How The Yamuna Was Choked To Death

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India's holy river has sunk into an unholy quagmire of apathy and environmental mismanagement.

There is an age-old legend about the Yamuna turning black. Shiva, after losing his wife Parvati, was so distraught that he turned the river Yamuna black with grief.

But this image existed only in mythology. For many years, the Yamuna was a pristine blue. It is the river the Taj Mahal was built alongside – then a symbol of purity and holiness.

Today, in the modern era, it is India’s collective grief that has made the river the country’s most polluted. The Yamuna, which begins from the pristine glaciers of Yamunotri, travels 1376 kilometre across India. But to its ill luck, this route passes through the city of Delhi.

70 percent of the Yamuna’s pollution comes from this single source, which takes up two percent of its route. The sewage and toxic effluents of nearly 17 million choke the Yamuna, merely 400 kilometres from its origin.

In some parts of the river, there is no oxygen whatsoever in the water. These stretches result in the hypoxia (death from asphyxiation) of all marine life in the area. From the Okla barrage, the river is eutrophicated – the water so chemically enhanced that normal life cannot survive, only algae remains. In 2010, environmentalist Sunita Narain declared that by all pollution standards, the Yamuna was dead.

But bureaucracy and indifference would prolong its death.

The Yamuna Action Plan (YAP)

In 1993, India turned to a foreign power for assistance in cleaning the capital’s river. Japan offered expertise and a 17.7 billion yen loan.

After some tussling over the funds, the amount was split between the states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi. Sewage systems were to be set up in all three, but this was to poor effect. In Delhi, as much as 25 percent of the system’s capacity was unutilized – as collection systems were not able to capture all the sewage. Worse, there was no treatment facility for coliform, meaning authorities were not tackling the problem of faeces in the river.

The first phase, YAP-I, lasted between 1993-2003. The collection models used here did not account for population growth after 1997 – a time when Delhi was growing at 47 percent a decade.

YAP-II kicked off with another 13.3 billion yen loan ($110 million at the time) from Japan, to the National River Conservation Directorate of the Ministry of Environment and Forests.

But despite setting up more treatment facilities, the river’s Biological Oxygen Demand (BoD), a common measure of a river’s health, had increased. In many stretches, the water remained unfit to even bathe in. India’s holy river stayed a drain, even after spending millions of dollars.

The Art of Polluting

To add insult to injury, in 2016, ‘The Art of Living’ (AoL) decided to host its 35th anniversary on the banks of the Yamuna, on a key floodplain. The project was controversial from the start, with the National Green Tribunal (NGT) refusing permission for the event – only to be superseded by the Delhi Development Agency (DDA) which permitted it anyway.

Floodplains are not supposed to be built upon. But the AoL event was to host over 3.7 million people, with a seven-acre stage. Local farmers were displaced and barred from the event. The NGT, now powerless to stop the event, fined AoL five crore rupees for the damage they expected.

The event was inaugurated by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, who asked, “If we keep criticizing ourselves, why would the world look to us?”

A year later, a panel of experts realized AoL had gotten away with a steal. The true damage was to the tune of Rs 45 crore. 120 hectares of land had been ‘adversely affected’ by the event, according to the NGT’s expert committee. In response, AoL refuted all the charges, calling a news article that covered it “reiterating the baseless noises made by vested interests.”

Ultimately, any talk about cleaning the Yamuna was to become baseless noise.

Granted life and then denied it

In March 2017, a High Court in Uttarakhand declared that the rivers Ganga and Yamuna were “living entities” that were “losing their entire existence”. It put India in a small pool of countries that recognized the value of its water bodies at an equal measure to its humans. It also made urgent the need for culling polluting activities along the river, for ostensibly, these could be considered human rights violations.

The Uttarakhand government found this to be a problem of semantics rather than of environmental necessity. On June 28, they challenged the ruling declaring the rivers human. And on July 7, the Supreme Court overturned the ruling.

India was free to abuse its holy river again.

In 2016, the DDA announced a ‘comprehensive’ plan to clean the river. It included the works – processing, monitoring, river cleaning, water treatment, biodiversity-boosting. But little seems to have come of this. On July 10, the NGT asked the concerned states what their plan was to clean the river. The NGT has of late banned open defecation near the river, with severe penalties for those who violate the order.

Since ancient time, it has been considered a tremendous honour to die at the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna. Some texts even condone slitting one’s throat at the spot. But the outcome of adding our death to the river is that the river is dead. Somehow, we are unable to balance a religious veneration for the river with a concern for its well being.

If India’s holy rivers are thus treated, what can we expect of all the other ones?

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