Vinod K Jain, founder-chairman of the NGO Tapas, recently took a boat ride to the more polluted stretches of the river Yamuna in Delhi but had to turn back in a hurry as he started feeling sick. “You are likely to faint if you go to the more polluted parts… or even die,” says the man whose RTI query recently got the Delhi Jal Board to admit that the treated sewage water was only fit for horticultural purposes, and not for bathing.
That is the sorry, shameful state to which the holy Yamuna has been reduced to today... surprising, since the river supplies almost 70 per cent of Delhi’s water needs.
Jain, a jewellery exporter who also taught commerce at Delhi University for some time, runs Tapas with his own money because he doesn’t want any interference in the tough battles he fights. Recounting the filing of a PIL in the Delhi High Court, and later the Supreme Court, for the protection of the Yamuna flood plains and cleaning, Jain says he had to work hard to spread his message. “I went for seminars and conferences to educate the media and the people about related issues, met the chief minister, the lieutenant governor, the union urban minister and wrote to other bodies,” he says. “The response that I got to my RTI query was surprising. No one was willing to take responsibility for the river, not the state government, nor the DJB, nor the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), the MCD, Ministry of Water Resources, or the Central Water Commission,” Jain adds.
So taken aback was he that this water activist showed the responses he had received to the judges of the Delhi High Court to his petition. To not take responsibility for a river that’s a lifeline to millions is unforgivable, he feels. “Why is it then that when it comes to the doling out funds, everyone stands in queue for the money,” he asks.
For someone who doesn’t believe in collecting crowds and shouting slogans to attract attention to his cause, Jain has triumphed often. He has been instrumental in getting the ban on plastic bags in place. Thanks to him, the DDA has had to revise a zonal plan for 2006 for theYamuna and formulate a new one which disallows concretisation of areas near the river and gives the the go-ahead to green activities. A court order following Jain’s PIL on delinking of sewerage from storm-water drains was also accepted by the Delhi government. A law was also passed disallowing disposal of flowers and other material for puja into the river, “though nobody has been challaned till now”, rues Jain. Such issues have been duly highlighted by the media and pressure has been built on government authorities to come up with solutions — “one of them being the laying of sewer lines in 189 rural villages,” says Jain.
What is interesting, he adds, is that during some of his ‘save Yamuna’ awareness programmes, a lot of young people and schoolchildren have come up to him to ask how they can contribute to the revival of the river.
The answers to their questions might well be with Vimlendu Jha, 30, founder and executive director of NGO ‘Swechha – We for change’, which educates people about the condition of the Yamuna. Young Jha is at the moment busy with a new programme, optimistically titled ‘Influence’. It provides an opportunity to young people to do volunteer work for the environment, including the river Yamuna. So far, says Jha, “we have got 350 volunteers from different parts of Delhi and we will place them in various NGOs for experience in conservation and welfare work”.
“I had wanted to start a chai shop,” he laughs. “I got into conservation work more by accident. He started Swechha (then taglined ‘We for Yamuna’) in 2000 “for my personal love for the river. And when the movement began we had lots of people joining us,” he says.
Should money be the motivating factor for someone wanting to become a conservationist?
“Look at me,” says Jha, “I’m not dying of poverty, I can take care of myself. You don’t have to be a billionaire to be a happy person. One does not have to wear khadi and hawai chappals to be a river conservationist. You can wear Levis and flaunt a Blackberry. It depends on how socially responsible you are – so you can be a doctor or an engineering dude and at the same time do something for the revival of the river.”
For Jain, money doesn’t matter, dreams do. “The river is effectively dead, there is no aquatic life in it. I hope things improve and one day we see people going for walks by the riverside.”
And we all live on in hope.
What's it about?
You can work for the conservation of our rivers in various ways.
