Hidden in plain sight — sometimes beyond the fields in small agrarian pockets, sometimes as a dirty naalah — the Yamuna has been Delhi’s lifeline for centuries. It traverses a 48-km journey from when it enters Delhi at Palla and exits at Jaitpur, touching five of the capital’s seven constituencies. And with voting day approaching, The Indian Express found that those living on the banks in each of these constituencies hoped poll promises would translate into something substantial for the dying river.
Jhangola village, Palla (North West Delhi)
A narrow, freshly-tarred road cuts across sprawling fields on both sides as one enters this village in Narela. The first point where water from Haryana reaches Delhi, the village is known to cultivate flowers, mainly marigold, herbs, and more recently, strawberries. The river flows through the fields, feeding crops that sustain the population, which is largely agrarian.
Ground water here is available at 60 feet, a far cry for the 30 feet it was at earlier, but much better in comparison to the rest of the city. At Palla, the Yamuna unites three states — Haryana, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. In April 2018, it had dried up at the spot. This year, Karnail Singh (45) was relieved as water continued to flow.
“My mother died last year and we wanted to immerse her ashes in the river. But there was no water. We buried the ashes in the riverbed instead,” he said.
The three political parties — BJP, Congress and AAP — have made promises this poll season to make the river cleaner. In Palla, however, cleanliness is not the key issue. In its journey through Delhi, the Yamuna is the cleanest here, with a healthy biological oxygen demand and dissolved oxygen levels.
“We can drink from the stream and the water feeds our crops… But during the monsoon, large parts of cultivable land are taken over by the river. The government should think about this,” Singh said.
The fields, however, are on the floodplains, and experts warn that any encroachment or concretisation of the banks could mean devastation for the area in the long run. Illegal sand mining has emerged as another concern. “They come at night and carry out mining, mostly on the UP side. No politician addresses this, but we see it every day,” said Harjeet Singh (40), who runs a clinic.
Jhangola is also home to fishermen and divers. So far, no campaigners have reached the village, which has 3,500 voters. “They come during MCD and Assembly polls, but the river never features in their conversations. It is all about water, roads and electricity. AAP has done considerable work, but these polls are not for the state, they’re more about national security for us,” said Harjeet.
C Block, Sonia Vihar (North East Delhi)
Across the West, embanked and concretised riverfronts are home to the most expensive real estate. Thames in London, Seine in Paris and Amstel in Amsterdam are seen as thriving examples, with a carefully manicured river view metres away from homes and offices.
In Delhi, the road between Palla and Sonia Vihar runs parallel to the Yamuna, but the river often remains out of sight. A considerable area is kept as a buffer between the road and the river to give the riverine ecosystem a chance to grow. It is here that Delhi’s flagship project for river and forest revival, the Yamuna Biodiversity Park, falls. Focussed more on river rejuvenation than development, it is barely a few kilometres from C Block, Sonia Vihar.
But as soon as the park’s boundary ends, encroachment and garbage dot the banks. “Who doesn’t love a clean, orderly riverfront,” asked Rizwan Qadri, who runs a wedding band business. Extending his arm towards the river, barely 100 metres from his shop, he said: “It’s the first thing we see in the morning, the last thing we see at night. But when politicians come, electricity, roads, sanitation take over. The river is pushed back.”
In 2016, residents were promised a ghat — a clean, un-concretised area, with benches and walking tracks — by the Delhi government. AAP MLA and now party rebel Kapil Mishra was in charge of the water and tourism departments then. “There was trouble between Kapil and AAP and things came to a standstill. We have been waiting ever since,” said tea stall owner Raj Kumar Gupta.
Despite the banks being littered with garbage and faeces, the water is still fit enough for someone to take a dip. “We just want the government to clean the area once, put up benches and perhaps an open gym and appoint a caretaker. The community will take care of the rest,” said Rajesh Kumar Sharma (61), a C Block resident.
Yamuna Pushta, Nigambodh Ghat (Chandni Chowk)
It’s evening and several men, many of them from a homeless shelter nearby, take in the view of the river at the Pushta.
