Like most people, the River Yamuna did not constitute the core of my thoughts and imagination of life in the capital city of India for a very long time. A five-year residence, sprinkled liberally with numerous visits to pubs and glittering shopping malls on one hand and to “intellectually stimulating” seminars and discussions in the elite institutions of the city on the other, I considered myself a part of the “sensitive, enlightened and knowledgeable” citizenry. Comfortably ensconced in my world, I had little time to think about our beloved Yamuna and her myriad problems.
However, all that changed in the spring of 2007 when I participated in the “Youth Yatra for Reflection and Action for Change”- a youth program funded by the European Union and managed by the British Council along with partner organizations from Finland, Sri Lanka, India and the United Kingdom. Coordinated by Swechha – We for Change Foundation, a Delhi-based NGO striving to highlight the contemptible state of Yamuna, it brought together 24 young change makers from the participating countries to discuss, debate, experience issues pertaining to youth, culture and environment.
Starting with a visit to Sri Lanka, the Youth Yatra took us on an exhilarating journey where we traced the origin of Yamuna from Yamunotri to Agra. It gave us an opportunity to learn, reflect and build our capacity to take action. As part of the program, we were taken for a visit to Kudsia Ghat – a bank of Yamuna near Kashmiri Gate in Delhi. No amount of sensitization or orientation on the plight of the river and the level of pollution in it, can prepare someone for the actual stench and repugnant sight of one of India’s most sacred and holiest rivers. In a moment, I was wrenched out of my “comfort zone” and brought face to face with the black waters of Yamuna – mirroring the indifference, arrogance and selfishness of our civilization. I was appalled at my atomized lifestyle and indignant at my apathy. Five years and nearly fifty trips across the bridge over the river – yet I ignored Yamuna’s existence and her mangling despite her being intricately interwoven in our cultural consciousness.
One afternoon, I visited Kudsia Ghat again. I sat on one of the huge rocks left from the massive demolition drive undertaken in 2004 at Yamuna Pushta to remove illegal constructions along the banks of the river. After soaking in the sleepy atmosphere, I trained my eyes on the river and its surrounding. It seemed that time had stopped forever, with the rancid air adding to the stillness of the place.
At some distance, two priests were lounging uncomfortably under their black umbrellas, waiting for devotees to make offerings to “goddess” Yamuna. One of them looked towards the sky and remarked, “Assam and Bihar were flooded this year. It poured in Mumbai. But Delhi was virtually dry throughout the monsoons. Even the winter season has not been completing its full length for the last couple of years. Wonder what has happened to Delhi’s weather! It seems Yamuna Maiyan (mother) is angry. People just cannot seem to stop polluting her. Now things will improve only if Ma (Yamuna) is cleaned.” The other one quipped, “Everything depends on Yamuna Maiyan. She will cleanse herself. We do not need to worry about cleaning the river.”
While I was still lost in my thoughts, wondering how the pollution of Yamuna was connected to the lack of rains or shortened winters in Delhi; a boy of about 12 had quietly moved beside me. In a state of disorientation, I asked him what he was doing there, startling him in the process. He told me that his uncle was a boatmen and he often came to Kudsia Ghat to “hang out”. He used to stay there till his family was forcibly evicted as the slum dwellers were encroaching on the Yamuna river bed and contributing to its pollution. Since then, he had dropped out of school and had shifted to Sonia Vihar on the outskirts of Delhi that houses India’s largest single stage water treatment plant. The young boy had lost his father a year ago and his mother worked as a domestic help, never making enough to put him back in school.
Not knowing what to ask him next, I quickly shifted my gaze to the boatmen who were sitting idle staring at the lifeless river. Suddenly, something caught my attention, something bobbing in the water. I took out my camera and zoomed on the object of examination only to discover that those were two human heads – not dead but alive. Looking at my amused expression, the lifeguard standing close by offered to explain. Those two men, in their seventies, were coin divers who practiced their art for eight hours each day, for the last forty years. They were efficiently and methodically examining every plastic bag, of which there is no dearth in Yamuna, to look for coins, fruits and other “treasures”. Amidst the gunk and sludge, the two men worked tirelessly to fishing out their living. Somewhere I felt that they were enjoying their work. Did I say “enjoying”? For the sensitive soul, this might appear as irreverence to the plight of those two disadvantaged men. But somewhere, this was their reality and their life from which they sought their happiness. For many of us, even the mere idea of eating a half-rotten mango, taken out from a plastic bag floating in Yamuna, is abominating. However, for those two men and several others like them, it was the most normal thing to do.
I asked the lifeguard if he too lived at Kudsia Ghat before the High Court ordered for the removal of the slums. He answered in affirmative and then wearily looked at the river. Displacement had severely affected his three children who got admitted in a government school only a few days ago. He did not have to narrate his story. Running from one government office to another for his salary; pleading for compensation for being uprooted by the State and struggling to fulfil his needs while paying scant attention to his innumerable desires and dreams – his weariness spoke of a familiar saga of someone who was caught in the population-poverty trap; who represented the quintessential urban poor; one who epitomized the divide between haves and have-nots and the ugly underbelly of India’s capital city.
The story of Yamuna and the people whose lives are organized around her is one of lassitude on part of the state, the civil society and most importantly us. As I turned my back towards Yamuna and “her people”, I felt a deep sense of remorse for myself and for what had become of me. Ensnared by the consumerist life, I had become numb to the vagaries of the unheard, disadvantaged and unlucky millions of my society. In my inexorable effort of attaining “happiness” and “peace” – I had forgotten the most important bond – between me and my environment – an environment that was not just comprised of the rich and the beautiful, but also of the dirty Yamuna; of the unspoken of men and women and of the inequalities that characterize our society.