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Living Along The River: Lives And Conditions Of Settlements On The Banks Of River Yamuna In Delhi

In popular Indian legends River Yamuna has been significant since Vedic times. It was River Yamuna which provided shelter to Pandavas and enabled them to reclaim the city of Indraprastha from their warring brothers. Some ancient legends also explain Yamuna’s darkness and name her as Kalindi. There are many stories attached to it but another explanation of its dark complexion is that of its depth. However, the current complexion and general appearance of this river particularly in the historic city of Delhi is due to many reasons, most of which are disturbing and alarming- multiple kinds of pollutants and an increasing encroachment of the river bed.

The River Yamuna stretches up to 3,66,223 sq km right from Yamnotri, then it crosses seven states and meets Ganga at Sangam Allahabad. Throughout its journey it changes its course, meets with its tributaries, deposits sediments on the plains, sustains a large diversity of life forms and supports equally diverse human culture. Out of its large percentage of catchment area, the National Capital Territory of Delhi constitutes only 0.4 percent of its geographical share and, paradoxically, this small share contributes to about 90 percent of the total pollution that the river carries.

However pollution of Yamuna initially begins at its source- the shrine of Yamnotri tirtha which is situated in Uttarakhand and a site of regular pilgrimage. From there, the river carries abandoned clothes, polythene bags, and pooja samagri, which is the waste generated at the temple. Subsequently, she crosses five such pilgrimage sites. Then, 40km downstream the flow of this already polluted river is diverted for big and small hydropower projects in the region through pipelines to meet the requirement of a hydropower plant at Gangani (Uttarkashi) and subsequently at Hathyari (120 km down from Yamnotri). Additionally, the construction of barrages at different stretches of river like Dak Patthar in Uttarakhand (built in 1965) renders large stretches of the river dry that disrupts not only the flow but the overall ecosystem of that region. Hence, at 130 km from its source the perennial flow and course are fundamentally subjected to human control and which is mostly disruptive both in terms of ecology and economy.

The River Yamuna revives after gaining water from its tributaries, Giri and Bata, but again faces another barrage at Hathnikund in Haryana that was built in 2002. This phenomenon is pre-modern. In fact, the Tejewala barrage was built by Firozshah Tughlaq and later remodified by British in 1873. However, the scale of this barrage at Hathnikund is manifold now as it diverts Yamuna’s maximum water into the ‘Western Yamuna Canal’ and ‘Eastern Yamuna Canal’ to meet the demands of irrigation and industry of the citizens.

Before entering into Delhi, much of its water has already been squeezed out and has becomepolluted because of damming and diversion, and the release of pollutants in the river from the towns of Sonepat, Karnal, Panipat, and others. [IMAGE] Further deterioration is caused by Wazirabad barrage where a large volume of water is again drawn to meet the requirements of Delhi metropolitan city.

A total of six barrages have been constructed till now over the river. Within Delhi there are three barrages constructed across the river, namely the Wazirabad, the ITO, and the Okhla barrages. As a result, there is practically no flow of water in the river during dry season. But these diversions are not the sole reason for the dying state of River Yamuna. There are many more.

According to Professor Manoj Misra, diversion is of two kinds:-one is in which most of the diverted water comes back in an unpolluted state after meeting the larger purpose of generating hydropower. This kind of diversion takes place at Dak Patthar and at Asan in Uttarakhand. The other kind of diversion of water is in which the water once diverted never returns to the river and if anything comes back, it’s the highly polluted sewage water. Hathnikund and Wazirabad barrages are examples of this kind of barrage. As you can see in the image, there are innumerable human interventions in the course of the river right from the beginning till the Sangam.

Yamuna divertsabout 90 percent of its water by the time she crosses Wazirabad barrage. From then Yamuna gets its flow from the 22 drains of wastewater alone from Delhi which bring almost 4,456 million of wastewater per day from the city into the river (CSE, 2012). Najafgarh drain is the first and the most voluminous drain that releases sewage water in the river when she enters Delhi. Industrial waste, albeit forming only 5 percent of the total amount of pollution, is also highly detrimental as it contains highly toxic substances. Thermal opwer plants are the major source of constant danger as they discharge waste oil and chemicals into the drains that ultimately flow into the river. Small scale industries, both authorized and unauthorized, are sparsely spread all over Delhi, releasing large amounts of untreated wastewater in Yamuna through the sewage drains. Apart from these, our river is also facing serious threats from the religious sentiments of the people. As you can see in the image, people immerse large amounts of non-biodegradable plastics, and idols made of Plaster of Paris and coated with toxic chemicals such as mercury, cadmium, lead and carbon on the occasions of great festivities like, Navratri and Ganesh chaturthi.

This is the after picture of the festival and we can see its impact on the river. All of these factors make the 22 km river stretch from Wazirabad barrage to the confluence with Chambal River—the most critically polluted amongst all. In this stretch the river lost its power of rejuvenation completely.

Although the city has been divided into five sewerage zones and it was envisaged by the government to implant a separate wastewater treatment plant at each zone. But today we have only three major water treatment plants— Okhla (south), Keshopore (west) and Coronation Pillar (north). Their current capacity to treat is only half of the sewage water that is released in Yamuna. Consequently, much of the solid and dissolved waste is released into the river untreated.

According to the report of High Powered Committee on Yamuna River Development (2010), the quality of water in the upstream of Wazirabad is fairly good with average BOD (Biological Oxygen Demand) levels in the range of 1.0-2.0 mg/l but with high levels of coliform bacteria density and pesticide contaminants. In the Delhi stretch, the BOD level is up to 40 mg/l and coliform of 24 million, thus leaving no freshwater during dry season. This is an image of before and after Wazirabad barrage water condition of River Yamuna.

