Citizens march from Vrindavan to Delhi to demand a right to their lifeline – the Yamuna

Why are thousands marching presently from Vrindavan to Delhi? Not for jobs, special privileges or land rights. But for their lifeline river Yamuna, which for many of them is integral to their daily chores, as to them the river is much more than a mere physical entity.

It is well known that the folklore associated with Krishna is incomplete without references to Yamuna. As the fourth consort of Krishna and sister of Yama, the God of death, it is believed that achaman (sip) of the river water shall make one lose fear of death. Thus the purity of river water as a drinking water source at Vrindavan is of utmost essence. This is also the reason that millions within and many outside of the country have been incensed on learning that not a drop of Yamuna water is to be found in the river at Vrindavan and all this while what they had been drinking was nothing but the waste water of cities upstream of them.

But the moot question is if the demands of thousands marching can result in bringing back their river at Vrindavan and beyond? Yes, if the situation with the river is correctly understood and then resolved.

It was on May 12, 1994, that a Memorandum of Understanding signed between Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh and NCT of Delhi regarding allocation of surface flow of Yamuna virtually sealed the river’s fate by sharing amongst them almost the entire available water in the river up to Okhla in Delhi. A ‘futuristic’ allocation for the river totalling to 10 cumec (cubic meter per second) downstream of barrages at Tajewala (since 2002 at Hathnikund) and Okhla respectively, was provided subject to the construction of planned three dams in the upper reaches of the river in the States of UP (now Uttarakhand) and Himachal Pradesh. This clearly flawed and unjust MOU presumed that the river and the stakeholders downstream of Okhla have no right over the river waters and that the three planned dams (two on the rivers’ tributaries and one on the river proper) were technically, economically, politically and ecologically sound. No wonder none of these planned dams are currently in place.

Later, of course, an interim allocation of 160 cusec (cubic ft per second) to meet the needs of river biodiversity was made. This was nothing more than a cruel joke as this water does not last in the river downstream of Hathnikund barrage even for 30 km. It is a matter of record that there had been no stakeholder consultation before the MOU was signed.

If we compare the above situation against what the river experts opine, that for a healthy river at best 75 per cent and at worst 50 per cent of the river water at all times, must flow in the river proper, then the basis of most problems, namely lack of adequate flow in the river Yamuna, becomes crystal clear.

It was not only that the river had been robbed of its waters but with increasing human population and more and more waste water emerging from cities like Yamunanagar, Karnal, Panipat, Sonepat and Delhi NCR has been dumped in the river all along its length downstream of the Hathnikund barrage. No wonder that people in the braj (land of the Krishna) downstream of Delhi feel cheated and anguished as the water in the river was also meant for their achaman.

It is well established that any stretch of river that is meant for drinking water purposes cannot be allowed to be polluted in any manner. Even the national Water Act, 1974 mandates that in Section 24.

Thus the demands of the marchers that adequate flow be maintained at all times in the river downstream of the Hathnikund barrage and that no waste water be allowed to be dumped into the Yamuna is not only just (it being violative of the Water Act) but as enunciated by the Supreme Court, that it is also their constitutional fundamental “Right to Life” under Article 21, that the state is bound to uphold.

However, how can such an unsavoury situation regarding the river be reversed?

First, the MOU must be urgently revisited to determine and provide first the life giving water back to the river and only then allocations of the remaining water amongst the riparian States be made.

Second, all the defaulting States, private agencies and individuals must realise that by polluting the river they are continuously violating the law of the land, which must stop and waste water after treatment be redirected for irrigation and other non-potable, human uses.

Third, the Centre utilising the provisions of entry 56 of list I (Union list) of the Constitution, enact a legislation that should provide for a central authority / commission / board that has the final decision making as well as appellate authority on the river Yamuna matters. Such an institution is long overdue for the river. Once in place it shall on one hand set the right precedence for the proper decision making for other multi-state rivers and on the other set at rest all confusion that currently bogs river management.

Finally, it must be understood that no upper riparian State/s can deprive the lower riparian people of their fundamental right to life, including enjoyment of river Yamuna.

(The writer is convener of the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan)