AT MATHURA, countless songs fill the air regaling Lord Krishna‚Äôs relationship with his gopis and the Yamuna. One look at the Yamuna today leaves one wondering whether there is anything left of the river of these songs. Instead, it is the masani nullah that catches the eye. ‚ÄúThe Yamuna is mostly dry but masani flows the year round,‚ÄĚ says Purshottam Yadav, who runs a tea stall near the riverbanks. Wherever it passes through, this is the fate of one of India‚Äôs oldest and holiest rivers.
Originating in the Yamunotri glacier in the Himalayas, the Yamuna flows 1,376 km before merging with the Ganga at Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, to form the Sangam ‚ÄĒ one of the holiest Hindu pilgrimages. Our 600 km journey along the river looking for the place where we went wrong, starts at Dakpathar.
Forty-five kilometres from Uttarakhand‚Äôs capital Dehradun, Dakpathar is where the Yamuna leaves the secure Himalayas to enter the vast plains. In that sense, the Yamuna is luckier than the Ganga; it is shielded from pollution in the mountains longer than the Ganga. But, the pristine waters soon change colour.
Meandering through the Shivalik mountains, the Yamuna becomes an overflowing bowl of water after Dakpathar. This happens because the Tons river, Yamuna‚Äôs largest and longest tributary (holding more water than the main stream, merges with it).
The Yamuna also faces the first human intervention at Dakpathar. A canal meets the river about 20 km further downstream at Paonta Sahib. Not a single drop of water from the Tons enters the main stream of the Yamuna after Dakpathar as all the water is diverted to the canal. Three hydropower projects in quick succession lay claim on this stretch between Dakpathar and Paonta Sahib ‚ÄĒ Thakrani, Dhalipur and Kulhal.
These hydro-projects have caused havoc in the marine ecosystem of the river. Various kinds of fish like the katla, rohu and trout have disappeared without a trace. The large turtles, considered to be the Yamuna‚Äôs transport in Hindu mythology, are not seen anymore because they cannot swim upwards over these dams. There are also no records in government offices of the 500-odd fishing villages along the Yamuna that depended upon it for their livelihood during the 1970s. Even water birds that used to prey upon aquatic organism at the river‚Äôs estuary are not seen. Jitender, 27, sitting with a fishing line near the Yamuna after it comes out of Dakpathar puts it aptly: ‚ÄúThere are no fish to be found here. If you catch some to eat, you‚Äôre lucky.‚ÄĚ
The canal meets the Yamuna at Paonta Sahib, a sacred Sikh site in Himachal Pradesh to give it a new life. From Dakpathar to Paonta Sahib, the river flows between two states, with Himachal Pradesh on one side and Uttarakhand on the other. The Yamuna creates the state borders between the two states.
It is here that human excess and greed makes its appearance once gain. Trucks carrying stone and sand line up the riverbank. This is in open defiance of a Supreme Court order prohibiting mining in the river. Constant mining can have far-reaching consequences, some of them permanent. The river could even change its course.
Paonta Sahib is an industrial town with many factories and industries, including the Cement Corporation of India. All these industries are dependent on the Yamuna to some extent and are also responsible for some of its pollution. But the river can still handle these impurities.
ABOUT 25 km from Paonta Sahib, the Yamuna passes through the Kalesar National Bird Sanctuary and encounters the Hatnikund dam at Yamuna Nagar district in Haryana. This is also where the river starts dying a slow death. From this point, apart from the three monsoon months, not a single drop of water enters the Yamuna.
The water of the Yamuna is diverted into two canals ‚ÄĒ the Western Yamuna Canal and the Eastern Yamuna Canal. The Western Canal provides water for drinking and irrigation to half of Haryana; the other provides water to western Uttar Pradesh. This parting causes the main stream of the river to turn dry. ‚ÄúThe Yamuna dies at Hatnikund,‚ÄĚ says DD Basu, a senior official of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). ‚ÄúEven if lakhs of treatment plants are installed, the river cannot survive only on sewer water.‚ÄĚ
Surprisingly though, there is still some water when the river reaches Yamuna Nagar town. How is it possible, when no water passes Hatnikund? The answer lies at the place where the Yamuna enters the town. Right next to a sewage treatment plant of 10 MLD (million litres per day), two large sewers empty their waste into the river without any treatment. Walking along the river, there is not a single spot one can breathe properly because of the stench. This is the water that flows through the town that is ironically named after itself.
Further downstream, the Yamuna carries the waste of two more cities ‚ÄĒ Sonipat and Panipat ‚ÄĒ as it inches towards Delhi. Travelling about 200 km through mountains and plains, the Yamuna reaches Palla village in north Delhi. In the 22 km it flows through the city, the river dies 22 times.
THE RAVAGE begins at the Wazirabad plant, which drains out the remaining water from the river to quench the thirst of the city. To replace the water that is taken out, Delhi opens the Najafgarh drain into the Yamuna. This drain, along with 10 others, squeezes the life out of the river, as it keeps on accumulating waste and sewer along its path. As it leaves the city, the Shahdara drain empties itself into the Yamuna.
The extent to which Delhi pollutes the Yamuna can be gauged from the amount of coliform bacteria found in the river. These bacteria feed off human waste in water. Water contaminated with these bacteria can cause typhoid, cholera and kidney failure. According to a CPCB report, the percentage of coliform at Palla, where the river enters the city, is 30‚Äď1,000 times more than acceptable levels. Near the Okhla dam, after it has crossed the city, its levels are as high as 10,000 times more!
Several schemes to clean the drains through sewage treatment plants in the city have not yielded any results. The first Yamuna Action Plan was started in 1993 and 705.5 crore was spent on cleaning the river. Twenty years and 2,200 crore later, this plan remains a failure. The third phase is underway, and there is nothing to say things will be different this time. ‚ÄúThe time period and the cost of such schemes are estimates,‚ÄĚ says an official on condition of anonymity. ‚ÄúThere is nothing wrong in them not meeting their targets.‚ÄĚ
Says Nitya Jacob, programme director for water of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE): ‚ÄúDelhi produces more than 445 crore litre of waste every day, of which only 147.8 crore litre is treated.‚ÄĚ
The danger goes beyond water treatment. A research by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) found that the percentage of metals like nickel, lead, mercury and manganese are much higher than permissible limits in the vegetables grown along the banks of the river. These metals find their way to our dining tables and consequently our stomachs through these vegetables that we consume as ‚Äúfresh‚ÄĚ.
This is not all. Contrary to government claims, there are still about 200 factories manufacturing batteries in Delhi. Lakhs of two- and four-wheelers plying the roads of the city also contribute to the Yamuna‚Äôs pollution. There are almost 30,000 small and medium auto repair shops in the city. All the waste that comes from servicing these vehicles flows into the Yamuna. Although the CPCB has now woken up to this, they are still at a loss of how to deal with the crisis.