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The Yamuna Revolution
The recent tragedy in Uttarakhand - a fierce cloudburst that caused mass casualties - was a result of unplanned disaster management. This should be a lesson to Delhi, which escaped the fury of the river merely because the rains had stopped in time. This has brought the Yamuna river to the forefront once again. It’s time we realised the repercussions of mistreating natural resources such as rivers that have been the lifeline of people for millennia.

Rivers have been worshipped as a form of divinity in India for ages. The Ganges and the Yamuna occupy a place of pride amongst the many rivers that flow through the length and breadth of this country and form part of this ancient nation’s mythical folklore. Millions have venerated these two rivers for millennia; millions still depend on them. The river Yamuna has a mythical status of epic (stories related to the river abound in The Mahabharata) proportions. However, the current degradation of this sacred river, which has a basin area of around 1,086,000 sq. km., is also no less a saga of equally mythic proportions - albeit of environmental pollution caused by human beings - that modern India has witnessed.

The Yamuna originates in the central Himalayan region and forms the largest tributary of the Ganges river system that terminates in the Bay of Bengal. Various reports on the websites of the Central Pollution Control Board and the United Nations have already pronounced it dead. One need not look very far to find the reason for the sacred river’s death. The saga of this humongous ecological degradation of the Yamuna unfolds in various episodes.

However, recent events closer to Delhi have brought this issue to the fore once again.

Elephantine drain

The story begins at Hathini Kund stretch where almost 97 per cent natural fresh water is drained away just a few kilometers away from its source. Water is withdrawn from this natural source citing reasons of irrigation, industrial development and potable water for the people; however, it is hideously mishandled with impunity.

In most places, the river is an open sewer, carrying human, industrial and agricultural waste. Moreover, the Yamuna has a parched riverbed and is exposed to the sun for most of the year.

The New Delhi stretch

The ecological exploitation of the Yamuna reaches its zenith in Delhi. What we see as the Yamuna flowing is just moderately-treated sewage from the Shahdra drain in the city and other sewage drains - both residential and industrial. There isn’t a single drop of original fresh water in the Yamuna.

The point at which the Shahdra drain falls into the Yamuna – as the Central Pollution Control Board of India in its January 2010 report states – has an average of 51.3 BOD (biological oxygen demand per liter), (the permissible limit for bathing water is 3) for ten months with a high of 103 BOD. There is no dissolved oxygen at any point of time (minimum limit is 6 mgl) in the river. The total coli forms count found was 23,00,00,00,000 (the permissible limit is less than 5,000).

Sources of pollution

Delhi accounts for nearly 71 per cent of the pollution in the Yamuna, although it occupies just 2 per cent of the entire length of nearly 1,400 km of the entire stretch of the Yamuna. It may be noted here that Delhi currently has 40 per cent of the total sewage treatment capacity of the country with only 3 per cent of India’s total population. However, even the best of its available sewage treatment technologies cannot reduce the BOD, which is the chief parameter of water quality, to 15 mg/l.

A river, by definition, is a natural resource of water, coursing down towards an ocean or another river. If you take away its waters and hence its flow, it will die. The Indian Government’s apathy is killing the Yamuna River. The ecological effect has been far-reaching with the aquatic wildlife vanishing, as fish, turtles, alligators and other creatures dependant on fresh river water perished with the contamination.

The river requires a dilution capability to maintain the ecological flow of water. And, the river does need to flow to maintain the river regime, enable itself to purify its water, sustain aquatic life and vegetation, recharge groundwater, check the incursion of salinity, and let the river play its role as a natural resource.

The Taj Mahal - a World Heritage site and one of the Seven Wonders of the World - is on the banks of the Yamuna, and it is feared that a dry Yamuna river may weaken the wood-based foundation of the Taj Mahal, which needs moisture.

Microbial contamination

Apart from this, recently, a British medical journal The Lancet pointed out that drinking water in New Delhi contains a gene called NDM-1 (New Delhi metallobetalactamase) that works for an enzyme that offers resistance to almost all antibiotics known to medical science.

As per an estimate, 500,000 people in New Delhi now carry the resistant bacteria, which has also been detected in Europe, North America and elsewhere in Asia. Doctors are perturbed that this form of resistance could threaten all kinds of routine medical procedures to treat infections. Many cities, towns and villages downstream fulfill their drinking water requirements from the Yamuna River water, which is not potable at all.

On the brink of a revolution

People have finally woken up to the problem of contamination in the Yamuna. A group of farmers, religious leaders, and activists recently reached the border of Delhi, demanding a clean Yamuna river. The march that started from Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh headed towards the capital. These people demanded that more water should be released from Hathnikund barrage located in Haryana. They also demanded that Delhi should not be releasing any of its wastewater in the river, treated or untreated, because then, the water reaching Mathura and Vrindavan will be pure sewage.

Our judiciary has also been showing concern over the pollution in the Yamuna for nearly two decades now. The Supreme Court first took notice of pollution in the Yamuna almost 20 years ago. Countless orders later, Yamuna is still dirtier than ever, with nearly Rs. 6,500 crore spent to clean the river. The latest plan of introducing interceptor sewers is also proving to be ineffective.

The Supreme Court - mandated team checked four sewage treatment plants and found one plant operational but not up to capacity and another not even up to the standard required. A third one was not functioning. A committee set up by the National Green Tribunal has recommended cleaning up the construction debris and waste cast-off on the banks of the Yamuna River. Despite efforts on all fronts, there seems to be no respite for the river from pollution, yet. But, the last word has not been spoken on this issue.

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