Life by the Yamuna before its ‘degradation’
In the 1960s, when Sarla Yadav moved to her marital home in Delhi as a teenager, she was thrilled to have the Yamuna flowing beside her small hut — crystal clear water that attracted tourists and worshippers on a daily basis.
Reclining on her boat as she waits for passengers, the 60-year-old fondly recalls the days of her youth when she got enough travellers to ferry across ‘Yamuna ji’, generating an income good enough for her to dream of a bright, fulfilling future.
“The water is so dirty now. People do not like coming here anymore. Now, I make just enough to be able to make ends meet,” she said. Yadav, along with her neighbours at Yamuna Bazaar, added that there was a time when they would use the water from the river, for washing, drinking and cooking.
“Even 10-15 years ago, we would have an annual swimming race on the Yamuna, for which we would prepare our children throughout the year. All these activities have stopped. A lot has changed in the Yamuna,” said another local Shanti, 45, who also lives in Yamuna Bazaar area.
The Centre for Community Knowledge (CCK) at Ambedkar University, carried out a year-long project in 2018-19, documenting about 50 oral history interviews of people who have been living on the banks of the Yamuna stretch between Wazirabad barrage and Okhla barrage.
The project titled ‘The river and the city: Multiple stories of the Yamuna in Delhi’, was completed in May this year and reveals many interesting aspects of the living experience of the Yamuna between the 1950s and the 1990s, and how its degradation has impacted communities living next to it.
At a time when the Delhi government is working towards reviving the Yamuna — and causing large scale displacement of communities residing along its banks — the project was aimed at drawing attention to the relationship that the river shares with its people. “The idea was also to present a case for the revival of the human connection with the Yamuna, which is different from the aesthetic aspect of it. Displacing those who have some connection with the river might be good for the aesthetics of it, but does nothing for the regeneration of the river,” said Surajit Sarkar, who is coordinator of CCK.
Some of the interesting revelations made through the project includes how the Yamuna Bazaar at Kashmere Gate would be brimming with festive spirit on days like Dussera, Diwali, Budh Purnima and Amavasya. “At Okhla, a mela would be held on the banks of the Yamuna, the day after Eid and people would come from Old Delhi on tongas to attend it,” said Kartikeya Jain, research assistant on the project.
The Okhla river banks were frequented by families on holidays for picnics, and one of the major activities there was fishing. “Initially we were reluctant to believe the farmers and fishermen, but later after research, we realised that there was a thriving marine life in the river, which has died out now,” said Sarkar.
Equally interesting is the lived experience of the farming communities on the banks of the river, who narrated stories of how their agricultural growth have deteriorated over the years. “One of the farmers on the east bank, Bagwan, told us that he would grow huge watermelons on the banks of the Yamuna. As the river’s quality deteriorated, and particularly after the 1978 floods, they stopped growing watermelons completely,” said Jain.
While the insights into the human connection with the Yamuna have interesting revelations to make, the project also documented the impact of the deteriorating river quality on the health and livelihood of those who live around it.
Jain narrated the story of a 40-year old man named Ramesh who had learned swimming in the Yamuna as a child. A couple of years back, when he took a dip in the Yamuna for barely 10-15 minutes, he complained of developing rashes and a persistent itching which has refused to go away.
The stories of Banarsi and Rajeev who are ‘gotakharis’ (professional divers who make a living through selling valuables that they find in the river) is noteworthy. “They narrated that their teacher had gone blind after taking a dip in the river. Now when they enter the river, they keep their eyes shut as much as possible. They complained of severe health issues when the water entered their mouth,” said Jain.
Speaking about the cultural and human aspect of the Yamuna, Bhim Singh Rawat, who is a water activist, said that “there is so much pollution in the river, it has affected the people living around it severely. However, instead of sympathizing with them, they are being blamed. It is hardly their fault. There is so much of industrial pollutant in the Yamuna.”
“The community no longer has any authority on the river. It would be much easier to revive the river if the community was involved.” said Diwan Singh, who is also a water activist.
The project culminated in a 30-minute documentary and the oral narratives and photographs collected in the process have been archived by the Centre.
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