An NGO worker creates awareness among the public or pressurise the government and related authorities to improve the state of polluted rivers. A water engineer specialises in water treatment at waste-treatment plants. A hydrologist studies the movement, distribution and quality of water. You also have to study watershed management and thus can get involved in identifying sources of the pollution that is reaching the river. Environmental engineers are involved in water- and air-pollution control, recycling, waste disposal, and public health issues. One can also study environmental law to tackle the legal issues connected to river-water pollution
This is what a day in the life of Vinod K Jain could look like?
8 am: Read morning papers, do some gardening.
9 am: Have breakfast before attending to business matters
11 am: Go to court and attend legal proceedings in connection with a PIL filed for river pollution
5 pm: Attend to business matters, do some designing for a jewellery collection
8 pm: Give time and attention to environmental issues one has taken up
9 pm: Talk to the media, friends
10 pm onwards: Have dinner, catch up on reading and spend time with family, listen to music
Scientists and researchers can earn anything from around Rs 50,000 to Rs 1 lakh a month. Those working for an NGO can take home anything from Rs 10,000 to Rs 1 lakh a month (depending on the kind of work they do)
. Ability to communicate effectively to people to create awareness of river conditions
. Scientific bent of mind for those who want to look after the technical side of things
. Good leadership and motivational skills
How do I get there?
Take up science at the plus-two level if you want to go in for environmental studies or engineering. A science background is not essential if you want to be an activist with an NGO. “There is also an important role to be played by people who can motivate stakeholders. A background in sociology can help someone who works with people to change their mindsets because it’s seen that a large part of pollution is also contributed by people who dispose off flowers, idols into the water after a puja,” says Dr Suneel Pandey of TERI. For volunteer work, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Institutes & urls
. Indian Law Institute, Delhi (PG diploma course in environmental law and management)
. Delhi University Department of Environmental Biology (M Sc in environmental biology)
. Delhi Technological University (DTU) Delhi M.Tech. in civil engineering (Environmental Engg)
. School of Environmental Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India (MSc in environmental sciences)
. IIT Roorkee, Roorkee PG Dip and M Tech programmes in hydrology
Pros & cons
. There are no cons for river conservationists. To know you are fighting a battle to save a resource on which the very existence of mankind depends is satisfying enough
Arsenic, Cadmium in water
A scientist talks about the dangers of pollution and how one can help
How important is the Yamuna for Delhi?
A major percentage (about 70 per cent) of the city’s water supply comes from the Yamuna, supported by other canals and some groundwater sources. Most of the water comes through a regulated supply system managed by the DJB, which treats and supplies it to people. There are stretches of the river going through Delhi that are heavily polluted. We are doing a study on the vegetables grown on the riverbeds of the Yamuna and find these containing traces of metals and metalloids like arsenic. That’s a cause for concern. These can get to your blood supply. Studies can shown that a high blood-lead level impacts childrens’ thinking process and brain functions. A metal like cadmium can accumulate in the kidneys. There is strict quality control required. We are coming out with the suggestion that the water that is used for irrigation should be treated first and then used for irrigation.
How can conservation be done scientifically?
A person can have a background in forest biodiversity-like activity and get involved with afforestation activities at the waterfront to work on reducing soil erosion. Then, one can study environmental science, environmental engineering, look at water quality issues and devise strategies to conserve water quality.
Hydrology teaches one about watershed management. You assess a river not only on terms of its water quality but also its watershed — the geographic boundaries of a particular waterbody, its ecosystem and the land that drains to it. These need to be protected and conserved too. One can be a hydrogeologist or do water engineering, too.
Tell us about your involvement with water conservation?
I have a B Sc and M Sc in chemistry. My first assignment was looking at pollution in the river Ganga and we were associated with the Ganga Action Plan at its inception. At that point I was working with National Environmental Engineering Research Institute as research fellow. We had to regularly monitor water quality every season, three seasons a year, at certain stretches and check levels of pollution and sources and health impact of various pollutants.
Dr Suneel Pandey As told to Ayesha Banerjee