A short preface: I took this picture in May 2012 along the Yamuna River in northern India. About a dozen other University of Nebraska-Lincoln students and I had the opportunity to go to New Delhi and the surrounding area for several weeks, each of us working on our own photo, video and text project. It’s an experience I have yet to match. The university planned to publish our stories, but they’ve taken so long about it that they might have forgotten. I’m posting it myself. I suspect what I found still holds true, and the story isn’t doing any good sitting on my computer.
I’ve long had an intense interest in the environment, so I wrote about water. Where the picture above was taken, the Yamuna flows shallow and clean; in fact, it reminded me of Nebraska’s Platte. The river changes dramatically 80 miles downstream, however, when it encounters the capital. That’s where my story begins. It’s a long one, but you can at least look at the pictures, if you like.
Thanks for looking!
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The sun blasted down on New Delhi, India’s capital, its light filtered by dust in the ashen sky. May brought the end of the dry season – a month of no rain and daily temperatures of 110 degrees Fahrenheit and up.
Traffic honked and shouted its way across the Old Iron Bridge. Underneath drifted the black, opaque water of the Yamuna River, its glass-smooth surface broken by inch-wide bubbles every few feet. The water’s odor, like burned rubber, penetrated dust and traffic to reach nostrils two blocks away.
Without warning, something larger broke through the water: 24-year-old Chuman Miya surfaced for air, his face slick with the river’s oil and his shoulders invisible just inches below the surface. His hands appeared and sorted through a clump of sludge before tossing it away – nothing this time.
Miya glanced over at the island surrounding the bridge’s pillar, a patch of dirt serving as base camp for the dozen other boys and men who came to swim, boat and fish with magnets in search of a few dollars of coins or sellable scraps all day, every day. Their eyes were yellowed and their hands blackened by the river, as if they dug up coal instead of metal.
A River of Life and Death
The Yamuna swoops through northern India, linking Himalayan glaciers to the Ganges River, India’s holiest river and one of the world’s largest. About one-third of the way down its 850-mile length, the Yamuna crosses diagonally through New Delhi, a metropolis of more than 20 million people.
The Yamuna shares its name with the sister of the Hindu god of death, a prominent figure in ancient Hindu stories. To devout Indians, the river and the goddess are one. Every few minutes, another pilgrim tosses in marigold garlands, god figures, family pictures, sequined cloth or rupee coins – a Hindu tradition to secure a blessing from the goddess. Even Muslims toss in their own coins for luck.
Today, the sister of death is dying. Religious tokens aren’t the only human addition to her waters. According to the New Delhi government, one billion gallons of sewage are piped into the river daily, joining industrial wastewater, chemicals and heavy metals like lead and mercury. The toxic river stands as a monument to India’s explosive population growth and industrial progress during the past several decades as the county works to exit the developing world. Before 2030, the UN expects India to house 1.5 billion people in one-third the area of the U.S.
After the Yamuna enters the city, “(pollution) is all the river has,” said Nitya Jacob, programme director for water at the Delhi-based Center for Science and Environment (CSE), which focuses on environmental research and related policy.
There’s no fresh water, despite decades and billions of rupees in cleanup efforts – only a “cocktail” of sewage and chemistry devoid of life remains, Jacob said.
“The river is dead,” said Sunita Narain, CSE’s director, in a 2007 interview with Fortune Magazine. “It just has not been officially cremated.”
Despite the dire diagnosis, residents of riverside neighborhoods, slums and farms continue to make their living from the river, and the city relies on it for the water supply of millions. This dependence is one piece of Yamuna’s many ironies: Indians worship the river as a goddess for help, but they are steadily killing it. Many depend on it for their livelihoods, but the Yamuna is hurting them back.
From River to Plate
Further down the east bank from the iron bridge, families maintained pens of cattle and football field-sized plots of green beans, chilies and the knobby, bright green karela gourds. Birds chirped; traffic and trains still rumbled and honked. A creek flowed from the farms to the Yamuna infused with dust, cow manure and pesticides.
In a farmer’s home with a thatched roof and tarp walls, a farmer and his customer were arguing.
Raj Rani, a young woman in a turquoise and pink sari, wagged a finger at the leathery, deeply lined face of Banny Miya (no relation to Chuman), wielding a cucumber in her other hand. Several pounds of squash and karela were bundled on the dirt floor, their price still undecided.
The haggling increased in intensity; neither looked like backing down. Finally, Rani handed over one 500-rupee note, her lips clamped together.
Banny and his family – a wife, son and three daughters – had grown and harvested the vegetables by hand on a farm they’d leased for the year for 12,000 rupees, or about $240. Its edge bumped against the Yamuna’s banks. The kids didn’t go to school because the family couldn’t afford it – not that they wanted to anyway, they said.
