Delhi News

Why keeping Yamuna clean will also be a challenge


When we first shifted to North Delhi over four decades ago, I was very excited by the fact that the Yamuna flowed just a 10-minute walk away from our house. I immediately wondered about the possibilities of acquiring an inflatable dinghy and floating up and down the river, which would be such a nice, outdoorsy way of spending a Sunday morning. Also, I had read that author Anita Desai (who coincidentally had lived in the same building as we had when we lived in Mumbai) had, as a child, picnicked on the sandbanks of the Yamuna.

Well, the inflatable dinghy never materialised but once we did take a paddle-boat from the nearby Quidsia Ghat, and serenely paddled all the way down to the clanging old railway bridge near Salimgarh. This was cool, but then we had to paddle upstream back to the ghats – and the thighs and calves didn’t stop complaining for quite a while afterwards. But one had learned a lesson about the incipient power of the river!

It was also near the old bridge that I discovered just how canny birds were. A large flock of avocets had been rootling along at the base of the bridge completely ignoring the trains clattering past them. But the moment you took one step too close (to get that elusive photograph, of course), they were up and away. The river and its environs remained a good place to observe and photograph the brown and black-headed gulls that thronged to it every winter (with the occasional malevolent looking Pallas’s gull turning up now and then). They had learned to come when called (which, is more than can be said of our dogs!) as people crossing over on the pontoon bridges would stop and toss namkeen, breadcrumbs and probably the leftovers of their breakfast which the gulls would snatch up in mid-air mewling peevishly.

North of us, was the Wazirabad barrage and here the first home-truths struck hard. One of the ghats nearby, with a temple adjacent to it, was clearly nothing but a trash-dump. Plastic bottle, plastic bags, other indescribable filth, the results of the early morning ablutions of the surrounding population, floated and stank amidst the glossy green water hyacinth. Worse, amidst all the stinking trash there were pond-herons, egrets and waterhens happily rootling about in the muck. On the eastern bank, there were sinister black pipes belching vile venomous looking liquids, glinting purple, dark green and black, into the water. Further north, however, the water became clearer, you could actually see the bed of the river to a depth of say about a foot. But even here, after a few years, the stench of excrement became all-pervading.

And then some 25 km south, lay Okhla, where the river could turn into nothing but foam covered, greasy sludge from bank to bank. In which, from time to time squadrons of greater flamingos minced fussily ducking their boomerang heads under and picking up god knows what toxins as they searched for their algae.

Ironically, I recently watched a programme hosted by David Attenborough who said that the pink in the flamingos’ plumage was a result of the toxins it had accumulated and which got stored in its plumage: the pinker, the more toxic the water in which it had fed! I had hitherto believed it was due to the carotene in the algae and tiny shrimp the birds consumed. Now I don’t know what to believe!

In winter, wagtails would hopscotch on the hyacinth, snapping up insects and even the dignified grey and purple herons would fish patiently from the banks or rafts of hyacinth. It beggars belief what the bottom-feeding fish in this area ingested, which in turn were consumed by the birds.

It’s said that the 22-km course the river runs through Delhi contributes around 70 per cent of its pollution load. So clearly, we know where the problem lies. Of course, vast sums of money have been sunk into ‘cleaning the Yamuna’ over the years, but even now, by the time the river hits the bridge at ITO, it is all but dead, with zero oxygen and one heck of a lot of raw sewage and other muck. And every now and again, the call goes out to concerned citizens – and gullible schoolchildren – to gather on the banks and clean up the muck. They may be given gumboots and gloves, as they go about earnestly collecting all of the floating trash they can reach – and naturally feel happy about what they are doing. Then they go back to the lives until the next call is given, probably the following year.

There is. of course, a very simple one-time solution to this problem, which was once, so well-articulated by Sanctuary magazine Editor, Bittu Sahgal: A moron was once having a bath and found that his bathtub was overflowing. So he bailed out the water, mugful by mugful. And yet, the water didn’t stop overflowing. So he called out to his wife for help. She stepped in took one look, and turned off the tap. Problem solved!

Our income tax department is very fond of deducting taxes at source (and you need a TDS certificate to prove they have), so all we really need here is a pollution deducted at source scheme. (PDS). The next time schoolchildren and conscientious citizens are called out to ‘clean up the Yamuna’ (or any river or water body), the first question they should ask the organisers (usually politicians) is: ‘Where is this coming from, uncle ji? First turn off the taps there and then we’ll clean up this gunk! We are not morons!’


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