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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 11, March 6, 2010

Must the Gods Die?

Saturday 6 March 2010, by Madhu Bhaduri

The gods are dying. Rivers that have traditionally been revered like gods in India, the sacred Ganga and Yamuna, are comatose. In the last few decades reckless diversion of river water and irresponsible use of rivers as channels for urban sewerage and untreated industrial effluents has dramatically transformed our rivers into dirty drains.

The Yamuna, now a dirty drain in Delhi, is hardly in the image of gods for Hindus. It is difficult even to imagine that emperor Shahjahan would have chosen such a site for his fantastic monuments. Yamuna today has the dubious distinction of being the most polluted of all rivers with its 22 km stretch through the Capital city of Delhi shamefully polluted and starved of fresh water. According to the figures showing the amount of water released in the Yamuna over the years at Wazirabad barrage, the river was kept alive with a constant flow of fresh water (20,000 cumesec) until the eighties. How-ever, in the next two decades the quantity was reduced by 50 per cent. From 2000 till 2008 it has been further reduced to less than 20 per cent. A bare trickle of fresh water now flows into the river, which is being fed instead with the sewerage of 14 million of Delhi’s population through regular discharge brought to the river bed by 18 sewer drains. Deliberate starving of the Yamuna of sufficient flow of fresh water between Delhi and Etawah is afflicting it with a terminal illness.

And yet, successive governments have been spending large amounts of money and resources for engineering projects intended at ‘cleaning’ the river. These expensive pollution control schemes have failed to clean the Yamuna even to a minimum level. The Yamuna Action Plan II Expert Committee made the following recommendation: “Pollution control schemes for Delhi and Agra city under the Yamuna Action Plan II are not sufficient to improve the water quality to its desired level. In addition to that, release of a minimum of 10 cumesec fresh water downstream from the Wazirabad barrage and 20 cumesec from the Okhla barrage is necessary for the improvement of river quality during the low flow months.”

In 2008, while responding to a question in Parliament on “Bacterial Contamination of Indian Rivers”, the government said that it intended to revamp the River Conservation Strategy to promote a holistic and integrated approach. It proposed to include in this strategy among other things a “focus on quantity of the river water as much as on quality”. One could legitimately ask: what happened to that strategic focus, how has it disappeared altogether from the range of policies now being considered?

And yet, the outlines of what has to be done are already known and documented.

1. The first and necessary step as advised by expert committees and updated papers on new strategy and policies to save the rivers is to keep the rivers flowing with fresh water, and not to divert the volume of water beyond a point.

2. The second step would be to divert the polluting sources such as sewer drains away from the river. Such a proposal too is already in existence. “According to the policy of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, treated water is to be used for irrigation purposes and not to be released in the river as the river is already suffering for want of dilution capacity.” This was stated by the High Powered Committee set up by the Supreme Court in 1998.

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The remedy is known, but the will to implement it is clearly missing. Part of that explanation lies in the lucrative temptation to encroach on the river bed for multi-crore real estates after it has been sucked of flowing water. How dangerous the result is can already be seen in the warning signs of rapidly depleting ground water level in and around Delhi year after year. The river bed, especially its flood plains, is where the ground water level is recharged naturally during the monsoon. The encroachments on the river basin and flood plains undermine this process of ground water recharge, and make water famine no longer a distant possibility.

Expert advice on all these matters has been repeatedly brushed aside by the decision-makers because of their overpowering land greed, powered by multi-billion business in real estates. If unabated, it would accelerate the sinking of the ground water level in Delhi by encroaching further on the flood basin of the Yamuna. As I write this, news is coming from Mumbai that people are violently protesting on the further reduction in the meagre quantity of water which the municipality provides to the citizens. Mumbai once had a river which has been killed for real estate development. Will the Yamuna also join soon the ranks of the disappeared Saraswati and become a mere sacred myth? And what would then happen to the Capital city of Delhi?

It is time that we start acting locally even if we continue talking globally. Between pretension and action the gap can still be narrowed.

The author, a distinguished diplomat (now retired), is a prominent social activist.

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