River sutra | Part two

Yamuna carries politics, filth to UP after near-death in Delhi

The Taj Mahal, the nation's best-known monument, is facing a threat from pollution. The water of the Yamuna, which flows alongside the 17th-century structure, is polluted due to discharge of industrial effluents and garbage clogging the water around the monument. (Vipin Kumar / Hindustan Times)

In 1569, Mughal emperor Akbar built what was undeniably the most well-planned Indian city of the time — Fatehpur Sikri. He didn’t know then that the architectural marvel he planned to turn into his capital would fail him because of water shortage, as the lore goes. Akbar was forced to abandon Fatehpur Sikri for Agra, leaving his dream project to fall into ruins.

Water defined the fate of the region then, and little stands changed today, thanks to the miserable state of the Yamuna.

The river has been reduced to a stream at many places across Uttar Pradesh, mostly carrying sewage, industrial effluents and dirt. Its water — already gravely compromised by Delhi — faces death at the hands of politics in a state where caste angles and communal lines define the election syllabus.

“The Yamuna serves all. There are no divisions (polarisation) here, that’s why no one cares about it. It is not on the mind of any political party,” says Sumit Gupta Bibhab who lost the previous assembly election on the Congress’ ticket from Agra North. “No one asked me a question about Yamuna and its poor state when I campaigned — not public, not media, not opposition leaders. The political parties don’t talk about it because the electorate is not concerned about developmental issues in UP. The politics is done on communal lines.”

Thousands of crores of rupees have been spent to clean the Yamuna, but its pollution has risen despite decades of planning and poll promises. While politicians have assured of restoring the Yamuna’s glory, their parties have failed to draw up specific plans to revive the river, considered holy by the Hindus.

Gopeshwar Chaturvedi, gesturing in dismay at the dirty Yamuna from a boat at Mathura’s Vishram Ghat, says politics of votes flows along prominent Yamuna ghats in UP, but only in the election season. “Leading politicians announce their intent to do something big for the Yamuna standing here ahead of polls,” says Chaturvedi, an activist involved in court battles to save the river.

Gopeshwar Chaturvedi, gesturing in dismay at the dirty Yamuna from a boat at Mathura’s Vishram Ghat, says politics of votes flows along prominent Yamuna ghats in Uttar Pradesh, but only in the election season. Chaturvedi has been involved in several court battles to save the river. (Vipin Kumar / Hindustan Times)

“The Narendra Modi-led government made tall promises; it has been two-and-a-half years, can they prove that their announcements helped... the Yamuna in any big way.”

He also rues the role of the national capital.

Capital shame

Delhi — the emblem of political will in the country — is strangling the Yamuna, snuffing out a life only too crucial for Uttar Pradesh. The 22km stretch from Wazirabad to Okhla in Delhi is just 2% of the river’s length, but it contributes 70% of the pollution to the Yamuna. A recent Delhi Economic Survey report said the river is “grossly polluted”.

Yamuna is India’s dirtiest river
Total coliform (most probable number per 100 millileters water) at ten most polluted river water monitoring stations in India, 2014
SOURCE: Central Pollution Control Board, Water Quality Database, 2014

The lifeline of the capital is gasping for life, with virtually no aquatic life — thanks to around 20 drains that pour untreated sewage into the river. Upstream from Wazirabad, before the river enters Delhi, it is home to turtles, different species of fish, crocodiles and several aquatic plants.

A study in the International Journal of Engineering Sciences and Research Technology says the heavily polluted Yamuna water is supplied to the Agra Canal, which is used for irrigation in hundreds of villages.

“Water pollution levels are several times more than the limit laid down by authorities for irrigation,” says RS Dubey, the author of the study. “The water should not be used for any other purpose either,” he says.

A study in the International Journal of Engineering Sciences and Research Technology says the heavily polluted Yamuna water is supplied to the Agra Canal, which is used to irrigate hundreds of villages. RS Dubey, the author of the study, says the water in the canal is dead and can't serve any purpose. (Vipin Kumar / Hindustan Times)

Killer in disguise

Kitham, around 50km from Agra, is one of the villages that uses water from the Agra Canal to irrigate farms. The canal receives its supply from the Yamuna at Delhi’s Okhla. People along a side stream of the canal in the village say there was a time when locals would readily drink its clear water.

