Delhi Walk Festival at Palla village explores the ‘cleaner’ side of Yamuna
The mental image most people hold of the river Yamuna in Delhi is that of a foul-smelling drain full of inky, stagnant water.
However, on Saturday morning, at Palla village in north west Delhi, 16 participants of the Delhi Walk Festival got to experience a different side of the river. This side consisted of a cleaner Yamuna that would have been more blue had it not been for the overcast due to the morning smog.
A faint outline of the riverbed was visible under the clearer water. Different birds, from storks to geese, flocked to the floodplains. Farmers cultivated produce ranging from pulses to grains to vegetables and flowers on the highly fertile floodplains, which also has high groundwater levels that can revive naturally.
“Try smelling the water. Put your hand in, scoop it out, and sniff it. It won’t smell bad,” said Shashank Shekhar, a geologist from Delhi University, during a boat ride across the river.
This ‘clean side’ of the river lies just about 34 km from India Gate, the heart of the city.
Palla village, about 13 km from Narela, marks the entry point of the Himalayan river in the National Capital Territory. It is one of the only stretches of the river in the city that is not as contaminated as the rest.
This changes once the river goes downstream and hits Wazirabad.
Here the river is pumped with the city’s sewage, as it is blocked by a barrage, impeding its flow which is essential for the river’s self-filtering system. It does not help that 18 drains pump sewage and industrial waste into the river as well, according to reports by the Central Pollution Control Board.
At around 8am on Sunday, the group, led by physics professor and conservationist Vikram Soni, and Shekhar, drove from the Vishwavidyalaya Metro Station to the floodplains at Palla. They walked across farms, to reach the riverbed that was dry due to the seasonal retreat and took a boat ride across the river.
These floodplains have a high level of groundwater that can naturally replenish itself. Suman Kumar, a PhD student working with Shekhar, had conducted his doctoral research in the area to find out how soon the groundwater could be revived naturally, especially considering the presence of tube wells around the area that help quench the thirst of many in Delhi.
“I found that water being pumped for eight hours a day is ideal (for replenishment of the river). In times of emergencies, it could even be pumped for more than 40 hours continuously,” he said.
However, according to Soni, neglect and harmful human activities have put these floodplains at risk.
“If the floodplains of all the rivers are taken care of, we can easily get water for 500 cities in the country. Sadly, we are killing it off. It (the water from floodplains) is non-invasive and has perennial potential, but it is not being utilised except partially in Delhi,” said Soni, who also added that the Delhi Jal Board had treated a ranney well in the area, which collects the water from aquifers before treating it and supplying it to the city, like an “abandoned orphanage.”
Even at Palla, there are troubling trends. According to locals, the river is getting polluted by industrial waste from neighbouring Panipat and Sonipat areas.
“Around 10-12 years ago, you could see the riverbed under the clear water. It is no longer that clear. We have even stopped bathing in the river now. There are so much chemicals, that the fish sometimes die before we can catch it,” said 35-year-old Vikrant Chauhan, a farmer in the area.
A major attraction was also supposed to be a river island that one needed to traverse a channel to get to. However, on Saturday, the channel had dried up.
“This is first time I have seen the channel dried up. Otherwise it usually has some water throughout the year,” said Sandeep Chauhan, 30, another farmer in the area who cultivated dal, wheat, radishes and coriander on his 15-acre farmland on the banks of the river.