Except, the river is not a river anymore. Water quality figures show that at Khajori Paltoon Pul, Kashmere Gate, the biological oxygen demand is 42 — 14 times the maximum limit — and the dissolved oxygen is 0.
At the shelter run by DUSIB, of the 600 residents, all men, around 200 are voters eagerly awaiting their voter cards. “I’ve been here 25 years; the river is like a mother to us. Despite the stench, this is where we spend our evenings, wash our clothes, have a bath when it’s cleaner during monsoon,” said Anil Singh (69).
Among the river’s most polluted stretches, the stench of methane and hydrogen sulphide is oppressive here. “Politicians come only for photo ops. They speak to us for five minutes and leave. Look at the river, it could have been beautiful, but there’s no will,” said Sonu (32), a daily wager at Kashmere Gate. The National Green Tribunal had ordered that the area between Old Railway Bridge, which lies near the Pushta, and ITO Barrage be developed as a green buffer zone by January 2021. The project is 15% complete so far.
Dhobi Ghat JJ Cluster, Okhla (East Delhi)
At the river’s edge, Nazim (16) and Sabir (31) have dug up five pits where they wash tents and seat covers used in weddings. The stench doesn’t bother them.
“We live and work here. The conditions are worse than hell but going back to our villages in UP is not an option — better to earn here than die hungry,” said Sabir, who came to Delhi when he was 11.
With several industries — big and small; legal and illegal — operating, Okhla adds substantial pollutants to the river. Nazim and Sabir, for instance, add copious amounts of bleach, detergent and sodium bicarbonate. Untreated sewage from a 2,000-member JJ colony also enters the river. People here are either washermen or work as waiters and staff at weddings.
“We know we are occupying government land, but where do we go? Some people moved when the government gave them houses in Narela during relocation; we didn’t have ID cards and were left out,” said Shankar Mandal (42), a daily wager.
He came from West Bengal’s Malda 30 years ago and remembers a time when the river was clean. “We used to take bath in it. We’re the ones polluting it; who else can we blame? In the monsoon, water reaches our homes and diseases are common. But when politicians come here, all we can do is pray we are not removed and that we get regular water supply,” he said.
The area, located on one side of the Delhi Noida Direct flyway, is built completely on the floodplain, which experts say needs to be saved urgently. The DND, Barapullah flyover, CWG Village and Akshardham Temple have taken precious space from the floodplain too. “We cannot adopt the western model. Those countries don’t have a monsoon, during which a river needs to spread out. Floodplains are also crucial for groundwater recharge. We have to develop our own riverfront; we have an example in the form of the Yamuna Biodiversity Park,” said Yamuna activist Manoj Misra.
Khadda Colony, Jaitpur (South Delhi)
In the midst of the few fields on the Delhi-Haryana border sits a family of seven who, locals say, was among the first to move here. In the area, the river’s health is lower on the priority list. “We understand it is important to our survival; we grow our own food. But there aren’t proper roads or drinking water. We need the basics; how does it matter if the river is polluted?” said Susheela, who doesn’t know how old she is.
Brijesh Sahni, who moved here 15 years ago, said: “We are just glad to have found a place to live.”
No party has visited this area so far. As it leaves Delhi, the Yamuna is more polluted than when it entered. The only time residents actively think of the river is when it affects farmland during monsoon. “We never hear of flooding in western countries. Perhaps that is what we should strive for,” said Sahil Khan (19), Susheela’s son.
Among several models available to Delhi for improving the Yamuna, experts and environmentalists have chosen one that prioritises rejuvenation over redevelopment. This includes securing the floodplain and ridding it of encroachments — unlike the West, where rivers have been turned into concretised canals with no floodplains for rejuvenation.
“A riverfront should have wetlands, woodlands and grasslands. Historically, some amount of sewage has entered the river but it would be cleaned by wetlands. This is why the floodplain, with the three components, is crucial to the river’s health. There can be no infrastructure development there. At Yamuna Biodiversity Park, we were able to bring back species of plants and insects that had died by allowing minimal human interaction in terms of building,” said Faiyaz Khudesar, principal scientist at the park in Wazirabad.