Rediscovering a ‘lost’ river
Our City Fathers’ planning is polite.
The abattoir is on the edge of town.
Yet out of mind may not be out of sight;
Here on, the river runs a darker brown.
(from River Quatrains by Peter Porter)
Somewhere within the dark, unfathomable, murky depths of the black waters, lies the river. Mingled with the sewage and muck, it flows on as it always did since the beginning of time. Only now, not many people know its whereabouts, or if there is a river in Delhi at all. They do not know that the city’s relationship with the hilly ridge and the river Yamuna. For most the river can only be imagined as a number, which denotes how ‘dirty’ it is, or through the token plastic bags local politicians retrieve from it annually, for a photo-op. The river however, flows on, irrespective of the usurping of its banks, regardless of its faded memory, still inextricably linked to the city and its environs. Nourishing, nurturing and taking care of the ungrateful city, like a mother.
If one has lived in Delhi long enough, inevitably nostalgia is hard to escape. More than two decades ago, as I walked along the banks of the river, a tiny grey and white bird wagged its tail in a characteristic manner. My first bird sighting as a bird watcher! The white wagtail, a winter migrant had flown hundreds of miles to Delhi, to feed on the sandy shores of the ancient Yamuna. It had probably done this for centuries. Today, like the poachards, the vultures, the cranes and the storks, white wagtails are hard to see on the river bank. From a bird's eye view, even two decades ago, Delhi was a big wetland. A river that gently merged with its banks, with weedy marshes where nests abound, and small lakes full of feeding waders, shimmered in the morning sun. A misty boat ride on a winter's morning led one through flocks of poachards and other ducks, startled as one chanced upon them. The Najafgarh Jheel and nallah, the Bhalsawa or horseshoe lake (now a golf course and DDA lake resort!) the river banks near Delhi University and onwards much further down towards the Okhla barrage saw many species and thousands of birds. Today the particular bank where the little white wagtail fed is ash grey, only not as sand but as fly ash! A dumping ground for the adjoining power station. A sign posted on the barbed wire fence cordoning it off threatens that 'trespassers will be prosecuted.’ Maybe the birds understand. For both the winged visitors as well as us, public space on the river Yamuna is now hard to come by. The barbed wire and the fly ash dump literally and metaphorically are barriers that run very deep.
The river in Delhi is very dirty. A twelve hundred kilometer river receives eighty percent of its pollution in the twenty-two kilometers it traverses through the city. Nineteen sewage drains flow into it. No matter that once these drains were rainwater channels. Now they are just smelly drains. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has figures to prove it, and a mission to clean it to at least a lowest ‘irrigation water quality.’ To achieve this the Japanese have given a massive aid package (over 700 crores) as part of the Yamuna Action Plan since 1993, to ensure that toilets are built for the slum dwellers who live on the banks of the river, so that they do not defecate on its banks. How is it that those who do not have water to consume pour it back into the river as sewage? Seventy five thousand families lived on the riverfront, before they began to be systematically uprooted. They contributed less than 0.08% of the 3296 mld of waste flowing daily into the river every day. Several factories, including metal polishing units dump hazardous substances into these drains. No one knows where to start, but everyone hits at the most vulnerable. There is no water in the river, especially in summer. That is diverted two hundred kilometers upstream at Tajewala, in Haryana. It is only the sewage of those who can afford to produce the waste they do.
The river extends beyond its channel into the city. Unseen but connected deeply to its existence and ecological systems. It has flowed through the city regardless and forever much before even the first city here was built. From the time of Tuglaq, through the times of Shajahan, the British and now. It even flowed through the ‘Red Fort’ when it was brought from the nearby city of Karnal by the Emperor Shahjahan through a canal which he called the Nahr – i- Bihishti He had built on earlier canal ventures: Tuglaq’s Rajabwah and Ulughkhani and Akbar’s Shaikhu – ni, to control the river and bring it closer to home. The waters then streamed through the ‘romantic’ Chandani Chowk and the Emperor's royal darbar itself. Delhi was located in a hollow between the fifteen million year Ridge Forest and the river. When the rains came, the rainwater gushed down many rivulets on the ridge into large lakes. It collected in cusps, like the recently leveled Najafgarh Jheel. Canals (now drains) were dug to coax the water back into the ever-flowing river. Along the way the water seeped into the soil and recharged the groundwater. Birds flew in and roosted. Animals drank even while being hunted as royal ‘game.’ Goods were ferried along the river, as were the people and the emperor in his flotilla Today, vegetables grow on its bank. Rag pickers and priests along with fishermen, laborers, sand dredgers and slum folks also live there, servicing the city in one way or another. The river was (and unknown to most of the city, still is) central to the life of the city and to its ecology.