Rani and one other customer sustained the Miya farming business, which in turn sustained Rani’s own – she took the vegetables to sell at a market at the crux of the bridge and the bustling Swami Ganesh Datt Road.
Banny’s family sometimes used the river’s inky contents for their farm; neither Rani nor the family saw that as a problem. But they wouldn’t touch the river themselves, and Banny admitted he couldn’t grow watermelons here because of it.
A two-year study from the Delhi-based Energy and Resources Institute found unsafe levels of lead, mercury, chromium and other heavy metals in the river, the soil nearby and the vegetables grown there. UNICEF sponsored the study, which concluded in 2012.
In some locations, mercury levels were 200 times safe limits, the study found. Such heavy metals are known to damage the development and function of almost every body system, particularly the nervous system and brain, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One-fifth of the children near the river, the energy institute concluded, showed unsafe blood lead levels.
Irrigating with Yamuna water was no concern for Rani and the other farmers, market vendors and shoppers.
“Everyone likes these vegetables,” Rani said. “That’s why I’m here.”
Miya was about 60 years old, he said, and while his permanent home was now miles to the northeast, he was born nearby, across the river.
He hadn’t returned out of a Hindu’s religious devotion to the river; Banny and his family were Muslim. But that didn’t mean they didn’t have a certain regard for Yamuna.
“Both religions have the same respect for the river,” he said. “They pray at the river and throw stuff in. We don’t do it that way; we pray to it, but differently” – mainly by throwing less in.
Any farmer along the Yamuna must respect the river, because a crop’s fate rests in its annual temper.
In June and July, warm air from the Indian Ocean collides with the Himalayas, unleashing one of the world’s most powerful monsoons. Everything around the old bridge will likely flood, recharging the fields with silt and nutrients, but also with heavy metals and other contaminants.
Babi Devi, a middle-aged woman whose farm near the bridge ran next to the candy- striped Sai Baba Temple, lost her crop for the past three years to those floods.
“Hopefully not this year,” she said as she shuffled down rows of chili plants.
Stooping, Devi patted bean seeds into the dirt with a trowel, her fingers stained red from the M&M-sized seeds. Move a foot forward, another pat. Her red bangles jingled with each tap, keeping a steady beat across the field. The beat paused now and then as Devi tucked her headscarf back into the front of her dress.
While Banny irrigated from the Yamuna sparingly, Devi regularly pumped its water into shallow canals around her square plots. She recognized the stain of pollution but, like the others, was unconcerned by watering food with the water.
“Even with that, our respect and sense of devotion is always the same,” Devi said, mentioning the regular gatherings of farmers at the temple and their subsequent offerings of fruits and other items, which are thrown into the water “to please the river.” “It has nothing to do with its cleanliness,” she said.
Later at the Miya household, Hajara Miya, the mother, prepared dinner as the hazy sky darkened. She poked a dried plant stalk at the tiny earthen oven’s crackling fire. A round silver pot held boiling potatoes above it.
Her teenage daughter Shara squatted nearby, mixing flour and water in a wide, shallow bowl and squeezing the dough with her fingers. Shara glanced at her mother with a bashful smile every few minutes for pointers. Her younger sister hid in the back of the hut where painted flowers adorned the earthen walls.
Hajara’s husband sat outside, on the other side of a blue tarp from her. He said little, smoking a cigarette and watching the bridge’s always-noisy traffic go by. The Yamuna’s surface, dark in the falling light, was just visible over the banks 50 yards behind him.
Hajara had never seen the Yamuna clean, but her husband had.
“I could drink it right out of my hands,” Banny said, cupping his hands together to demonstrate. “Nowadays, all of the (sewage) drains are going to the river. That’s totally spoiling it.”
“The water I used to drink I can’t go near now,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s painful.”
About 10 miles downstream from the Old Iron Bridge, 17-year-old Saddam Khatom swung a sudsy pair of jeans against the inclined concrete bank of a Yamuna off-shoot canal. The staccato smacks rang out like gunshots. He stood ankle-deep in the gray water surrounded by ripples, which rocked a few scraps of trash and buoyant plants that drifted past.
Saddam paused between blows, kneading the cloth against the cement and squeezing bleach and Fena-brand soap bubbles from the cloth between his fingers. The liquid trickled between his feet back to the river. He wore a dark orange plaid shirt and black slacks, some acne dotted his face, and his eyes were bright.
Voices sounded from overhead. He laughed softly, squinting up the bank in the morning glare at his aunt and his mother, Momina, who worked a soup-like mixture of cloth, water and soap in a bucket. Her tongue occasionally poked out in concentration as she worked. The bunch often talked about other family members and plans for the future, they said, but at this moment teasing Saddam about getting a girlfriend soon was more fun.
