A look at what ails the Yamuna

Popularly called the AQFM case, it is since 1994 that a public interest litigation (PIL) is under adjudication at the Supreme Court of India. Standing for ‘And Quiet Flows the Maili’ Yamuna, it is the title of a news item that had appeared in a national daily and was suo moto picked up and converted into a PIL by the Hon’ble Supreme Court.

The fact that the highest court in the land continues to adjudicate the case even after nearly two decades indicates that little if anything has improved with regard to the sad state of the river in the city. On the contrary, a recent affidavit filed by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) in the case, based on Court mandated field investigations carried out during the month of March 2012 informs that the length of the severely polluted stretch of the river has actually increased by a whopping 100 km. This is when the State by its own admission has already spent more than Rs 4000 crores on it. Clearly something somewhere is seriously amiss. But what and where is the question.

Allow an analogy. A person prevented from drinking water develops a result serious stomach ailment. On his approaching a doctor, the latter starts to treat just the stomach ailment ignoring the causes resulting in dehydration, which is responsible for the ailment in the first place. It being a classic case of poor diagnosis followed by misplaced treatment, the results remain disappointing and life threatening.

The story of the Yamuna is unfortunately no different. The root cause of the river’s problems lay some 200 km upstream of the city of Delhi, at a place called Hathnikund, which on the river’s basin map is actually like a chicken neck (throat of the river) and where a barrage on the river has over the decades slowly but surely diverted the river’s entire water into two canals, choking it to almost death for the non-monsoon nine months. So much so, that not a drop of original river water is to be found in the river in the city or downstream.

Most surprisingly all the good ‘doctors’ in the matter, be itthe state executive, the judiciary, media or even the civil society, havecontinued to focus on the river’s ‘stomach ailment’, which is the rising pollution levels in the 22 km river stretch in the city, unmindful of the tightening ‘water’ squeeze around the chicken neck of the river at the Hathnikund barrage. And the result is there for everybody to see.

The recent report, released on November 9 by a two member committee set up by the Supreme Court, comparing the state of the Yamuna River in Delhi to a sewage drain is realistic to that extent. But what remains a matter of surprise is the fact that our ‘experts’ continue to treat the river as alive till Wazirabad barrage in Delhi, whereas the river has been dead for almost a decade now at the Hathnikund barrage, much upstream of the city of Delhi.

So, is there anything that can be done to remedy the situation?

The answer lies in renegotiation of the water sharing agreement signed between the riparian states. An MOU on river Yamuna’s water sharing dated May 1994 was drafted and signed with little transparency or public debate by the chief ministers of the river’s riparian States (Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Delhi and Rajasthan) in the presence of the then Union Minister of Water Resources left nothing except flood waters for the river, which we believe is at the root of the problems currently faced by the river. And unless this is recognised and the agreement is renegotiated in a participatory manner, the money spent on the river Yamuna will continue to go to waste without yielding any positive results.

Additionally, there is and never was any place for pollutants, both solid and liquid, to find their way into the river, as they do today. It is all happening in a brazen violation of the law of the land, namely the Water Act of 1974. That the present pollution abatement mechanism in place in form of the Central and State Pollution Control Boards (CPCBs and SPCBs) are not institutionally up to the task had been realised by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, MOEF and some ameliorative steps had been initiated during the tenure of a former union minister of environment. Those steps are needed to be taken to their logical fruition with a sense of urgency that ensures that waste water is treated, recycled and reused for non-potable uses and not permitted under any circumstance to find its way back to the river.

The strengthened pollution control institution then needs to adopt a ‘healthy rivers’ thumb rule of 40:60 for permitting maximum water diversion from perennial rivers in the country with the diverted water (not exceeding 40 per cent of flow at any time) not allowed to find its way back to the river in any form. Here perhaps lies the magic wand that all the rivers in the land are desperately seeking.

(The writer is the Convener of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan.)