Now, that it represents merely an unmet water standard, every other aspect of it is unimportant or even a hindrance. The river must be cleaned but then it can be dismantled. Like dismembering a body after giving it a transfusion. Everyone’s mission is defined. So, the DDA is to channelise it to a 500 m canal and commercialize the priceless 9700 ha of riverbed real estate land on either bank for parking, transport, golf courses, conventions centers and museums. The CPCB is to clean the river. The Municipality is to make walkways along its sides (like on the Thames!) and cleanse its shores of defecating people. The NGOs are the politically correct partners in this ‘project.’ The Public Works Department is to make roads so that the river does not hinder movement and people drive across it over modern bridges. The Delhi Jal Board is to ensure that drinking water would come from the Tehri Dam and the city not be dependant on the river for it. The river will no longer be needed and can be showcased so long as it is cleaned. The future is fixed. Many school children do not even know that there is a present and a past in the form of a river. Technology and the city have morphed into each other.
The river is hard to see. Several bridges now span the river, more modern and faster then the aging but classic old Yamuna pull. As one drives from the Ring Road to one of the several bridges and across them, the river does not appear to ones view. It is somewhere there, but unseen. Crossed everyday by thousands of commuters, it is not part of ones imagination. The bridges have now tall fences on either side. Very tall, over twenty or thirty feet high wire meshes protect the river from those who wish to throw marigold malas into it. Only people who must throw, do throw, it is a matter of faith and culture for them. But since not everyone has a pitcher’s arm, the mesh is decorated with drying malas, which were not thrown high enough to cross the fence, which has grown higher with people’s determination. It is classic of the way in which the city thinks of the river. Instead of trying to build access to it, it has ensured that there is none.
The riverbed is already being reclaimed for massive temples and for holding the Commonwealth Games (which proposes to use the Okhla Bird Sanctuary for its water sports events!). The riverbank is a site for major activity. It has a new landscape. The Metro Rail cleaning yards, cement casting sites for ‘prefab’ structures for the new flyovers, a new power station to meet Delhi’s insatiable demand, are all located here. Our leaders rest in peace alongside in massive samadhis. However for the everyday citizen, who does not live along it, the river has little or no access. Merely reaching its bank just to be next to it, can be a major endeavor at most places. That is, if one can negotiate the innumerable road barricades which proudly announce “Delhi Police, With You, For You, Always.” Access Denied. Trespassers will be Prosecuted.
Somewhere between the two realities of the river lies a struggle. One, that of the ‘dirty river’ which must be sanitized and controlled and another, of the river that is part of our personal and collective ecologies. One represents technology and a removed ‘mapped’ topography, while the other an everyday interwoven connection. The two seem irreconcilable, both leading to different understandings, relationships and futures, but are not necessarily so.