Several families of clothes-washers, or dhobi wallahs in Hindi, haul formless blobs of saris, bed sheets and other garments from their homes to the Yamuna for a thorough scrubbing. Washing machines are an inaccessible luxury. Kids joined their parents, aunts and uncles in the work, sometimes splashing each other or swinging jeans at each other’s faces.
To get the most dust out, the dhobi wallahs said, they smack the shirt or pair of jeans against the concrete banks, sounding a drumbeat that mixes with grunts of effort.
“We’re content to work here,” said Firoja Khatom, Saddam’s aunt, echoing most of the other parents. “We can’t make our living if we don’t wash these clothes in the river.”
Kids sometimes jumped into the water, but most of the adults bathed at home, wary of skin sores and disease, Saddam said.
Saddam shared their caution but not their contentedness. His father, Ishaq, had worked this job for 25 years; his mother, 16. Saddam wanted to be a civil engineer and do “something famous.”
“If I continue this job, I’ll just be stuck like my parents,” he said in his family’s two-room home. Outside the door was a dusty alley of Shaheen Bagh, a cluster of apartment buildings within walking distance of the canal. “It’s only enough for us to live, to fulfill our daily needs. So life is just going like this. I want something different.”
He spoke as he ironed clothes on a table in the main room – where the family also slept – stretching and folding with precise, quick movements. An old fan bolted to the ceiling squeaked a foot above his head. Most days are spent ironing.
The TV set in the corner of two worn, pink walls displayed an episode of “Man vs. Wild,” the favorite show of Mohammed Saif, an 8-year-old neighbor who flitted in and out of the Khatom door like an adopted little brother.
Momina, Saddam’s mother, worked at another table outside against the front wall, chatting and laughing with passing neighbors and the shopkeepers across the street. Bicycle vendors called out pani – water – in distorted, stretched-out syllables. Apartments reared over the maze of alleys, blocking the sun and housing shopkeepers, workers and some 50 other washer families.
With his 10th-class year over, Saddam’s summer holidays from school had begun. So he ironed. To become a civil engineer, he’d have to graduate high school – joining less than one- fifth of India’s kids, according to American University Radio – and go to college, something his family admittedly cannot afford. Saddam said he’s counting on a network of far-flung relatives to finance the loans.
“We’ll just try to support him,” Momina said outside as the coal rattled in her iron.
A Better River
Momina had never seen a clean river, and the Yamuna hadn’t been the drinkable waterway Banny Miya remembered in Saddam’s lifetime. Ishaq had seen it 25 years ago, however, after leaving a bakery business and taking up his father’s work.
“It was clean when I started,” he said. Now, the government and other organizations figuratively skimmed the river’s surface once or twice a year. Nothing changes for long.
“It’s very sad to see,” Ishaq said. “It’s better to work in clean water, but there is none.”
Indeed, the work of the government, dozens of NGOs and roughly 5 billion rupees ($100 million) has gone into Yamuna cleanup efforts over the past two decades, and the water is as black as ever. The government is now gearing up for the Yamuna Action Plan Phase 2, or YAP-II, after the lackluster results of YAP-I.
The Indian government says the first phase had not focused enough on Delhi’s 22- kilometer stretch and on public awareness and mobilization. Jacob, the water program director at CSE, also pinned the blame to an overemphasis on building new sewage treatment plants instead of pipes to get the sewage to those plants.
“Therefore, you have this huge volume of practically raw sewage,” Jacob said. “Then you’re back to square one.”
All but one of 45 children, women and men living and earning along the river said it should be cleaned, though the divers and trash-pickers pointed out their dependence on the city’s waste.
“We want a better life,” said Gauri Singh, a fiery 25-year-old mother of two who sometimes collected trash near the Old Iron Bridge with her mother-in-law. “But who cares? Nothing changes. Nothing changes in our life.”
Still, Jacob saw some hope with YAP-II, which he said would focus more on sewer infrastructure to start diverting pollution at its source. He guessed significant progress would come in the next one or two decades if YAP-II is implemented “properly,” including getting riverside industrial plants in on the game and exploring more ways to purify water.
“It’s a question of pushing the government, the people, the media,” he said. “There’s no shortage of money. It’s more a shortage of public awareness and government will.”
Another morning in late May, bright as always, Saddam Khatom scrubbed and swung clothes at the canal alone. His parents and younger sisters had gone out of the city for two weeks to visit relatives, leaving him and his older brother, who usually worked in a factory, to tackle the flow of laundry alone.
The temperature had edged into the upper 90s by 9 a.m. Sweat glistened on his lean frame. Still he scrubbed.
Saddam being able to pay for college, the water below him being clean – both seem unlikely for now, he said. Saddam, however, shared the hope invoked by Jacob.
“India is a very different country than others, but I love it,” he said. “You have to dream.”