The cleaner part of Yamuna has not only been overlooked, but almost already forgotten. Yamuna, considered the dark sister of Yama, the Hindu god of Death, has seen several cultures and civilizations coming into existence and fading over time. She has been the muse of many poets and writers who have extolled her virtues and at the same time warned us about her virulent attributes. As myth would have it, the Varaha Purana contextualises Yamuna as no different to the Ganges. It has been said that Yamuna is nothing but the water of the Ganges sanctified a hundred times over.
But the river, which is the lifeline of Delhi, is gradually dying. Rampant industrial pollution and untreated sewage is choking the river. Yamuna flows over a distance of 1,376 kilometres: it starts from lower Himalayas in Uttarakhand and finally meets Ganga at Triveni Sangam, Allahabad. It enters Delhi through village Palla, and traverses a distance of 48 kilometres through the capital city. The polluted stretch of 22 kilometres lies between Wazirabad and Okhla. Yamuna has been polluted severely over the past two decades as a result of urbanisation. At the same time, the remaining 26 kilometres of the river is still clean and is home to a lot of trees, flowers, birds as well as ways of life that are gradually being forgotten.
A visit to this pristine part of the Yamuna thereby seemed not only significant but also necessary to remind to the city today that their lifeline is a major water resource to an ecosystem that has seen massive depletion over the years because of a lack of peaceful coexistence between farming communities and the government.
With Darwesh, an organization co-founded by Yuveka Singh along with Meghali Roy in 2013, which works as a contributor in the field of culture, digging out lesser known stories from history and sharing and promoting them, I took a day off from work to visit Palla and interact with the local villagers.
“We, at Darwesh, believe that whenever and wherever people have taken the cause of river in their own hands they hasve succeeded in rejuvenating or cleaning it up; two good examples are Kalibein in Punjab and Arvari in Rajasthan,” Singh tells Guardian 20.
Between Palla to Bawana village, this stretch consists of scattered palm trees and a lush green grassland area. Palla checkpost, Tigipur, Hiranki Khushk, Hiranki checkpost and Bawana Escape are the main landmarks on the western bank where floodplains stretch up to 2-5 kilometres in width.
The Yamuna river stretch in Delhi begins from village Palla at the upstream to Jaitpur at Delhi-UP boundary downstream. The Yamunotri flows from the Tajewala barrage, passes through Hathnikund until it enters village Palla. Within this segment in Hathnikund/Tajewala in the Yamuna Nagar district of Haryana, the river water is diverted into Eastern Yamuna Canal (EYC) and Western Yamuna Canal (WYC). Generally, no water is allowed to flow in the downstream of the Tajewala barrage especially during summers and winters to fulfill the water demand of the surrounding districts. Due to this, the river remains dry in many areas between Tajewala and Delhi. Whatever water flows between Tajewala barrage and Delhi is the untreated or partially treated domestic and industrial effluents discharged by several drains. The water pollution begins during its flow through Wazirabad and as it enters Delhi, since there are open drains all along Wazirabad that have been lying untreated for years without any government intervention.
The wide floodplains around Palla have aided farmers to get more land for cultivation unlike their counterparts on the eastern banks of the Yamuna in Delhi’s Akshardham and other areas.
“In order to understand a river, you must understand its characteristics too. The river water looks naturally muddy as it enters Palla, becomes green when it approaches Wazirabad due to algal growth and turns black after crossing Wazirabad because of the untreated open drains, the water of which subsequently joins the river in Delhi,” Dr Fayaz, the scientist in charge of Delhi's Yamuna Biodiversity Park (YBDP), tells Guardian 20.
“Since river water becomes sewerage after Wazirabad, any vegetable cultivation in Delhi especially leafy vegetables can be detrimental to health,” adds Fayaz, who has produced seminal works on restoration, aquatic and wildlife biology.
An interaction with the farmers of Palla led to findings about the age-old story of losses incurred in farm produce as against their sale at the mandi. "Hindustan mein sabse zyaada dukhi mazdoor hai [Farmers are the unhappiest lot in India]," says Ved Prakash, a farmer who owns about 20 acres of land in Palla.
“The preparation for any agro crop goes up to Rs 28,000. Forget about profitable returns, we end up spending Rs 1,800 from our pockets just for cutting the crops, packaging and sending them to the market,” Ved Prakash tells Guardian 20.
“Seasonal vegetables grow in abundance here. Except for those crops that are favourable for production only in hilly regions, every other crop can be grown here. But what is at stake here, as you see, is that while the production of, say, a kilogram of onion costs us Rs 15-16, it is being sold at the Azadpur mandi in Delhi for Rs 6-7. Neither do we want nor are our future generation interested in taking up farming," adds Prakash.
Floods bring life to a floodplain. The wide, unencroached floodplains around the village areas of Palla have aided these farmers, despite unprofitable farm production, to get more land for cultivation unlike their counterparts on the eastern banks of the riverbed in Delhi’s Akshardham and other areas. “There is no drain upstream falling into the river. Hence, better water is available for irrigation purposes for these farmers residing in Palla. Not just agro-production, better standards of water has furthered the growth of zooplankton and phytoplankton favourable for marine life,” says Dr Fayaz. The fish simply vanish when the river reaches Delhi.
“The 1964 floods had completely destroyed our crops. Yamuna used to be dry back then, as the water level had gone down to 50 feet. There was no water for agricultural production. The pumping sets in our village were several years old and not sufficient enough to pull water out from deep underground levels. Summer civil pumps were introduced which can draw water from 70-80 feet level. Later, after the 1978 floods, the government constructed a 500-metre dam. Since then, floods which used to be the haunting issue surrounding Yamuna on this side of the bank has been resolved,” says Ved Prakash.
Yuveka of Darwesh puts it rightly that, Yamuna needs a place in the psyche of Delhi citizens, and stresses on the importance of ownership of the river. After the dialogues engaged in with farmers still fresh in our minds, we then headed towards the Yamuna Biodiversity Park (YBDP) located in North Delhi’s Burari area, which is about a 15 kilometre drive from Palla.
The bio park not only gives a scientific insight into floodplains, its establishment is a telltale sign of the ambition to restore back the pristine glory of Yamuna in Delhi through conservation, education and recreation. “YBDP gives the idea for the way forward through a system where we started with ex-situ conservation and trying to now approach in-situ conservation. I could give you a few examples. For instance, the red-crested pochard, a migratory duck from Central Asia and Siberia, visits only this bio park in Delhi. Plant species like the Tamarix-phragmitis facilitates mass nesting of black-crowned herons, who had stopped coming to Delhi around 10-15 years ago,” says Dr Fayaz.
“All of this should and must make us realise that the land of the river should be left to the river,” stresses Fayaz.
Insights on the other, untold side of the Yamuna riverbed would not have been possible had I not embarked on this mission of Darwesh, which wishes to envisage a three-year project with the Delhi government to develop three walkable trails along the river on three different stretches: from Palla to YBDP, from Wazirabad to ITO and from ITO to Okhla, with the aim of unravelling the myriad shades of Yamuna juxtaposed with story-telling, talks and exhibitions. The inspiration behind this, as Yuveka tells me, is the "Cooum Art Festival" that was launched by organisations like Walk Along the River, Chennai Rivers Restoration Trust and Goethe-Institut during the early half of this year to renew the lost glory of the Cooum river that was once the lifeline of Chennai.