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A tale of two rivers: A shrinking Yamuna is forcing the Mallahs to migrate to the banks of the Ganga

Recently, the Supreme Court handed the Yamuna revival case to the National Green Tribunal. HT speaks to the Mallahs of UP and Haryana to see how the drying river has affected them

india Updated: Jun 18, 2017 13:57 IST
Sarika Malhotra
Sarika Malhotra
Hindustan Times

The Supreme Court recently forwarded the Yamuna revival case to the National Green Tribunal. Massive barrages and hydropower plants inhibiting the flow of river water, encroachments in the flood plains, loss of vegetation, pollution from agriculture and industry are primary reasons for the shrinking of the Yamuna. The only solution provided so far has been building sewage treatment plants, rather than restoring the flow of water in the river. The Mallahs living in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana are a community whose life and livelihood revolves around the ebb and flow of the river. (Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO)

With no water flowing in it, the half km long Yamuna Bridge at the Uttar Pradesh-Haryana border, at Kairana, Shamli district, UP is uniting Hindus and Muslims in a common cause. Baba Giri, the mahant at the Shri Chinta Haran Mahadev Sanyaas Ashram on the river bank, says the Muslims arrange water tankers, so that pilgrims can at least get to do jal tilak on the banks of the Yamuna during important festivals such as Purnima.

Baba Giri is appalled by the loss of aquatic life, the stinking river bed, the lack of drinking water for animals or bathing water for pilgrims. He claims that every year on Dussehra at least one lakh pilgrims take a dip in the river, and the weekly mela attracts thousands of visitors from nearby villages. But with no water to bathe, the pilgrims are returning without the customary holy dip. The word is spreading that the Yamuna has dried at Kairana -- the pilgrims are dwindling and so are the offerings at the ashram.

Every year on Dussehra, one lakh pilgrims used to take a dip in the Yamuna at Kairana, says the mahant of an ashram here. But the river has dried. The Mallahs, who are Muslims, arrange for water tankers so that pilgrims can at least do a jal tilak on occasions such as Purnima. ( Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO )

As the Yamuna is devoid of flowing water, the Mallahs are feeling the pinch in UP and Haryana. Known to be some of the best divers in the trade, their children made pocket money by diving for coins in the river that the Hindu pilgrims dropped during their holy dip. However, even this opportunity is shrinking, along with the shrinking Yamuna!

Baba Giri asks why there is no water in the Yamuna which used to flow round the year, even during the lean season. And why, suddenly, during the monsoon, so much water flows in the river that it completely destroys the area’s habitation.

Baba Giri’s concerns are valid. After monitoring government efforts to clean the Yamuna for over two decades, the Supreme Court in April entrusted the task to the National Green Tribunal (NGT). The bench expressed concern over the condition of Yamuna despite the efforts of the last 23 years.

Life by the Yamuna

Meanwhile, at the Yamuna bank in Kairana, Intezar Mallah is watching his prized cultivation of watermelons shrinking and dying by the day. Primarily Muslims, the Mallahs of UP and Haryana grow watermelons, cucumbers, bottle-gourd and muskmelon by the river bank. They do not own any land but take stretches of riverbank on lease from the panchayat for cultivation.

Intezar Mallah might lose his entire produce, which in a normal season would have fetched him Rs 25,000 per acre. Teary eyed, Mallah says he doesn’t know how to repay the loan he had taken from the money lender to lease land on the river bank. With the Yamuna drying, Mallah has seen many from his community migrate from the bank of Yamuna to the Ganga in the hope of better cultivation.

The Mallahs lease land on the river bank from the Panchayat to grow watermelons, cucumber, bottle-gourd and muskmelon. But with the river drying, the Mallahs are in danger of losing their crops. ( Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO )

For over 500 years, the Mallah community’s lives have revolved around rivers and the course of the river has decided their livelihood. When the rivers were flourishing waterways, the Mallahs did the work of traditional boatmen ferrying people. With waterway navigation shrinking, the Mallahs took to fishing, but as the fishing contracts were sold to the highest bidders by the government, the Mallahs were reduced to farming watermelons, cucumbers, bottle-gourd and muskmelon by the river bank. The watermelon and muskmelon grown at Yamuna banks are believed to have a unique flavour and are sold in the mandi as Yamuna kinare ke tarbuz.

The move to Ganga

Resident of Ramda village, Mustkeem Mallah says that migration from his village started in 2002, as the Yamuna started drying, and has peaked now. He says that 25 villages in UP and 20 in Haryana are completely dependent on the Yamuna: ‘Inki rozi, aur beti, dono Yamuna pe nirbhar hai…’ (Their daughter’s marriages and livelihood are dependent on the river). Mustkeem says that from Ramda village alone, 400 families have migrated to Bijnor, Asifabad, Shukratal (UP), and Laksar (Uttarakhand). Mustkeem claims that Yamuna at Kairana is purposely being dried to facilitate illegal sand mining and 20,000 Mallah households are affected by the drying of the Yamuna across states.

As HT traveled through the villages near the Yamuna in UP’s Kairana block, locked homes were visible village after village.

Since the Yamuna started drying, many Mallahs have begun migrating to the banks of the Ganga for eight months to grow their crops there. They return home with the onset of the monsoons. ( Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO )

Perhaps the biggest casualty of these locked homes are the children who migrate along with their families for cultivation from the banks of Yamuna to the banks of Ganga from December to July. In Asifabad, Meerut district, near the banks of the Ganga, children can be seen around the riverbank, assisting in farming. Living out of makeshift straw-thatched huts with plastic sheets on top and a few bare belongings, their day begins and ends in the vast riverbank. They don’t go to school, as their families live on the riverbank for eight months. And they return to their native village for just four months, after selling the produce. Only to go back to the banks of Ganga for the next season in December.

The cost of migration

MD Shamshad who migrated along with his four children, from Ramda to Asifabad, says that 115 families from Ramda village have migrated to Asifabad alone. The distance is 150 km and he has managed to bring along his tractor.

Mallahs from the affected areas of Haryana and UP migrate to Bijnor, Asifabad, Shukratal (UP), and Laksar (Uttarakhand). Since Namami Ganga is getting a big push from the government, and the religious sanctity associated with the Ganga and the Allahabad Sangam, they claim that Ganga at least has some water.

On the Ganga bank, the Mallahs live in makeshift straw huts covered with plastic on the top. The cost of relocation eats into the profits earned from selling what they grow. ( Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO )

Shamshad says migrating is the only option to feed their children. Since the Yamuna dried, the riverbank has become hot and the pre requisite for the cultivation is a cool riverbank. “At home, we used to make Rs 25,000 per acre on a watermelon plantation, now the margins have shrunk considerably since we are staying away from home. Not only do we waste money in building our makeshift homes, and relocating, we also deprive our children of education. Which school will take them for eight and four months?”

Vasid Khan started migrating to Asifabad from Karnal, Haryana, as the Yamuna started drying in Karnal from 2010. Khan says he was informed by relatives that the Ganga had water, and that’s why he started coming to its banks. Every year, he spends Rs 30,000 to set up the makeshift home. With the onset of monsoons and overflow in the river, the makeshift hut gets washed away and he has to go back to his native village with his bare possessions, including the radio that keeps them entertained after sunset.

The periodic migration affects the education of the Mallah children. Which school will give them admission for with months and four months? Most end up working on the farms with their parents. ( Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO )

Where’s all the water gone?

The Mahants and Mallahs say that if the Yamuna flows, it will take care of all their woes. Though so much money has been spent on rejuvenating the river, they have only seen the river shrink every year. Lucrative commercial contracts – from sand mining (legal and illegal), dams and hydro power projects, to building cleaning infrastructure such as Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs), which underperform -- are killing the river, aquatic life and their livelihood, they say.

“No one is really concerned about the river; they are only making money through it,” says Baba Giri.

While mining, dams, hydro power projects are extracting life from the river, building bigger and bigger STP infrastructure seems to be the only solution that the successive Yamuna Action Plans have to clean and infuse life in the river. Yamuna Action Plans (YAP), a pollution abatement effort primarily in Haryana, UP and the National Capital Territory (NCT) of Delhi cost the exchequer dear. YAP 1 Rs 682 crores, YAP II Rs 624 crore, YAP III estimated at Rs 1656 crore. And there is more in store. The 2031 Sewage Master Plan for Delhi estimates Rs 19,500 crore to build sewage assets in the NCT alone. While launching schemes of YAP III, Union Minister for Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation Uma Bharti acknowledged that despite spending over Rs 1500 crore on Yamuna, the desired results could not be achieved.

Restricting the flow

Manoj Misra, of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan, an NGO fighting for preservation of the Yamuna says that unless the critical issue of flow (aviralta) is addressed, no amount of money spent in creation of waste water treatment infrastructure is going to revive our rivers. Massive structures inhibiting flow, encroachments in the flood plains, loss of vegetation, huge extraction of sand and aquatic life, pollution from agriculture, industry and sewage are killing the river; however the only solution we have so far, is building STPs.