The impact of these human interventions are indelibly apparent today. The large river bed which Yamuna once used to enjoy has considerably shrunk from kilometers to a few meters in width and depth, and many small islands of sedimentation are visible in between its course.  The river once used to have immense width. The aerial image of the Delhi rail bridge built in 1866 shows how large the river bed was as the length of the bridge corresponds to the width of the river. But today it has shrunk terribly and small patches of land are visible all over.

The river also used to have its own ecology and biota, shared by a variety of species of birds, animals and fishes. Yamuna used to be the habitat of turtles and crocodiles, elephants, fishes and many foreign birds coming from distant lands. But today we won’t see any of them. A large area of the Yamuna river bed has become fallow. The river is so toxic and shallow that no leisure activities like swimming, boating and fishing can be performed in the river water. Fishes don’t even sustain in the Yamuna water, curtailing major occupation of the fishermen.

Delhi has always been the place where people come to seek employment from various states of India. Migration is considered as the major cause of population increase in the capital city. In the 1960s Delhi’s population was about 3 million. Today it’s around 18 million. Apparently, density of population, the pressure of water supply and the amount of sewage discharge have also increased in the city since independence. Hence, the population is already twice the carrying capacity of the city which is directly halting the state of Yamuna.

For the poor migrating population, River Yamuna has always been a shelter. However, there are diverse kinds of settlements we observe on the banks of River Yamuna, varying from the juggi-jhopri settlements to the concrete settlements of the ghats. They all share the ecology of the sacred river in one or another way. But the significance of this river is quite different for both these settlements.

There are a number of Ghats and Mandirs on the river banks in front of which highly polluted water flows, albeit people with immense faith in the river purity perform various rites and rituals, take bath and worship the river on the days of Hindu festivities.

This is the image from the chatt puja near Okhla barrage where the river gets toxic foam water released from chemical industries. The people with immense devotion perform rituals in the foam water and that’s really harmful.

However, there is a decline in the number of daily visitors and most of the ghats remain more or less empty in the non-festive days. This has made a negative impact on the lives of the people who stay at the river ghats and also to the river whichgets a lot of solid contamination from the devotees in large quantities. The income of pundits has fallen and people who used to sustain their livelihood on the gifts from the devotees have adopted new occupations. Wrestling has always been the traditional sport for the people living on the banks of Yamuna, because the soft sand of the river was deemed ideal for the sport. But the legacy of wrestling has also become bleak because of the changing conditions of the river. The culture is no longer visible on the ghats of Yamuna.

The other types of slum-like settlements are to be found on the fallow river bed. People performing various kinds of occupations live in these settlements. Many of them are the migrants who came from distant states in search of employment in the construction sector of Delhi. Others are rickshaw pullers, dhobis, cultivators, small laborers, and petty boat farers, small vendors, porters, factory workers, masons, mechanics, and domestic workers. This kind of settlement is spread all along the course of the river.

There are few such hamlets near the Maharani Bagh Bridge and near Kashmeeri gate Bridge. Though this river bed is taken by Delhi Development Authority, people have been cultivating this land for a long time. The cropping pattern is mainly as follows: NOVEMBER to APRIL- wheat and different types of vegetables like Brinjals, tomatoes and lady fingers. In summers, they grow watermelons, cucumbers, etc. All these crops and vegetables are irrigated with the chemically polluted river water that contains large amounts of heavy metal like lead, cadmium and iron, and millions of coliform bacteria.

Before Yamuna water got contaminated they used to perform various subsistence activities such as fishing, washing clothes and boat faring to sustain their livelihoods. But today we see a hapless picture of these people. They sustain themselves in the polluted water by manual scavenging on the river bed. They search for the things that can be sold like plastics and other abandoned things. Children and young men also swim deep in the water to collect coins which the pilgrims drop in the river as their token of devotion. This is how they have maintained a connection with the river today.

These people are also threatened by the river as well as from the government authorities. In the monsoon days when the river swells up to great heights and submerges their homes, people are left with no option but to evict the land until the river gets back to normal. Much worse than this, these people remain at the scrutiny of the authorities for no good reason.

In 2004, the slum of Yamuna pushta, inhabited by 3,50,000 poor squatters, was forcefully evicted and demolished because of the Delhi High Court order that the Yamuna Pushta Bastis be removed because they were responsible for polluting the riverbed accounting 0.33 percent of the total sewage released in the river. These people were not given any compensatory land and thus in such cases, slum people again find another resident close to the riverbed for carrying their livelihood.

Ironically the land which was cleared for the sake of the environment became the visionary land for the infrastructural and development projects of the government. The encroachment of land for such projects— Delhi Metro Rail Corporation power stations, bridges, magnificent Akshardham temple and the Asian game village. This type of encroachment is even more harmful than the human encroachments because the floodplains are meant to revive the groundwater and Yamuna river bed has the greatest capacity for reviving the groundwater aquifers.

  I also want to show the distinction between the visionary projects of so-called modernity and the actual reality. This image of Signature Bridge shows the river as perennial and with immense flow, but the reality shows the dry and highly polluted face of Yamuna. This shows the neglect of government authorities towards the alarming condition of the river. The river channels and flood plains are extremely silted up with garbage and other solid wastes. The river has turned into a sewer. The people living along the banks of the sacred river are facing serious threats from the poisonous water. The culture that the river upholds for centuries now appears to be diminished.

Image by Rilsonav from Pixabay

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