River Yamuna dying everyday, as authorities turn the other way

Last Updated 05 February 2013, 09:49 IST

The Red Fort and Humayun’s Tomb figure prominently in tourist brochures of Delhi. Though the Yamuna flows some distance away from these two heritage sites — historians say it is the river that has given charm and purpose to the monuments — nobody in their right mind would mention the drain to avoid a public relations disaster. What is left of the Yamuna to see? Tourists don’t spend money to stare at some stinking toxic broth.

The Delhi stretch of the Yamuna never appears as a selling point in any city government initiative. London, however, doesn’t try to sweep River Thames under the rug. During his visit to Delhi in November 2012, London Mayor Boris Johnson had offered help to the Sheila Dikshit-led government to clean the Yamuna of all unimaginable filth. To which Dikshit had promptly replied that the Delhi government will take technical help from London. But technology can work only so much. If implementation is faulty and insincere, no amount of science or human ingenuity can prevent damage to the environment.

The Supreme Court has been telling the Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh governments to clean the Yamuna, or at least do some justice to the amount of money that has been dropped into resurrecting it from the dead. The court was told that Rs 12,000 crore has been spent in the past 18 years to reconvert the drain into a river.

It's common knowledge that water quality in the Delhi stretch of the Yamuna has been steadily declining since the early ’80s because of not treating urban and industrial effluents. At the same time, saving the capital’s portion of the Yamuna is not a question of money, technology or infrastructure -- what is lacking is the will.

This will, it turns out, is for politicians to acquire.According to environmentalist Himanshu Thakkar of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, the quantity of industrial effluents is less and the problem they pose is small, but they are significantly high in toxicity compared to the sheer voluminous household waste ejected by Delhi. Is there a drastic but doable option of closing down industrial units on the banks of the Yamuna? Is there a possibility of this not happening since the units are profit-making outlets for their owners, and indirectly beneficial for the government in terms of tax and other payments? Which means profit motive gets importance over clean environment?

Shutting down industrial units is not the answer. Their small amount of waste can be fully treated compared to the colossal household discharge. In fact, the issue is about ensuring compliance with water pollution control laws rather than shutting down units.

What is killing the Yamuna is a combination of factors from lack of freshwater flow to destruction of key ecosystem components such as local water bodies, ridge and upstream catchments. Wrong technological choices are just one portion of the problem pie.

Capacity constraints

The Delhi Jal Board recently told the Supreme Court that there are 18 sewage treatment plants (STPs) in the city. But due to ‘capacity constraints’ of the STPs, untreated effluents too were going into the river. The ‘install capacity’ of the STPs is below the level at which Delhi generates sewage, and there are limitations to operating the existing STPs due to the former reason, creating a vicious circle.

While Johnson was in Delhi, The Daily Telegraph had reported that the capital’s officials believe they can learn from efforts to revive the Thames, which was also declared dead 55 years ago but was recently hailed an environmental success story and is once again a breeding ground for fish and bird life.

There is no data, however, to suggest that other things being equal (city population, garbage generation), the Yamuna can be cleaned to the level of Thames.

Environmentalists say the comparison is irrelevant. The 25-km-long ‘Thames tideway scheme’ plans to take effluents directly under the river for treatment before being discharged into sea. But for all practical purposes Delhi can’t start a similar project because there is no sea nearby, so it has to keep dumping into the Yamuna. How to dump right is what the authorities need to learn.

Another disturbing thing is that instead of a full and final effort to clean the river, enforcement authorities keep dishing out token orders from time to time. On February 2, the National Green Tribunal banned dumping of debris, including solid waste, on the riverbank and directed the Delhi and UP governments to remove the rubble immediately. A week before that the tribunal had pulled up Ghaziabad authorities for runaway air and water pollution. But there is hardly any public record of penal action taken against people who violate environment law.

Residents of Delhi also need to pay some attention to their ways. For example, they did not like the city government banning polythene bags. The move to ban it took quite a number of years, when it should have been fairly swift. Every Tom, Dick and Harry asks for plastic bags while buying groceries since they are too lazy to carry some cloth bag. The Yamuna can do with a little less feeding of plastics.

Those who occasionally wade through the black water to immerse idols or pray are able to do so not because they are ignorant to contracting some grave disease, but their faith creates a momentary lapse of reason. So it is useful to remember that once the godly effect goes, people may fall sick, even with fatal consequences. Such is the state of the Yamuna.

While driving on the smooth Delhi-Noida direct flyway with the tinted windows pulled up, the AC in full blast and distracted by Honey Singh or some Sufi musician on the radio, it is easy to miss seeing the turd-ladden Yamuna emanating a corpse-like smell. The river is not out of sight but it is out of mind. If this abnormality does not provoke thought to find out what went wrong, then maybe it is the attitude that has killed the Yamuna.

(Published 05 February 2013, 09:05 IST)

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