On World Environment Day, here is the Yamuna, up close and personal

In the first of a 3-part series, The Hindu deep dives into the river’s pollution

June 05, 2019 08:27 am | Updated June 06, 2019 05:47 pm IST - New Delhi

Men look for valuables in the polluted Yamuna at Kalindi Kunj in New Delhi.

Men look for valuables in the polluted Yamuna at Kalindi Kunj in New Delhi.

On a summer afternoon, 52-year-old Mohammad Saheed was neck deep in the murky waters of the Yamuna near ITO, searching for coins. He said, “I used to fish in the river for a living. But in the mid-90s, there were no more fish due to pollution and I started collecting coins, which people offer to ma Yamuna. What else would I do?”

Yamuna — once the lifeline of Delhi, along whose banks the Mughals built the Red Fort and the city of Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi) — is one of the “most polluted rivers in the world” and is getting more polluted, say experts.

Despite different plans to clean the river, The Hindu found that deadlines for multiple works to curb pollution have not been met. Also, enforcement of many rules for the same remains only on paper.

A report, which is yet to be made public, submitted to the National Green Tribunal (NGT) by a Monitoring Committee (MC) appointed by it, states that the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) has not met multiple deadlines.

Water samples from different stretches of the Yamuna in Delhi

Water samples from different stretches of the Yamuna in Delhi


In the ‘Second Interim Report’, the MC said the DJB did not stick to the deadline of plugging of 11 drains which flow into the Yamuna, said sources. It also asked the DJB to provide fresh deadlines for at least three of the 11 drains.

The Hindu visited different stretches along the river, starting from Palla where the Yamuna enters Delhi, and travelled downstream to Wazirabad, ITO and Okhla. While water sample collected from Palla was almost transparent, it was black where Najafgarh drain joins the river, next to the city’s iconic Signature Bridge.

Except for Palla, at the other three locations, puja items and other wastes were being dumped into the river, despite a ban by the NGT.

Though only 2% of the 1,400-km-long Yamuna flows between Wazirabad and Okhla, it constitutes 76% of the pollution load of the river, stated the MC. The Supreme Court and the NGT have also pulled up different authorities responsible for cleaning the river, for their laxity.

“The river has been reduced to a stream of sewage. The pollution levels are alarming but authorities are not doing enough,” said Manoj Misra, a former IFS officer, convener of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan — a group fighting to clean the Yamuna. R.S. Negi, member (drainage) of DJB, said the issue is more complicated.

“Laying of sewer pipes in Delhi is not easy. It should have been done at the time of developing the colonies but the unauthorised colonies came into being without sewage networks. We have to lay the networks now, which makes it extremely difficult,” he said.

On health issues, senior consultant physician at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital S.P. Byotra said, “The water is extremely dangerous and even while bathing, some of it enter our system through mouth and nose. The level of coliform bacteria, present in faecal matter, is so high in the river that it can cause diarrhoea, typhoid, jaundice and other intestinal infections.” At Wazirabad, ITO, and Okhla people were seen bathing in the river.

Why polluted?

The experts and the MC stated that two of the major causes of pollution are less water in the river in Delhi and 22 drains dumping sewage and industrial effluents into it. To solve the first issue, the water flow has to be increased. The second one can be addressed by treating the sewage generated in the city.

“The water is black and smelly and the quality is that of drains,” said Sushmita Sengupta, programme manager of Water Programme at Centre for Science and Environment. “If there is more water in the river, the pollutants will be diluted and the Yamuna can rejuvenate itself,” said Mr. Misra.

The Yamuna is ‘one of the most polluted rivers in the world’. It is getting more polluted, say experts
The water is extremely dangerous. Some water is bound to enter our system while bathing in the river. The heavy metals present in the water can affect the heart, brain, and can even cause cancer
Coliforms -- bacteria causing disease -- is as high as 31.8 million MPN/100 ml in certain stretches of the Yamuna in Delhi as against the Central Pollution Control Board standard of 5,000 MPN/100 ml for a class-C river. It can cause water-borne diseases like hepatitis-A, cholera, typhoid, ring/hookworms, among others
Though only 2% of the 1,400-km-long Yamuna flows between Wazirabad and Okhla, it constitutes 76% of the total pollution load of the river, stated a monitoring Committee appointed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT)
In the past, the Supreme Court and the NGT have pulled up different authorities responsible for cleaning the river, for their laxity

The long struggle

In 1994, the SC took cognisance of a newspaper article “Quiet Flows Maily (dirty) Yamuna” and summoned CPCB to explain. Later on, different stakeholders, including the Delhi government, DJB, civic bodies, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana government became part of the case.

“In the 1990s, the population in Delhi outstripped the development. The number of unauthorised colonies spiked and with no sewage network and waste was dumped in the Yamuna,” said Manu Bhatnagar, principal director, Natural Heritage Division of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage.

Later, the government came up with three actions plans to clean the river — Yamuna Action Plan 1, 2, 3. The third plan is currently being implemented. For the first two phases, ₹1,514.7 crore was spent.

In a judgment on January 13, 2015, on a case filed by Mr. Misra, the NGT formed the ‘Maily se nirmal Yamuna’ Revitalization Plan, 2017, which was set to be completed by March 31, 2017. But that did not work out and the NGT in July 2018 formed the MC, headed by two retired bureaucrats, to primarily implement the 2015 judgment.

A silver lining?

“Rhine river in Europe was polluted and eight countries, including Switzerland and France, came together to restore to it a point where salmon fish came back to the river. This is an example for India,” Mr. Bhatnagar said.

He said it was possible to clean the Yamuna. “All these cities fixed their sewage system, and we need to do the same,” he added.

At Yamuna’s bank, Mr. Saheed, said when he was a child, he used to play on the river banks and it was clean. “Now, we are used to it [searching for coins in Yamuna] and we can bear it but you guys won’t be able to bear it.”

“With each day the water is getting dirtier. I don’t think I will be able to see the river clean in my life time,” he said, as his friend smiled in agreement.

This is the first of a three-part series. Here is part two.

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