How cultural activities are impacting Yamuna’s water quality
Immersion of idols made of cheap lead, chrome paints and plaster of paris during festivals into the river compromise the water quality
While industries and urbanisation have brought about significant deterioration in the water quality of rivers and lakes across the country, an aspect that often stays concealed is the role of cultural activities in contributing to this degradation. Delhi is dependent on the river Yamuna, the second largest tributary of the Ganga, for its domestic, industrial and agricultural needs. Yamuna, being one of the sacred rivers in the country, is often the site of rituals and rites. Last rites of the dead are often performed at its banks, and the practice of immersion of idols is among the major reasons why the river is so polluted.
The poor water quality of the Yamuna is primarily due to the discharge of sewage and industrial wastewater into the river; however, cultural activities tend to worsen the deterioration process. Immersion of idols made of cheap lead, chrome paints and plaster of paris during festivals, and junking of articles such as foam cut-outs, flowers, food offerings, decorations, metal polish, polythene bags, plastic sheets, and cosmetic items into the river all compromise the water quality. These practices are followed during innumerable festivals and events, and their continuation has severely affected the Yamuna. The poor water quality of the river has now come back to haunt the people of Delhi; it is causing both acute as well as chronic health problems such as skin allergies and respiratory problems.
Until now, the effect of the deterioration was stipulated in the studies undertaken to assess the impact of water quality on health. However, it has taken a more tangible form now with the toxic water quality evident at the mere sight of the river. During this year’s Chhath Puja, the top layer of the river was covered with white froth-like foam. According to the Central Pollution Control Board of India (CPCB), this is the result of the high levels of toxicity with all the water quality parameters being out of permissible limits. The water is neither suitable for drinking nor other productive and non-productive purposes.
According to a study by Delhi Pollution Control Committee, one of the less highlighted reasons for such a condition is the anthropogenic activities in the pretext of cultural practices. Studies have shown that post these activities, the levels of heavy metals such as chromium and iron in the water increased significantly; chromium level increased 11 times from the permissible limit of 0.05mg/L, while iron concentration increased 71 times from the 0.3 mg/L limit. In addition, high levels of ammonia (3 ppm) are also reported in the river. The toxicity due to heavy metals can damage the brain, lungs, kidney, liver, and other vital organs, and alter blood composition. If this water is not treated, it will increase the chance of toxins entering the food chain through vegetables grown on the floodplains.
Keeping in view the paramount importance of river Yamuna, the Centre launched the Yamuna Action Plan (YAP) in 1993 to abate the pollution and improve the river’s water quality. However, the target activities mostly revolved around wastewater treatment, disposal and management. In addition, solution plans such as Jal Andolan and Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan meant for the revival of the Yamuna through intensive information-based campaigning, are being worked out at both government and public front. However, in all these approaches, the proposition of reducing the anthropogenic cultural activities on the river bank and inside it has been overlooked. While the short-term impacts of these activities are lower in quantum as compared to those caused by industrial water pollution, their long-term effects are harmful in equivalence, as reported in the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP). There is a dire need to make these activities off limits near the river.
In addition to these steps, awareness raising activities should be planned. Making and buying of eco-friendly idols made with biodegradable clay, fruits, or chocolates should be popularised. Ecotourism initiatives, involving the community to manage these practices, along with little modifications in the water resources policies, will help in the long run to improve the water quality of the Yamuna.
Niyati Seth is an associate fellow and Apoorva Bamal is a research associate, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), New Delhi
The views expressed are personal