Taj Mahal were constructed by Shahjahan at the bank of Yamuna. The divine river contributed substantially in the formation of the fertile Ganga-Yamuna basin of North India. Now it is on the verge of extinction. It is no more than a dirty drainage in the capital city of Delhi, which once upon a time would boast of its association with this river. From ancient Indian scriptures to rituals, art and aesthetics, from traditional vocation, festivities and folklore to the National Anthem, the grand river is present in one form or the other.
And now, when it is accepted that despite tall claims on the part of the government, the survival of the holy river is at stake, there is protest on the streets and uproar in the Parliament. Thus demanding an immediate but effective step to ensure survival—rather revival—of the divine river, thousands of Yamuna Muktikaran Padyatra activist starting from Vrindavan has already crossed the Delhi border to seek their demand. The protesters, who have crossed over to Delhi on foot from Virndavan in Uttar Pradesh after a prolonged stay at Faridabad, are demanding cleaning of the 22-km-long stretch of the river Yamuna in Delhi between Wazirabad barrage and Okhla barrage and release of at least 50 per cent of water from Hathini Kund Barrage in the river Yamuna. Echoing concern of the people in the Lok Sabha over the sorry state of the river Yamuna, members of the lower house unanimously asked the government to save the “lifeline” of people from pollution. While the issue was raised by the Leader of Opposition Sushma Swaraj, Speaker Meira Kumar made it clear that strong message should go to the people that government would take all possible steps to make the river pollution-free.
The Yamuna and the Ganga are the two biggest rivers, which flow through the world’s largest river basin—The Ganga river basin. This basin area, which is approximately 1,086,000 square kilometers long, has a population of about 500 million. This area is also the land of one of the most ancient civilization known. While its waters are absolutely pure at the starting point of Himalayan glaciers, by the time it reaches the capital city of Delhi it turns into a ‘dead’ river. At Delhi, it assimilates into it millions of tonnes of chemical waste, sewage and industrial pollutants. This it carries up to Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal. One may like to call it a paradox but the fact remains that the cities or human civilization that flourished on the banks of the rivers all over the world have turned out to be the biggest source of their decay. This is equally true about the Yamuna, which is of reasonably good quality at least from Yamunotri in the Himalayas to Wazirabad in Delhi covering a long distance of about 375 km. However, once it accepts the discharge of waste water through 15 drains between Wazirabad barrage and Okhla barrage, the river gets severely polluted. According to one version, this part of the river is as good as a “sewage drain”.
The decay of the river might have started as early as the 1880s with the installation of Chandrawal water works to supply piped water to the citizens of Shahjahanabad, a city originally developed by Shahjahan and now called the old Delhi area. Chandrawal water works gradually diverted the people of the city away from their traditional sources of water supply like the wells, step-wells, ponds, reservoirs, etc. Yet till 1909, the water of the Yamuna was distinguishable as “clear blue”, as compared to the silt-laden yellowish water of the Ganga. But, due to high density population growth and rapid industrialisation, now especially around New Delhi, the Yamuna is one of the most polluted rivers in the world, as the capital city dumps about 58 per cent of its waste into the river. While the population of the capital city has grown over 14 million, the short-sighted policy of building large dams and barrages along the course of every big or mid-sized river has led to a situation that the river in Delhi has no water if the flow of untreated sewage is discounted. The river has no natural flow except for a few days during monsoons when the Hathnikund barrage releases excess water from its reservoir in the channel of the river. The Central Pollution Control Board is reported to have informed the Supreme Court in November 2012: “For major part of the year, the river Yamuna does not flow downstream of Wazirabad barrage as all the river water upstream of the barrage is ponded (harnessed) for water supply in Delhi. The Yamuna flows after confluence of Najafgarh drain downstream of Wazirabad barrage.” One of the recently noted implications of this state of affairs has been spread of skin problems and even deadly diseases like cancer due mainly to use of Yamuna-polluted water by the people and in the farms in the catchment area.
