India is the third largest growing economy and about to outrank China in being the most populous country in the world. We are also ranked 147 in Oxfam’s World Inequality Index and 133 in the UNDP Human Development Index. Needless to say, we love being ranked at extremes! One such important achievement was turning the Yamuna into the most polluted river in India and adding its valuable contribution in making Ganga the most polluted river in the world.
During a class activity, I witnessed a few glimpses of how it gets polluted every day. Guided by Mr. Vimlendu Jha, the executive director of Swechha (an NGO working in the field of environment), faculty members and around 50 undergraduate and postgraduate students, we visited three important sites around river Yamuna in the NCR.
We visited a site 5kms upstream from the actual river state border where the Yamuna enters Delhi. It gets its water from Wazirabad barrage which serves as a reservoir for water in Delhi. The spot we visited was an isolated area around farms. The water appeared dirty (we were to discover later that it was much cleaner there!) Apart from the upstream pollutants it carries, one major reason of its pollution there was the waste people left behind after performing religious rites.
A small temple and a separate lone white idol of the Shivalinga stood near the bank. The place was littered with plastic waste, small earthen pots used in ceremonies, baskets, etc. Many idols were visible, broken and half buried in the ground. The water was green-grey in color and had no flow. Few local people swam in the water while a person tried to clean bits and pieces of garbage here and there. Seeing the state, I wondered if this is how Gods (if there are any) were meant to be worshipped?
Next, we stopped at the river border at Najafgarh where flood-gates are installed to allow entry of water in the part of the Yamuna flowing through Delhi. This is also the place where the first huge drain joins the Yamuna. It contains effluents from the factories and industries in Delhi. On paper, it is supposed to be treated water, but the color of the water showed otherwise.
Interestingly, this stream earlier used to be a river named Sahibi. It was the main source of water in Delhi. Now it acts as one of the many drains bringing polluted water to the Yamuna. According to Jha, if we stop this drain, the water flowing into the Yamuna itself stops. How water from Haryana enters Delhi also gets influenced by the politics around the region.
Our next stop was the banks of Yamuna near Kashmiri Gate. It’s a busy area with metro and road bridge connecting Delhi to trans-Yamuna part of the city. Inter-state Bus Terminal there connects Delhi to nearby states of Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan. At the banks, there is an economy of its own. We could see at least fifty people, mostly daily wage laborers, relaxing under the shade of the bridge. A middle-aged couple came to put some dry-flowers and other waste as we stood there. It’s ironic how the river becomes sacred when it comes to our social norms and practices but gets treated like a sewage drain when it comes disposing off the waste we generate.
Probably the most worrisome was seeing the lives of people who depend on the river for their sustenance. We came across coin-catchers who enter river water to collect the coins thrown by people (mostly thrown due to religious faith and practices). Often, they use magnets, sometimes, their bare hands to find coins in the garbage people throw. As we took a boat ride, we could see people on boats collecting plastic bottles and waste from the river. They sell this to the scrap dealers to earn their living. I was struck by their state of abject poverty. Most of them stay in very small dilapidated houses made of plastic and blankets, barely having any facilities of drinking water and sanitation nearby.
The water was stinking, and small bubbles came out of the water as the boat took its turn. These waters barely have any life. Fish can’t survive in such toxic waters. Even those who do, the toxic elements get bio-accumulated in their bodies. Anyone who consumes it is at an equal risk of contamination and health hazards. Imagine having a life where your livelihood depends on the dips you take in such a polluted river!
Standing at the banks of Yamuna at Kashmiri Gate, as Jha wonderfully summarised it, you see the most diverse aspects of human civilisation in one frame. We could see the metro rails, high bridges and interminable city life. Also visible was the poor state of the river we consider holy and the neglect of poorest strata of people. One wonders, is it the kind of development we strive for?
Ankita is a student of MA Public Policy at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.