As the river meanders through the city, for many it is part of the everyday. As the sun sets over the city, three young girls, sisters all, alight from a wooden raft along with their aging parents and a kid brother. Back from a day’s labour on a vegetable farm on the riverbank, they live in Delhi, at Sarai Kale Khan, (which itself is located in the shadow of the famous Humayun’s tomb and adjacent to Delhi’s earliest landfill) but work on the other side, in Noida. The farm is a mere hundred meters or so across the bank, but then a river flows through this. Rather than take a ten-kilometer detour across the Nizamuddin Bridge, it is easier and faster to board a flat wooden raft and heave themselves to the other bank by an overhead rope strung across the watery chasm. The current can be stronger than it seems. As they alight, they shyly pose for a photograph, the youngest one tugging at the skirt of the eldest, their faces glowing in the setting sun. Along with them is cargo. Crates of freshly plucked tomatoes, which will be sold at the nearby Okhla mandi. Almost at the same time a motorcycle pulls up with a young couple, shopping for fresh vegetables. They are regulars. The prices are better than at the mandi, and the choice more fresh. The river feeds them all, as it does the city. With brinjals, ochra, cauliflowers, tomatoes and pumpkins of all sorts. Along with come roses and marigolds, favorites of the hundreds who flocked to temples each morning in all parts of the city. The riverbank is the home garden. It is fertile land enriched by the silt brought down from the mountains during the monsoon rains, when the water rises. Still nourishing the city as it has always done. However through no fault of its own, now also contaminating the produce through all the heavy metals which the water has been impregnated with.
In another part near Nigambodh Ghat, along the riverbank are several temples. They have their own little ghats with stepped boundary walls, complete with priests and tenants. Daily, at one of them, a temple pujari does what he has done ever since he has been here. For more than forty years. At four –o – clock, he unties his dhoti, and takes off his banyan. Clad in a loincloth he dips both pieces of clothing into the black waters, beating them, as if to remove the daily dirt and grime and then wrings them dry. He then spreads them on the steps to catch the sun. Next, without hesitation he steps into the water, half his body disappearing from view, swallowed by the opaque waters. Not even the strong evening summer sun can penetrate the blackness. His arms stretched overhead, palms folded in prayer, he dips and disappears into the dark void. Quickly he re-emerges, rotating and washing the holy janau around his chest. Mumbling a prayer, facing the sun, he then proceeds to take several dips, rubbing his body before finally stepping out and sitting on the bank, in a lotus posture still mouthing a prayer. The black jal is then cupped and splashed in front of him, to wipe the temporary alter ‘clean.’ He then takes some of it in his palm and sips it gingerly, whilst splaying the rest around his head and tugging his ears, as if asking forgiveness for his sins. His eyes are shut in silence and meditation. He has connected to the river, oblivious of its current material condition. When asked, he dismisses “all this thing” about how dirty ‘Ma Yamuna’ is. Nothing has ever happened to him, he says. The river for him absorbs and cleanses. He is ‘pure’ once more.
The morning is different for some who live near the Pontoon Bridge along the old Yamuna bridge. Astride a gunnysack filled with thermocoal which serves as a precarious raft, the little boy paddles furiously, using a wooden oar made of nailed crate planks and a handle carved at one end. His target: a cluster of plastic bags floating midstream with the current. As he reaches it, he stooped to pick it up and loads it on his dangerous looking floater. Several of his friends are doing the same thing alongside. Yesterday evening had been a festival day, and the devotees had offered their homage to the river, only these were packed in plastic bags! On the shore, men, ragpickers, sit on a heap of retrieved bags. It is evident that many people had much homage to pay the evening earlier, for the heap is huge. Tearing open each bag they empty them of their contents, piling the empty bags in another heap. These would then be washed, dried and sold for 1.5 rupees a kilo. Today is a good day. The river is their livelihood.
Earlier in the day, in fact very early every morning at three, especially in the summer months, a caravan of bullock carts line up on the river’s bank, which overlooks the massive Inderprastha Power station. One by one, each one rides into the river’s shallow waters. There, the rider dives in with a tasla, filling it with sand from the riverbed. This is dumped into the cart, till it starts to sink from the growing weight. Each cartload of sand is brought back to the shore, tugged by a panting, heaving bull and egged on by a whipping driver. There it is transferred to another cart to be carried out. The sand dredger keeps returning to the river for more sand, until sunrise announces the end of the work ‘day.’ Yamuna sand is critical for the hectic construction activity on in the city. In fact, all the pollutants that have deposited into it are probably transferred back into people’s homes. Everything, which is pushed out, comes back, they say of the cycle of nature and of life.
