Revisiting Yamuna

Yamuna was already dead when I met her seven years ago, in the words of several activist and environmental groups, but they’re still trying to revive her. It hasn’t worked yet.

Yamuna is both a Hindu goddess and a major river that flows through India’s capital, a metropolitan area of tens of millions of people, before joining the Ganges. Yamuna is sacred and essential to all of those lives in one way or another. Their drinking water comes from her. They grow food with her help. They worship alongside her. They wash clothes with her water or pick through her shores and beneath her surface for a living. They destroy her, ecologically speaking, with their raw industrial and human waste on a colossal scale. And they endure her revenge in the form of lost fish and other aquatic life, infectious and waterborne disease and toxic metal exposure.

I previously posted on here a photojournalism project I did in college about the river and its paradoxes. This week I revisited my archive for that project for the first time since 2012. It turns out I forgot about a few pictures that aren’t too bad, so I thought I’d share some with you. But it’s also a chance to see if anything has improved in India’s core. The answer seems to be mostly no.

In just the last couple of weeks, poisonous foam coated Yamuna’s surface during a religious festival. And earlier this year, a project to capture and treat the huge amount of sewage flowing into the river missed its latest deadline. That project is the third of its kind in more than 20 years.

Everyone knows the state the river’s in. But because of alleged corruption and incompetence, the inability of several governments to work together, indifference among parts of the public and the country’s colonized past, it just doesn’t get better. Yamuna still runs black, she’s still short on life-giving oxygen but rich in lead and iron, she’s still dead.

I also wonder how the people I met back then are doing. Dozens of locals put up with a random American college student who came out of nowhere to ask about their stories. Banny Miya and his family and Babi Devi and hers grew crops beside the river. Seventeen-year-old Saddam and his family washed clothes and linens in it, and he hoped to become an engineer. Gauri Singh, a young mother, angrily said nothing changes. I might never find out what came next for them.

As for the Yamuna, it’s only one of many environmental issues for India; Delhi’s air has made recent headlines for being some of the most polluted and dangerous in the world. We’ll see if Yamuna Action Plan Phase III accomplishes what phases I and II couldn’t. There are a few small reasons for optimism, such as some recent adjustments to religious ceremonies that might’ve cut down on one form of pollution.

Regardless, India’s struggles aren’t just some far-off problem. We all share this planet’s atmosphere and ocean. And our own country knows a little something about arguing over environmental disaster. Yamuna and other natural places have something to teach all of us.

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