Saturday, 20 March 2010

Yamuna clean-up drive

Flashing two notes of Rs 100 each, 40-year-old Aziz was very happy with himself. For he, a diver by profession, doesn’t get this much money everyday. He was rewarded in cash for joining hundreds of volunteers in the clean-up drive of the Yamuna in India’s national capital Delhi.

An eight-day campaign, beginning from March 17, is on to clean up the Yamuna which is literally on its deathbed.

Hundreds of volunteers with gloves and face masks are cleaning filth from eight jetties of the river. The dirty dark river water emanates foul small and its banks are generally littered with garbage and plastic bags.

Originating from the Himalayas, it’s one of the holiest rivers according to the Hindu mythology and runs through 1,370 kilometres. But its 22 kilomteres course through Delhi turns it into a rotting water canal. This mere two per cent of its catchment area is responsible for the river’s 80 per cent pollution load.

The moment the river enters the capital its contour changes—it shrinks into a narrow waterway. A large amount of Yamuna water is stored in an upstream dam by Haryana state and only a trickle of it is released into Delhi.

As it flows down it is joined by 17 big sewage canals emptying their waste into the river, apart from other industrial poisonous waste.

By the time the river reaches the heart of the city it’s already dark slush, poisonous enough to bathe animal and wash vegetables forget about drinking it.

Yet, poor divers make their living out of the river. Everyday, two odd dozens of divers come to the Yamuna River to swim across it, search its bottom for valuable items, gold or pennies dropped by Hindu devotees into the river who worship it as a goddess.

“We look for valuable things which we can sell but at the same time we are useful in saving people who drown or try to commit suicide. We have also fished out many dead bodies and handed them over to police. But our services are never acknowledged by anyone,” says Aziz, 40, who now looks as dark as the river water by years of diving and tanning in harsh Delhi sun.

Aziz like many other divers grew up in shanties by the river and learnt swimming as a traditional trade.

“The only time we are considered useful is at the time of annual cleaning of the river following the Hindu festival of ‘Chaath’ when devotees throw a lot of things including flowers, coins, cloths and other rubbish into the river,” says 29-year-old Latman who depends on the Yamuna to raise his family.

The campaign has been organised by Art of Living Foundation along with other government and private sectors participation. The educational and humanitarian group was founded in 1982 by spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.

Whether the drive will be able to make any long lasting impact in restoring the past glory of Yamuna is hard to say but it has surely brought some smiles on these divers’ faces as they are being paid money for the cleaning up of the river.

Twenty-year old Nasser said he can hope for some money for these eight days. “After this we will have to fend for ourselves depending on what we get from the water.”

Nasser found the campaign a mere hoopla. “Those who wanted publicity came to show their face, splashed their smiles in front of cameras and took credit for the campaign. I’m sure the campaign involves a lot of money, though we got only a little. The river won’t get cleaned by such short campaigns. It needs 24x7 efforts,” said Nasser.

Billions of rupees have been spent on the cleaning of the river but of no avail. It still remains a lethal risk to public health.

Dr Murarilal, an environmentalist and ex director of Horticultural Department in Delhi, says cleaning the river once in a year is no solution. There should be more realistic and sustained efforts to stop the river from decaying further.

He says “all the raw sewage and industrial waste should be treated properly before releasing it into the river but many of our treatment plant don’t function properly.”

Moreover he says the city garbage can be turned into gold if a proper planning is followed.

“Delhi alone generates about 700 metric tonnes of garbage everyday. If that garbage is processed scientifically, it will fulfill the need of 20 million tonnes of organic manure. And we won’t have to entirely depend on the import of chemical fertilizers. It’s a very simple thing to do. But the million dollar question is who will do it?” asks Murarilal.