Children enjoying the morning sun, thatched huts neatly plastered with cow dung, filthy Yamuna flowing on one side and an expanse of vegetable farm on the other — a quiet morning dawns over a riverine island off the Qudsia Ghat near Kashmere Gate ISBT.
Mustafa, 23, and his wife Mumtaz, 20, are going to their farm with their daughter Seherbanu in tow. They have been staying on the island for almost 20 years now. “I tried my hand at other jobs, but did not like them,” Mustafa says.
His is one of the 11 farmer families — approximately 100 people — that live on this island. Originally from Farukkabad in UP, they made Delhi their home nearly 100 years ago. “During monsoon, we go to our homes in Shastri Park. From Diwali till June 15, this island is our home,” says Rafiqan Begum, 40.
In winter, they grow cauliflower and cabbage; in summer, bitter gourd (karela), water melon (tarbuj), bottle gourd (tori), kakdi, cucumber (kheera), tomato and pumpkin, among others. These families, and many others on floodplains, get land on annual lease. “We pay R800 per bigha,” says Rahees Ahmed, 44.
Mughals leased out large tracts of riverbed to villages while British leased it to individuals. “These days, cooperative societies lease out land,” says Dwijendra Kalia, a river activist.
Seeking to clear doubts about the quality their produce, Chhote Khan, 45, says leafy vegetables — spinach and radish — suck in water pollutants. “So we stopped cultivating them. Also, we do not irrigate our vegetables with polluted Yamuna water,” he claims.
A large circular pit called chotha provides filtered water for irrigation. The island also has tube wells. Manu Bhatnagar, environmentalist from NGO Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, says, “Such filtration takes care of only suspended material but not water-soluble compounds like nitrates and phosphates.”
But stating that ‘pollution affects different vegetables differently’, Ravi Agarwal of NGO Toxic Links, points out, “Vegetables along the Najafgarh drain too are grown on polluted water. So we cannot discard those grown here.”
Despite uncertainty about Yamuna water levels increasing anytime, these families continue farming and staying at the island as it is economical. Khan reveals, “We earn around Rs 3-3.5 lakh annually. Following expenditures on medicines, daily wagers etc, we save up to a little over Rs 1 lakh.”
And though older people are mostly illiterate, children — specially those below 15 years — go to school in Shastri Park.
Their homes have dish connections, which means they are not secluded from the world outside even though many Delhiites remain unaware of their existence. “But, we are a content, happy lot,” asserts Rahees Ahmed.