Misra saya that the Yamuna flows for 1,376 km, but after its first 180 odd km, it ceases to exist. “Water in Delhi is not Yamuna, it is sewage water… Yamuna dies 250 km before Delhi. At the Hathni Kund barrage, Haryana, all the water is diverted to the Western and Eastern Yamuna canal and 160 cusec is allowed to flow in the name of minimum ecological flow.” Since 1993 we have been chasing the wrong objective of cleaning, whereas the core solution lies in the flow. If the flow is allowed, more than 70 per cent nirmalta will be automatically addressed says Misra.

Manu Bhatnagar, Principal Director, Natural Heritage Division, INTACH, avers that the Yamuna would benefit if more fresh water was left in it. “A river needs both clean water and adequate flow to support its biodiversity, to recharge floodplains and aquifers.”

River revival

The Mahants and Mallahs question is: why is the river not allowed to flow? They hint at a big construction lobby working hand in glove with the system, coming in the way of the river’s flow. Six barrages and 17 odd hydro power projects have been built on the river. And more are in the works. Water activist Bhim Singh Rawat says that the river is facing several threats due to the hydro and dam projects being pushed through despite the High Court’s living Ganga Yamuna orders. The Uttarakhand High Court in March declared the Ganga and Yamuna as living entities, bestowing on them same legal rights as a person. “Ministry of Water Resources is in hurry to build Renuka dam on Giri River (Yamuna’s tributary), Lakhwar dam on Yamuna River and Kishau dam on Tons river. The under-construction 120 MW hydro project at Vikas Nagar Dehradun is playing havoc with the river. Dakpathar Barrage in Dehradun on Yamuna, Asan Barrage on Asan river in Dehradun, Hathini Kund Barrage at Yamuna Nahar Haryana have turned the mighty river into a seasonal stream. Despite this, the UP government and the Centre are pushing for another barrage at Agra.”

Down the drain?
  • Massive structures inhibiting flow, encroachments in the flood plains, loss of vegetation, massive extraction of sand and aquatic life, pollution from agriculture, industry and sewage are choking the river. However, the only attempt at finding a solution has been to build STPs which have not been able to infuse life in the Yamuna
  • Rs 682 crores was spent in the Yamuna Action Plan I launched in 1993
  • Rs 624 crore was spent in the Yamuna Action Plan II launched in 2004
  • Rs 1,656 crore is the estimated cost for the Yamuna Action Plan III launched in 2012

The dead fish at Kairana are testimony to the shrinking ecological inventory of the Yamuna, and the livelihoods dependent on her. Environmentalists say that when the water flow is stopped at barrages and hydro power projects, no real cost benefit analysis is ever done, as the environmental cost is never taken into consideration. Environmentalist Bharat Jhunjhunwala’s economic assessment of Kotlibhel 1B hydropower project in Uttarakhnad points out how the project is a loss-making proposition. As per his analysis the benefits from generation of power, and employment were Rs 155.5 crore whereas the cost on environment, livelihood, health etc was Rs 798.7 crore. “Since environmental cost cannot be monetized, it is negligible in the project reports of dams and hydro power projects. Fishermen’s lost income and aesthetic value is not accounted for.”

The course ahead

Activists say that no one seems to be really questioning if so many projects are really needed. Himanshu Thakkar, of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, gives the example of Renuka Dam. “Delhi does not need water from Renuka Dam, the Delhi government has said so in as many words but Renuka is supposed to be only for Delhi! The existing dams on Yamuna are anyway performing far from optimally.”

Thakkar says while the whole emphasis has been on money, infrastructure, technology, no attempt has been made to address the governance of the sector or the institutions. “No attempt has been made to achieve participatory, transparent, accountable governance. Do we know why untreated pollutants from industry and sewage flown into the river? Why STPs don’t work.”

For the record, 2008 data shows that out of the 512.4 MGD capacity of sewage treatment in and around Delhi, 383.62 MGD was actually being treated. And Delhi has perhaps the highest sewage treatment capacity compared to any other city of India.

Thakkar affirms that the failure of the highest judiciary also needs to be highlighted. “The Supreme Court has been handling the Yamuna cleaning case for over 23 years, but the river’s state has only worsened in the period, the SC could achieve nothing. And finally it passed the case to NGT this April!”

Amidst the blame game, the Mallahs are hoping that the flow in the Yamuna will be restored and they will be able to have a normal life and a future for their children. Mustkeem Mallah says out of 25,000 Mallahs in Shamli district, only one person has a job, four are graduates, 10 have passed high school, four post graduates… and with 80 per cent of the Mallahs temporarily migrating for eight months because of the Yamuna drying, he is hoping that the river and their future will revive together, someday…

First Published: Jun 17, 2017 20:57 IST