Jan 07 2009
NEW DEHLI – A dull yellow haze hung low over the Yamuna River. In the distance, a man wrapped in a blanket spread his arms wide, then dropped down on his haunches. I thought he might be praying. But it turned out he was answering the call of nature. Another man stepped through a mine field of cow paddies and dropped his trousers.
When it rains the waste from the poor people living along the bare dirt banks washes into the river. But the problems of the Yamuna, a sacred river that once nourished New Delhi, are much bigger.
Day and night, raw sewage from Delhi’s roughly 13 million people gushes relentlessly into the river, creating a stinking, filmy gunk that looks like a grease monkey’s laundry water - and smells vaguely of burned plastic. Pesticides and other chemicals pour into the Yamuna from farms and factories upstream.
The river is virtually dead. And it has become a symbol of the failure of India, one of the biggest and fastest growing economies, to deal with the basic issue of water. The filth of the Yamuna makes it harder for residents of Delhi to get clean drinking water and it contributes to sickness in the city. Other rivers in India are nearly as bad. In most Indian cities, tap water is available for only part of the day – if then. In the countryside women routinely walk for hours to get water for their families. India’s farms drain away much of the country’s water. But many farmers are also coping with scarcity of water. Flooding can be controlled. But every year hundreds of thousands of Indians become refugees as flood waters rush through their villages, destroying homes and fields.
The government has taken note of the need. But its policies on water have been inconsistent and little headway has been made. “It’s just not been a priority,” said one woman in Delhi, a lawyer in a corporate law firm. She was referring specifically to the Yamuna. But others say the comment sums up the story of water in India.
Cleaning up the Yamuna and the Ganges, which is also heavily polluted, are further complicated because they are both regarded as holy rivers. Many Hindus take the Yamuna as it is and do not press the government for improvement.
Everyone along the Yamuna notes that it is polluted. Yet many people swim in the river. Some even collect vials of Yamuna water, take it home and sip it until their next visit. Many people who fall ill don’t blame the river.
Standing on crutches on a bluff rising above the Yamuna near the Maharani Bagh power station, Bhola Nishad, 40 years old - a small man in a zippered sweatshirt with a brownish-red cloth wrapped around his waist - spends most of his days on the edge of the river. His rumpled sleeping blanket is surrounded by wood carvings and framed photographs of religious figures that pilgrims have thrown into the Yamuna. He dives into the river to salvage the offerings.
The river took Mr. Nishad’s left leg, just below the knee. But he has no complaints. He regularly swims in the Yamuna. One day he noticed an ugly boil. The infection got worse and eventually doctors amputated the leg below the knee. “It was destiny,” Mr. Nishad said. “I’d don’t blame it on the river. The river is holy. It will always be holy.” #