Steps taken by the government to improve the Yamuna's water quality and flow have not had the desired impact

A sudden breakout of jaundice in Delhi in the 1950s had claimed over 300 lives. Investigations revealed that ‘infected' water from the Najafgarh drain had got mixed up with the Yamuna's water feeding the water works at Wazirabad and hence the tragedy. Promptly a barrage was built over the river at Wazirabad to prevent such fatal mixing in future.

Little did the city authorities then realise that the real culprit was not the river that needed ‘fixing' but the Najafgarh drain and the measure would eventually kill the river downstream of Wazirabad by exhausting all its waters held upstream by the barrage. That the Najafgarh drain continued to pour poison into what was now left as an apology of a river in the city, which some with disdain and frustration call a ‘sewage canal', remained no one's concern. And the river, notwithstanding massive funds injected for infrastructure development under the Yamuna Action Plans I and II, continued to go from bad to worse.

Now that almost Rs. 4500 crore is finally planned to be invested to fix the Najafgarh drain and two other similarly polluting drains in the city is little justification for what was not done in the 1950s.

But is a similar tragedy that misplaces the blame about to unfold yet again?

A professor at the Delhi University has recently come out with his research findings that report very high levels of arsenic content, both in surface and ground water, at sites in the river's flood plain where a large number of farmers grow food crops that is supplied to the city. The report highlights that the culprits here are the thermal power plants located in the flood plains which continue pouring toxic fly ash into the river. That State agencies like the Public Works Department and the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation have also dumped huge quantities of fly ash in the river bed is not mentioned in the study since field work for it took place in 2007 following which massive constructions were undertaken in the riverbed for the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

But the unwitting victim of this research finding could again be misplaced and the study could become self-defeating. One can already hear demands in the city to ban the sale of food crops grown in the Yamuna floodplains —such a step would effectively mean the banishment of farmers there the region. But think awhile. Who is the real culprit? And what is the right solution?

In a related vein is the tragedy unfolding downstream of Delhi in the cities of Vrindavan, Mathura and Agra, where for the want of clean and adequate river water, devotees are exposed to diseases as they use the river water out of veneration; the thakur ji (idol of Lord Krishna) is often bathed in water, which is not really from the river and the structural strength of the world famous Taj Mahal is reportedly imperilled for want of adequate water in the river to moisten its wooden foundation round the year.

Clearly, it cannot be disputed that the river needs to be restored and not just to meet the needs of the city of Delhi alone. Also undisputed is the fact that the foremost need of the hour is to restore its natural flow, which today is visible only during the monsoon and that, too, when the upstream barrage on the Haryana-U.P. border is unable to hold the rain water flooding the hilly catchments. However, this research that forewarns of a dangerous situation could even prove to be a blessing in disguise. For may be, just may be, the concerned planners would now seriously consider making efforts to restore the river's flow as only continuous flushing of the surface water and dilution of the ground water can remedy the danger posed by the river water's toxic quality.

(The author is the convener of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan)

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