At another place, an old lathe lies alongside the river’s bank. So does a broken fridge, a leaky bathtub, cycle tyres and lots of copper wires. The junkshop across the road at Okhla uses the bank as a warehouse. Two men, with large long hammers prise the aluminum spokes from old rickshaw tires, while another burns the copper wires of its plastic covering. The bank bustles with activity. A tailor sits on the stone wall, his space cordoned off by a bed sheet strung on a rope across a tree and an electric pole. Another two men have dipped their make shift fishing poles into the shallow waters in the hope of catching some small fish. Even they know that not much will be caught, but it is fun anyway! Many very young cricket teams seem merged into one mass on the dry bank, all evidently playing separate games. Telling one game from the other is impossible for the outsider but seems quite easy for those on the ‘grounds.’ Further down, a cremation shed has cropped up, probably illegal as per municipal laws. But has death been ever bound by legalities?
At one end near a yachting club, is a mammoth sand hillock, overgrown with weeds and grass in patches. Young boys patrol its periphery, preventing any stranger from going onto it since it has been earmarked as private defecating grounds for the women from the nearby colony
On the other side of the bridge at Kalindi Kunj, where the river begins to leave the city, are private farms. Some are larger and grow maize and grain. The land is evidently leased out to the farmers. Other farms are now farmhouses, owned by city folks. One owned by a well-known Delhi restaurant chain owner, is a model one, with organically grown fruits, and aromatic herbs, fertilized by locally produced vermiculture from the kitchen waste. No pesticides are allowed, and what the parrots eat is their share! Everywhere, boats act as freight carriers. Each morning and evening vegetables are ferried from the bank as well as from the small river islands, both downstream and upstream to reach points close to markets. The same boats carry the workers to and fro from work sites. The boatmen, tanned and sinuous, live on the banks and some even build their own boats. Not many in the city would believe that along with the metro rail, cars and bicycles, boats too are transport in Delhi. In fact that they have been so for centuries.
There are several small shrines, little temples and large goashallas where milk is produced and hay is stored. Abandoned dhobi ghats, their tubs and kilns clustered on the edge of the waters, lie scattered. Probably they may be used sometime but their hearths seem cold now. Kabaris store their daily waste pickings, sorted, weighed and baled for sale. They serve the city well as they have always done. At other sites there are large bulldozers, precisely and purposefully leveling the land for a new power station, even as a cluster of boys fish in a little pond while they still can. A menacing but colorful scarecrow stands in warning in a field surrounded by a watchful dog amongst the maize. 'Elephants live here' says a sign on ITO bridge, a small staircase leading down from it onto the river into a small colony There is immense activity everywhere and change is the common denominator. Except it seems that everything is now to be flattened out.
The new flyovers provide a new vantage view of the majestic landscape of the waters, as they leave the city. These are fresh imaginations, made possible ironically by the new development. The new DND flyover overlooks the river joining the horizon on either side. At another point on it, the river looks magnificent, set against the backdrop of the affluent Maharini Bagh and New Friends Colony. On its banks, bulldozers are busy flattening the land for another new bridge. The city is growing, the river must be crossed. Only the river does not seem to be bothered as it turns its back on the city and disappears into the heavens.
The city is like a technological venture. Water comes from a municipal tap and food from the supermarket or the nearby retailer. Clean air is a matter of implementing the proper environmental standards. The ecological connection is forgotten. The river is needed so long as it serves a purpose. That the river is part of a complex web of life is not recognized. Humans are placed outside ‘nature.’ Nature needs to be preserved, conserved, controlled and used, not necessarily in that order, but outside the ‘human,’ and not as part of it. There is an unstated but clear separation between the two. Is the river dirty because we have stopped connecting to it or because we have not installed the proper sewage treatment plants? We seem to be caught in these times. Escape seems impossible. There is no exit. Except maybe by re- unearthing our ecological connections. By uncovering another way of being, of reconnecting to ecology of the self and to the outside. Maybe Krishna needs to reappear to rid the Yamuna of Kaliyan the serpent once more. Maybe in this age of modernity and technology, we the people of the city are Krishna, and the cleansing our battle. Both inside and outside our-selves.
Monday, December 10, 2007
Rediscovering a ‘lost’ river