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Delhi and the River of Love

Written by Shivani Singhal
PhD Researcher at the School of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds
“Do you know where the water we are drinking comes from?”, I enquire from my friend.
“Hmmm never thought about it…”
“It comes from the Yamuna river mostly.”
“That’s disgusting!”
“Do you know that the vegetables we are eating are irrigated from the river water and are contaminated with heavy metals?”, I ask my mother.
“Really! But what can one do about it? We don’t have any other option.”
“The river goddess is going to protect her”, the mother exclaimed happily pointing to her five-year-old daughter. It is her birthday and they are praying to the river as part of the celebrations.   
As I drove by the bridge on the river Yamuna, it looked calm, serene, and inviting. However, getting closer, the unmistakable smell of decay greeted me. The banks were full of rubbish and the river was black. The stillness of the calm and serene river turned out to be death. There were no fishes or birds near the river. Even domestic animals refused to drink its waters. I was standing next to the Delhi stretch of the river Yamuna. This 22km stretch of the river is the most polluted in India. This also supplies the majority of the water to 19 million people in Delhi (Parmar & Keshari 2018). However, things have not always been like this. My grandma told me stories of people swimming in the river, people catching fishes and picnicking as late as the 1950s. Now the fishes are dead, the river stinks and swimming in the river would mean inviting deadly illnesses such as tumor, cancer, and seizures due to the presence of heavy metals such as iron, chromium, and manganese to name a few (Sehgal et al. 2012).
While driving to the river, one has to cross a number of farms. For a second you forget about the traffic, the noise, and the vast crowds of the metropolitan city as you go through the green open fields. The farmers generally feed their families with the produce and the rest is consumed by Delhi. Going by, you see various hand pumps and electric pumps chugging out water in the fields. This is the same river water that is being pumped out from the floodplains and is used for irrigation. Samples tested from this growth have tested positive for heavy metals at various degrees. The pattern reveals that the closer the crop is to the river, the higher the metal contamination is. Moreover, as a result of government subsidies, fertilizers are being used extensively. Half of these wash into the river making it even more polluted. Mass fish deaths have been reported many times coinciding with the harvest season (Misra 2010). While due to distance, the elite part of the town does not have to live with the pollution in the river, they are still consuming the vegetables.
The Goddess Yamuna at the Delhi National Museum

A few minutes after I reached the bank, a car stopped and a family stepped out. They joined their hands in prayer and immersed a few flowers and some worship material in the river. While today the river holds true to its name the river of death, it is more widely known as the river of love. Mythologically it is a very important river for the Hindus. It is believed that the river is the daughter of Surya (Sun God) the sister of Yama (God of Death) and the lover of Lord Krishna (inserted image is a sculpture of the Goddess Yamuna). Everyday people start their day from taking a dip in the river water and praying to the sun god for strength. In multiple festivals, they immerse idols into the river hoping for good luck. This again is a cause of pollution as these idols, once made out of eco-friendly clay, are now made out of harmful plaster of paris and decorated with bright paints. At homes, no ceremony and ritual are complete without the water of the river. After death, the ashes after cremation are immersed into the Yamuna for salvation. While the narrative of the river as a goddess brings locals close to the river, it also alienated them from the pollution as the goddess cannot be polluted.




The two main sources of pollution are industrial waste and domestic waste. After spending thousands of dollars, the Yamuna Action Plan by the central government is now in its 3rd phase. This was a one-step intervention implemented in 1993 that was supposed to treat the domestic sewage of the city. Half the city is unplanned and its waste is going directly into the river. Most of the sewage treatment plants created are underutilized or non-operational. As a result, only 40% of domestic sewage is currently being treated (Nallathiga 2018).  The industrial waste comes under the environmental laws created by the judiciary. However, there is not much implementation and the industries that do have treatment capacities are not maintained and hence discharge the waste into the river without treatment (Moturi et al. 2004).

It has been claimed by the experts and the judiciary that the reason for the failures of the plans and policies is the missing local voices (Colopy 2012). Unless Delhi asks for a clean river, there is going to be no action possible on the ground. However, the connection of Delhi with its river seems to be diminishing. Locals do not take a dip in the river or go on boat rides anymore, farmers are switching to dairy farming, fishers are distancing themselves from the occupation as dealing with meat is deemed as a low job in the Hindu dominated city. With the cultural, economic, and spatial ties broken, it seems that the city has turned its back to the holy river.

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