“There are days now when the dirty, black water stinks so much that we are forced eat inside our houses,” an employee of the irrigation department says, requesting not to be identified. People across villages in parts of India are culturally accustomed to eating in courtyards.

He says the water helps farm yields, but looks ignorant when asked whether the chemicals entering the vegetables create a health hazard.

Scientific studies say sewage-contaminated water increases crop yields substantially, but at the cost of food quality. “These vegetables (grown along the Yamuna) become the carriers of heavy metals in our food chain,” according to a research paper titled ‘Yamuna, the poisoned river’ by The Energy and Resources Institute.

With its status close to “dead”, the Yamuna water is unfit for use even after treatment.

Activists say the Yamuna is merely a sickly drain now, and nothing will change until there is a good current in the river. They say part of the problem lies with the Gokul Barrage.

Locals say at the upstream of Mathura, the Gokul barrage is decreasing the flow in the Yamuna and thereby polluting the river. (Vipin Kumar / Hindustan Times)

The filth’s going nowhere

The Gokul Barrage was constructed 15km south-east of Mathura to trap water for drinking purposes. The water upstream of the barrage has a reduced current, with most of the gates closed to maintain the water level. “When we were kids, coins people threw in the water along the banks would shine in shallow water. Delhi has killed the water and it is a ‘naala’ now,” says Radhe, a certified diver often called upon by the police to fish out bodies from the river. “I dive into the drain-like water because people’s emotions are involved.”

Radhe, who goes by only one name, says without any flow, the water downstream can’t be cleaned, causing “extremely bad” conditions in places such as Agra.

The lure of the once glorious Yamuna prompted the Mughals to build the Taj Mahal, Etmaduddaula, Agra Fort and other monuments along its banks. Babar, who laid the basis for the dynasty in the Indian subcontinent, popularly said the water of the river was better than nectar.

Your correspondents visited a crematorium near the Taj Mahal on an evening to assess the state of the Yamuna in the area. Other than garbage and religious waste, we spotted a dead cow in the river, around five metres from the bank. With a weak current, the carcass had not moved an inch by the next morning, attracting a dog to bite into the rotting flesh.

We spotted a dead cow in the Yamuna just a few hundred metres away from the Taj Mahal. The carcass did not move an inch overnight, eventually attracting a dog to bite into the rotting flesh. (Vipin Kumar / Hindustan Times)

In November 2015, the Supreme Court ordered the UP government to remove the wood-burning crematorium to protect the monument of love from pollution damage.

While the court’s concern was the air pollution at the time of the ruling, that is not the only red-flag for the Taj Mahal.

Taj goes green… for the worse

More than three million tourists visit the Taj Mahal every year. Known across the globe for its domes and minarets, it was declared a Unesco world heritage site in 1983.

The pearly white monument, which rests on the banks of the Yamuna in Agra, is slowly turning yellow because of pollution. There is, however, a new colour in the mix.

Swarms of insects breeding in the polluted Yamuna threatened the 17th century monument by leaving green patches on its walls in May this year. Workers, under the watchful eyes of the Archaeological Survey of India, cleaned the walls, but not without the fear of damage to the walls.

The type of elongated fly, which resembles a mosquito, is proliferating in the river. The stagnant Yamuna no longer supports fish that once kept the insects in check, according to scientists.

“We are saying green India, clean India… All these are just political slogans. Slogans will not work. We have to love our rivers,” says Girish Maheshwari, head of department, School of Entomology at Agra’s St John’s College. Maheshwari’s team had conducted a study on the insect, Goeldichironomus, after being contacted by the ASI.

“Algae to large fish, they all depend on the water. If any part of that chain is disrupted, the food chain is gone. It destroys the complete ecosystem. Industrialists hardly care… Because of eutrophication, the insect population has suddenly increased a lot,” he adds.

Eutrophication is a process in which a water body becomes excessively rich in nutrients because of run-off from the land. The phenomenon suffocates the water because of high biochemical oxygen demand from plants.

