This was supposed to be a photo-series and not an article. But the artist within me was never satisfied with the quality of photographs. Aesthetically, they lacked the punch of Photojournalism that I wish to pursue and that is why, it remained in my cloud-storage, rotting for months. Recently when I noticed that the issue of Climate change and the environment was missing from the manifestos of all major political parties, I had a glimpse of the river Yamuna, crying out loud for attention to be a part of national discourse.
I traveled at various areas in the Yamuna basin, to document the life around our “Holy-River”. One of the greatest population in the globe is dependent on the Ganga-Yamuna basin. With enough conversation (just conversation, no action!) around Ganga, despite having a significance to the national capital, Yamuna has been abused like anything. Let us take a look at some of the people and places near the river, bearing the brunt of our Vikas.
Government’s previous plans and investment of millions to clean rivers has failed to show any results. The recent move by the CM Yogi Adityanath to change the name of Allahabad to Prayagraj has done no good to the condition of the dying river. The so-called ‘devotees’ that I encountered at Triveni Sangam (confluence of Ganga, Yamuna, and the mythical Saraswati) took the river water in their plastic bottles to their homes, having faith in it’s healing and cleansing powers in exchange with urine, feces, plastic trash, incense stick packets, and detergents.
According to a report released by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), water at the confluence of Ganga and Yamuna is unfit for drinking and bathing. The industries and cities on both sides of rivers dump tonnes of toxic untreated effluents in the river.
The banks of two tributaries of Yamuna, Chambal and Betwa are home to hundreds of wildlife species which are on the verge of extinction. The Yamuna looks like a typical drainage system for sewer. All the trash visible in the picture comes from the restaurants around Taj Mahal. When our cities expanded, the concern was to provide for the population but failed to foresee the huge amount of waste that the population would generate. Due to inadequate waste disposal system, rivers became a dumping site for the city. Earlier the river was able to carry these waste downstream, but now dams and barrages stop the flow of the river.
Also, we generate tonnes of waste daily, much of it is plastic. After a long time, these plastic products segregate into tiny particles but does not dissolve in the water which is often misunderstood as food by the aquatic life. This way plastic is added to the natural food chain hampering the wildlife and humans alike. The dirty environment aids the reproduction of insects and microbes.
Suraj Kumar helps his father in washing clothes on banks of the Yamuna in Agra. They are often chased away by Police who accuse them of dirtying the river. The 14-year-old said that “60-70 drainage lines pour into the Yamuna. Most of the water is stopped by a barrage near Mathura, so the river in Agra compromises majorly of sewage water and the river looks like a thin drain line with black stinking water flowing through vast floodplains filled with trash.”
Nandlal and his wife Janki cultivate vegetables on the Yamuna floodplains before monsoons. Both complained about the lack of usable water for irrigation due to polluted river water and destruction of crops by authorities in the name of illegal farming. In the wake of rising pollution in Agra and yellowing of Taj-Mahal, their agricultural inside the city was converted into a park. In their mid-forties, the couple toils hard under the sun to bring food on the table for their family of five members. Their eldest son works as a security guard by the night and helps in mending the vegetables during the day.
NGT (National Green Tribunal) has banned all construction and agricultural activities on floodplains of the river.
According to a study in 2012 by The Energy Research Institute, the Yamuna floodplain soil had high doses of heavy metals such as nickel, manganese, lead, and mercury. It also indicated their presence in vegetables cultivated there.
Masta Baba has spent more than thirty years of his life helping the police to retrieve unidentified bodies found in Mathura. He complains about personnel taking away their cut from his fee. He said,
“If the Government can hire me on salary and provide me with the pension, I would praise ‘Yamuna Maiya’ but now the river is helpless itself.”
He remembers when he was a teenager he could drink straight from the Yamuna but now it’s laced with toxic effluents and plastic trash.
For 8-year-old Dipanshu Paswan, Yamuna is the only river he has seen till now. He has no explanation when his younger brother Priyanshu(6) asks him about the faulty smell coming from the river in Kalindi Kunj area.
A report by monitoring committee constituted by NGT states the 22 kilometer stretch from Wazirabad to Okhla accounts for 76% percent of the pollution. All the untreated toxic industrial and domestic waste poured in the Yamuna has taken a toll on the aquatic life. Hundreds of fishermen had migrated to Delhi from different states. Fishermen find more rubble and trash in the fishing nets than fishes.
While the Yamuna floodplains are inaccessible to peasants, Delhi Government under Aam Aadmi Party allowed a massive stage occupying area of 7 acres to be erected for World Cultural Festival in 2016. National Green Tribunal imposed a fine of Rs 5 crore for environmental damages on organizers before giving nod to the event despite warnings by environmentalists that the event would bring irreversible damage to the floodplain’s ecosystem.
The 47-page report submitted by an expert committee to NGT after the event has said that due to the three-day event, the floodplain has lost almost all its natural vegetation like trees, shrubs, tall grasses, aquatic vegetation including the water hyacinth which provides a natural habitat to a large number of animals, insects, and mud-dwelling organisms.
The Himalayas are relatively young mountains and the area is highly prone to earthquakes. The proposed project for making four-lane roads connecting Char Dhams in Uttrakhand is distressing the Himalayan ecosystem. All the rubble and stones are rolled down in ravines and rivers cause a rise in the river bed. Rampant deforestation is visible alongside the highways connecting both Gangotri and Yamunotri. Several independent reports have also raised serious concerns over the haphazard manner in which the project is being executed through sensitive hilly terrain.
The birthplace of the Yamuna located in Banderpuch mountain range is relatively less accessible to people, so the devotees worship the Yamuna in a temple at the foot of the mountain. It is a 7-kilometer trek from nearest hotels and even during the visit in January i.e, three months after the gates of the temple are closed, a lot of trash is found on roads, thrown down the valley into the river and empty chips packets stuck on the branches of local vegetation en route.
Throughout my journey from Sangam to Yamunotri, I saw the civilization which started on the banks of rivers have stopped caring about the natural resources.
During the prayers in Mathura and Sangam, I saw devotees getting emotional and asking the Yamuna for all the happiness and good times for their families, yet no one cares about the state of the river. The culture which has preserved and respected the rivers for so many years in the past is abusing the same rivers now.
The entire route of the river from its origin at Yamunotri to its confluence with river Ganga at Sangam, the river is being constantly exploited for monetary greed.