The Jal Biradari, Ghaziabad, hopes its bid to revive the Hindon river will also flow to other rivers of the country

“A river is not just water. It is the people who live on its banks, the flora and fauna in and around it,” says Vikrant Sharma, who along with fellow environmentalists has been raising awareness about protecting the River Hindon that flows from Saharanpur through parts of the National Capital Region into the Yamuna. But their efforts under the banner of Jal Biradari, Ghaziabad, are not merely for this particular river, says Vikrant. “This struggle is for all the rivers of the country.”

Vikrant's is not an empty claim, since, by his description, the concept of river care in India is itself an uncharted river. The activists' contention is that there is no proper river policy to provide guidance on legitimate and illegitimate use of these vital water bodies that flow through the subcontinent. Vikrant relates how his mentor, India's ‘Jal Purush' (Water Man) Rajendra Singh, along with environmentalist G.D. Agarwal and other activists from across India, proposed a draft river policy in February-March 2011. “We discussed issues as basic as ‘what is a river',” says Vikrant.

Activists were advised to present a copy of the draft to their elected representatives. Jal Biradari, Ghaziabad district (of which Vikrant is coordinator and which is part of Singh's nationwide organisation for water conservation), gave a copy to the Ghaziabad MLA and sent another by registered post to Uttar Pradesh's then Chief Minister, Mayawati. They have not heard anything on this front so far, but their struggle to save the Hindon, which began in 2004 when Singh initiated it with a padyatra, has grown from a trickle to a steady flow.

Vikrant, an advocate in the District Courts says the issue has two aspects: One is pollution caused by continuous dumping of effluents. The other is the drying of the river. “With growing industrialisation and urbanisation, the groundwater is being extracted. Today groundwater has sunk to 100 feet below the surface, and until it comes to at least 20 feet how can the river flow at all?”

Vikrant explains, “This is not a snow-fed river. Its source is in underground pools (chohe) and it is fed by rainwater.” Doctors, engineers, lawyers, artists, teachers, students and other professionals contribute to the Biradari free of cost. They are avid padyatris. The logic behind padyatras is to understand the problems of the villagers and sources of pollution. Among their first tasks was to find the river's origin. “We found it in Pur ka Tanda Kaluwala in the hills of North Saharanpur,” he says. “It has six tributaries.”

Flowing through six districts and 200 kms, the Hindon empties into the Yamuna near Momnathanpur village, Gautam Buddha Nagar. Vikrant indicates a flyer with this diagram. “We used to hand these out at railways stations, because spreading information is one of our motives.” The Biradari also has a poster which has been put up “all the way to Gangotri”.

The river's banks have been privy to events of historical and legendary importance, say activists, including Ravana's establishment of a Shivaling and the attempted burning of the Pandavas in the lac palace. An important part of the campaign is “wall writing,” with slogans and diagrams. “I keep a mixture of neel, water and Fevicol ready.” There is also a “Save Hindon River” song on YouTube, composed and sung by Gyandeep Saxena, with lyrics by Swami Antar Jagdesh and photography by Piyush Khandelwal, besides a Facebook page. Events at schools and colleges are also organised and recently a drawing competition was held on the riverbank.

Their efforts have made a slight dent. “Now the district administration is helping us. The GDA (Ghaziabad Development Authority), Nagar Nigam, they are all slowly cooperating. There are five nalas flowing into the river from Ghaziabad. We proposed to the Irrigation Department that they all be fitted with sewage treatment plants.” While it is too early to say whether the proposal will be implemented, Vikrant points out that earlier the onus of constructing and maintaining treatment plants was on the industrialists. The fact that the activists have managed to put across to the administration their view that industrialists cannot be expected to voluntarily treat their effluents is in itself a sign of change. “Now the Hindon and the Jal Biradari are taken seriously.”

On April 18, the National Green Tribunal passed a stay order against the dumping of soil and muck that was accompanying the construction of a bridge from Raj Nagar Extension to Karhera village (Vikrant Sharma & Another vs Union of India & Others). The aim is to lessen and divert the flow of the river, say the activists. “The river is being pushed towards Karhera village. What gives them the right to meddle with the course of the river?” asks Vikrant, gesturing towards the land on the Raj Nagar Extension side that has been extended. He also says fencing is gradually appearing on this newly created landmass and perhaps the “diversion” of the river is being done to promote land deals. “Till this happened we were fighting against pollution,” says Vikrant. “But now we are fighting for the river itself.”

On May 22 at the latest hearing, Dipesh Choudhary and Kaustubh Bharadwaj, the advocates arguing the case, filed their rejoinder to the replies from GDA and the Irrigation Department, who are among the respondents. “The next date has been fixed for July 4, when final arguments will be heard,” says Dipesh. On taking up the case pro bono, Dipesh says, “We are with the movement from the very beginning. We have gone on padyatras too and this helps us effectively explain the position to the court.” Without making such efforts, “what kind of world will we leave our children,” he asks.

The advocates hope the case will help set the agenda for ethical town planning and development vis-à-vis rivers, because in the absence of a policy, it is such judgements that provide guidance. “When we started researching for the case, we found no references except M.C. Mehta vs Kamal Nath & others (1996),” says Vikrant.

“We are still learning,” he concludes. “In truth, I don't know if it will ever be okay. The river has a catchment area of 200 kms. It runs through six districts, has about 400 villages on its banks, and 85 nalas (drains) with industrial and urban waste fall into it.”

Success is a tentative word, but the Jal Biradari seems not too concerned about trophies. Whether the Hindon can be cleaned up and saved, and its original course through Ghaziabad be restored, cannot be predicted. But these green warriors continue to plant their tenuous landmarks on uncharted waters.

Walk to talk

Jal Biradari, Ghaziabad, undertakes awareness-raising hikes (padyatras) along the banks of the Hindon in Ghaziabad district. The best time for a padyatra is either in February-March or September-October. “For the past four years, every year we have been taking a padyatra in this district, where the river flows past 16 villages,” says Vikrant. “In the early days no one even bothered about us. No one offered food or shelter. And there are no shops or markets in those areas. But now villagers welcome us.” Now, a padyatra is planned from source to mouth of the river — which so far the activists have done only with the help of vehicles. “I got this idea from Sunderlal Bahuguna. Once he told us about how he walked along a river for months till its source. I thought if one single old gentleman can do it, why can't we?”

Distilled damage

“The major pollution of the river is by sugar mills and distilleries as this is a sugar belt. Every sugar mill also has a distillery (its by-product molasses used to make alcohol),” says Vikrant. Another major pollutant is a paper manufacturing mill that has “a nala (drain) as big as a river itself.”

Then there are the chemical plants. “Besides, 25 per cent of the pollution is from pesticides and fertilisers. They don't show in the water but they are poisonous. The underground water too has been polluted.”

He cites the Paon Dhoi, a Hindon tributary in Saharanpur (in diagram above), where the District Magistrate Alok Kumar led a successful clean-up drive by stopping the emptying of drains into it. “Rajendra Singh too says spending crores of rupees on cleaning projects is not required. Just stop the pollutant entry points. A river eventually cleans itself up.”