Arun Dang, president of the Agra Tourism Guild, says Agra is unique because of the number of heritage sites it holds. He, however, says the tourists coming to the city hardly stay the night. “Agra’s biggest misfortune is day-return tourism. Yamuna can play a huge role in keeping them back. An evening cruise on the river will be a nice attraction. With the current state, that is impossible. There is just no political will.”

Apart from tourism linked to heritage sites, Yamuna is an integral part of religious tourism in the country. But some believe religion could be playing a detrimental role for the river.

An atheist’s guide to saving the Yamuna

Swami Balendu’s father and grandfather were religious preachers in the holy town of Vrindavan. He is now an atheist. Balendu was born in Vrindavan and spent his childhood playing along the banks of the Yamuna and swimming in it for hours. He says the water is such now that it can lead to skin diseases.

“You can value (the Yamuna) more if you look at it as a resource… The religious rituals have a role to play in the pollution…,” he says.

In 2015, the National Green Tribunal imposed a fine of Rs 5,000 on individuals for throwing waste or religious items into the Yamuna. It earlier banned dumping of debris, including construction material, into the river and directed Uttar Pradesh and Delhi to remove the rubble. (Vipin Kumar / Hindustan Times)

“When you look at it from a religious conscious, a person is not really aware about stopping pollution. He puts the religious waste in the river instead of a dust bin because he thinks it is holy… If a person thinks about it scientifically, he will see the river as a natural resource and won’t dirty it,” he adds.

Expressing its concern over religious waste polluting the Yamuna, the National Green Tribunal recently imposed a fine of Rs 5,000 on individuals for dirtying in the river.

There has been a debate over the courts of law being forced to extend their mandate in certain areas because of the evident lack of the government’s will.

Ball’s in the courts

Gautam Singh, a lawyer who works on cases at the NGT, says legal petitions are mostly how attempts are being made to clean up the Yamuna. “The continuous failure of the government and uncontrolled exploitation of natural resources by the administration has ruined the river. The judiciary is forced to plan, monitor and resolve such issues for the greater public good,” he says.

There is nothing new here, though. The government’s failure to rein in A Raja had led to a sharp verdict by the Supreme Court in the 2G scam in 2012. In 2013, the apex court berated the government over clear evidence of interference in a CBI probe into alleged irregularities in the allocation of coalfield licences. The SC called the CBI a “caged parrot” listening to “its master’s voice”.

In another case, the court directed the government to set up a panel to examine a plan to inter-link rivers to fight drought.

Explore the data

The Yamuna is slowly dying
Aquatic life survives on dissolved oxygen in water. Biochemical oxygen demand is a standard indicator for indirect measurement of the amount of organic pollution in a water body.

Wazirabad, Delhi

NOTE: Missing bar indicates no data available for that year.
SOURCE: Central Pollution Control Board, Water Quality Database.

“Since the 1980s, the Supreme Court, high courts and now the NGT have been protecting people’s fundamental right to life, clean water and the environment,” Singh says.

With polls on their minds, parties have repeatedly made ambitious claims and politicised the almost-dead Yamuna, with results similar to the Ganga’s ill-fate.

Uttar Pradesh is in the middle of a high-voltage feud in the ruling Yadav family, and it remains to be seen whether the Yamuna will get its share of attention ahead of next year's assembly elections. "The state needs to claim the river for itself. But the 'netas' are busy are not acting on it," Chaturvedi says.

Yamuna is the key supplier of water to cities along its banks, but activists argue that our dependence on the river can’t be used as a reason to put its life on the line.

If we manage the water demands of cities, industries and agriculture, a balance can be struck between human needs and the key natural resource. “I see it as a lost battle,” says Jagannath Poddar who runs Friends of Vrindavan, an NGO set up to “keep the Braj region’s essence alive”.

“But that doesn’t mean we will stop fighting,” he says, adding that the stench in his office is from a sewer drain that is headed straight to join the holy Yamuna.

Graphics by Chaitanya Choudhary, Harry Stevens and Anand Katakam. Web production by Gurman Bhatia.