Will a resurrected river in India stay alive post-lockdown?

Idols on the river's banks
The Third Pole
New Delhi, India

Will a resurrected river in India stay alive post-lockdown?

In Hindu mythology, Yamuna is the sister of Yama, the god of death and resurrection. The 1,376-kilometre-long Yamuna River, which flows from the Himalayas to Allahabad – where it meets the Ganga – has clearly been resurrected due to the absence of industrial pollution forced by the Covid-19 induced lockdown across India.

The river that flows through India’s capital was just as clearly dead before the lockdown. With the central and state governments now planning how to ease restrictions and restart factories, the fear is that pollution issues may get the short shrift.

But every disaster is also an opportunity to rebuild better, and a reminder of just how polluted the Yamuna was before the lockdown may be what policymakers need to ensure that they do not repeat the mistake of failing to implement pollution control laws.

Before the lockdown, people driving on the bridges over the Yamuna in New Delhi had to close their windows to keep out the stench. They could hardly believe that this river once supported a whole community of fishers, some of whom still live on its banks because they stuggle to make a living and have nowhere else to go.

Some of the Yamuna bank slums in New Delhi also house migrant fishers from other states, with Bihar and West Bengal taking the lead. The men join the struggle for fish while their wives and daughters work as domestic helpers.

Yamuna river fishers
Industrial waste foams over the Yamuna near the Okhla barrage in New Delhi as fishers look for catch / Credit: Richa Singh

Pappan Kashyap is from a traditional fisher family that still lives on the Yamuna's banks.

“There are hardly any fish in the Yamuna these days,” he said. “It’s better during the monsoon but still not as it used to be 10 years ago.”

Kashyap now works as a diver for the police. It's a job that has involved fishing dead bodies out of the murky waters. He is especially proud of his nephew, who has won the President’s Award for saving several children from drowning.

Garbage flows unhindered

Industrial pollution has stopped during the lockdown, but not domestic sewage, much of which continues to flow untreated into the river because the treatment plants cannot cope with the volume. And while the cleaner look of Yamuna's waters during the lockdown reveals the impact of industrial pollution, it cannot detract from the importance of treating all domestic waste and not using the riverbank as a dumping ground.


Life on the riverbank

Archana works as a part-time domestic helper in various houses in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi. Twelve years ago, she, her husband, one daughter and three sons moved from their village in West Bengal in search of a better livelihood. Her husband does not like it in New Delhi and stays in the village as long as he can. He usually comes to their home along the banks of the Yamuna during the monsoon to join other fishers -- though he did not do so last monsoon. With two of her sons married, Archana’s salary supports the whole family; she also sends money back to the village.

Archana’s day starts at 5am. She comes home around 2pm after her morning shifts, then cooks lunch, washes clothes, cleans, bathes her grandchildren and herself, and feeds the grandchildren before eating anything. By 5pm, she is back at work. All the women in the slum have similar routines.

Archana's neighbors
Archana's neighbor Vimal cooks lunch in his household while his wife works as a domestic helper. After lunch, Vimal goes to New Delhi’s wholesale fish market to buy what he can afford and then sells it in his neighborhood. He does not buy from the fishers because customers know how polluted the Yamuna is and avoid its fish / Credit: Richa Singh

Even when it was biologically dead, the Yamuna was still a revered river. Many Hindus pray to it regularly. Now all those living close to the river – especially those living on the riverbanks and dependent on it for a living – are hoping that the resurrection does not prove ephemeral.

Flower floating on the Yamuna
A flower offered to the river goddess Yamuna floats atop polluted industrial foam near the Okhla barrage in New Delhi / Credit: Richa Singh

Banner image: Idols are pictured among garbage and pollution along the Yamuna River at Kalindi Kunj in New Delhi / Credit: Richa Singh

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