The other Yamuna

I went for a walk recently. This might seem like an absurd thing to write about but I don’t often get to do this in Gurgaon, the satellite city outside of Delhi where I live. There are no footpaths and pedestrians are treated with disdain, sometimes with downright murderous intent. So walking is huge event for me.

I could walk, I mean millions of people do in Delhi, but the heightened sense of danger and incessant honking frays my nerves so I chicken out and retreat to comfort of the car. It is one of the things I miss most about living in London. Or Melbourne. Or anywhere else in the world. So to go for a walk, I have to make more of an effort, either by playing a round of golf, going further to Delhi where there are more footpaths and urban villages (also called enclaves), or joining an organised walk.

For the last two years, I’ve been corresponding with Surekha Narain, a charismatic bundle of energy who is passionate about sharing the Delhi she knows and loves with others. Surekha organises a series of group and private walks which I have never been able to join. The walks range from the usual tourist attractions – though this is not to be interpreted as being run-of-the-mill as Surekha will enthral you with little known facts – to those that are off the beaten track. So when Surekha wrote to say she was taking a group north of Wazirabad to see the Yamuna river, I decided to dust off my walking shoes and join them.

The Delhi section of the Yamuna that most residents see and know is filthy. There is no kind way to put it. Untreated sewage, factory effluent, agricultural waste and rotting rubbish finds it way into the river through human action and perplexingly, through one of 15 drains between Wazirabad, where the river first enters Delhi, and Okhla, an industrial area on the outskirts. It smells, it’s choked up and this 22km stretch has zero Dissolved Oxygen (DO is a measure of water quality). Anything  below 5 mg/L is stressful to aquatic life; lower than 3 mg/L, it ceases to exist completely. This section of the Yamuna is dead. It is a sewer.

Passing through five Indian states (Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh), the earthly Yamuna is said to be the tears of the mythical goddess Yamuna, fallen on earth in mourning for her twin brother’s death. Many believe that the river will wash away your sins and bathing in it will spare you a painful death. For a country that revers its gods and goddesses, there is an inexplicable apathy toward caring for this living incarnation of one.

Our first stop on the walk was a Tughlaq-era monument which sprang up in the 5th city of Delhi in the 14th century. Amongst an old tomb and the remains of a mosque, we looked out over metal railings toward the ancient Wazirabad bridge. The river was sluggish and filled with rubbish. A sulphurous stench filled the air. Beyond the bridge, the Wazirabad Barrage was visible. A series of these barrages were constructed from the 19th century by the British and later by independent India’s state governments to control the river’s flow. Each state now seems interested only in maximising the amount of clean water it gets without any consideration for others. Scandal after scandal of misused public funds is reported in the daily rags. Still the apathy remains.

Surekha had promised to take us to see a pristine version of the river so we hopped into our cars and drove north. Barely 15 minutes out of Wazirabad, we walked out onto Ram Ghat. Here the river flowed wide and unabated, framed by lush green reeds with plenty of bird life chirping nearby. We were offered rowboat rides to the far side in the distance. A man floated on his back in the river, enjoying his daily morning swim. The water was clean(er), fresher and cool. Was I still in Delhi? I expected to see a different side of the Yamuna but I hadn’t expected it to look like…. a river.

We travelled further north. By now the scenery had transported us back 40 years. There were endless fields of crops, green and lush even in the early unseasonal heat and after two failed monsoons. When we pulled into Jagatpur Bund, we saw a beach! A beach! In Delhi! It looked inviting, unlike many other beaches I’ve seen in India. In the distance, young men perched on the banks fishing and farmers tended their crops. The river continued to impress. A man on a motorcycle rode past. I ran up to take his photo and he offered me cucumbers, fresh from his morning harvest. Like the Jekyll and Hyde river before me, life here was leisurely and the people friendlier, a stark contrast to the metropolis.

My heart was pleased.

But back to reality and to Delhi. The river that provides over 70% of the drinking water of this city is in dire straits. There is no certainty that it will ever be fixed and chances continue to fade with the ever increasing population and industrial activity. Lack of proper governance, uncurbed growth, unchecked pollution and rampant corruption must be overcome for any sustainable improvement to the river.

A monumental problem facing a monumental city.

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