New Delhi generates 1,900 million litre per day (MLD) of sewage. Thus far, numerous attempts have been made to process it, but without any significant impact. Although the Government of India is stated to have spent about $500 million to clean up the river, the Yamuna continues to be polluted with garbage. Most of the sewage treatment facilities are either underfunded or not properly taken care of. In addition, the water in this river remains stagnant for almost nine months in a year, aggravating the situation. The Government of India in the last over five years has prepared plans to rebuild and repair the sewage system and the drains that pour into the river. To address river pollution, certain measures of river cleaning have also been taken up by the Ministry of Environment and Forests in twelve towns of Haryana, eight towns of Uttar Pradesh, and Delhi. This initiative was taken under the Yamuna Action Plan (YAP) implemented since 1993 by the National River Conservation Directorate (NRCD) of the Ministry of Environment and Forests. The Japan Bank for International Cooperation is participating in the Yamuna Action Plan in 15 of the above-mentioned 21 towns .The remaining six towns of Haryana were included later by the intervention of the Supreme Court of India with soft loan assistance of 17.773 billion Japanese yens (approximately about Rs 700 crore) . The Government of India is providing the funds for the remaining six towns added later. In 2007, the Indian government’s plans to repair sewage lines were predicted to improve the quality of water in the river up to 90 per cent by the year 2010.
However in 2009, the Union government accepted in the Lok Sabha, the failure of the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) and the Yamuna Action Plan (YAP), admitting that “rivers Ganga and Yamuna are no cleaner now than two decades ago” despite spending over Rs 1,700 crore to control pollution. In August 2009, the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) initiated its plan for resuscitating the Yamuna’s 22-km stretch in Delhi by constructing interceptor sewers at the cost of about Rs 1,800 crore. The Indian officials seem to have last hope in the formula that successfully cleaned and revived the Thames, that was declared dead half a century ago but was recently accepted as an environmentally success story and is once again a breeding ground for fish and bird life. The transformation has won for the Thames the International Theiss River Prize, a £220,000 award given to rivers that have undergone outstanding restoration. Environmental officials claim the Thames is absolutely clean as nearly 400 habitats have now been created to allow wildlife back into the river. This kind of report from abroad is the greatest point of solace for the Indian officials and the government representatives at home. According to a recent report, London Mayor Boris Johnson has offered British help to clean up and revive the Yumana at a meeting with Delhi’s Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, who also believes the Thames model could bring Delhi’s main waterway back to life. “We will take technological help from London to clean the Yamuna. We are willing to take advantage of their experience,” Sheila Dikshit is reported to have assured. The Thames was revived over several decades by improvements in water treatment, a ban on dumping industrial effluent in its waters, and the re-routing of sewage. Environmentalists also worked to reintroduce native species into the river habitat.
The good news is that the central government has conceded two major demands of the activist –protesters, who have walked down to the capital from Brindavan on foot. The central government has agreed to divert the Ganga water to the dead Yamuna river and also has agreed upon to leave no stone unturned in ensuring that dirt and sewage of Delhi do not pour into Yamuna river. But is only government initiative enough? The answer is a big No. For the issue like revival of rivers like the Ganga and the Yamuna is a gigantic task that requires people’s involvement. It requires active participation of their leadership. We must not forget that the river of England theThames could be revived because of consciousness among people, created in the form of ecological movement. In a country of the Orient like India, which, unlike the Occidental western world, is still more religious and traditional only governmental or semi-governmental initiatives are not sufficient. In a country where at one occasion—Mahakumbha at Allahabad—one crore people take bath for salvation government machinery will remain ineffective unless and until the there is proper and meaningful cooperation from the people. There are lakhs of people who take bath everyday in the Ganga or the Yamuna in order to seek moksha without realising that how much damage they are doing to the ecology. Not only this, the Hindus in the cow-belt prefer to throw ashes after cremating their kith and kin. On several festive occasions like Durga Puja and Ganesh Puja, it is a general practice of saying goodbye to the deities by throwing the short-lived idols in the rivers and the sea. Any government ordinance is unlikely to check these habits. Moreover, in a religious country like ours no government or political party would like to take the risk of playing with the sentiments of the people. It is here that religious leaders or community leaders should come forward and take initiative. It is easier for them to convince the people about their responsibility in the changed circumstances. Precisely in the similar circumstances the Shankaracharyas or the reformers like MN Roy, Ishwarchand Vidyasagar and Gandhi stood against the redundant and obsolete practices of Hindu society during their times. It is high time the activists and the leaders of Yamuna Bachao Aandolan understood their extra-responsibility and convince the common people to behave properly, if they want to revive the dying Yamuna.
By P C Singh