India’s Lesser-Known River May be its Biggest Problem

By Pia Peterson & Thea Piltzecker

Conservationists warn that Yamuna River is dead. Can India resurrect it?

VRINDAVAN – Ton and tons  of colored dyes, some of them toxic, are released into India’s air and waterways over the Hindu holiday of Holi, when citizens paint the town and each other. But at the Caitanya Prem Sansthan ashram here, celebrants use only natural, nontoxic pigments and spices like turmeric and flowers for the celebration.

The head of the ashram, Srivatsa Goswami, is struggling to save the Yamuna River which flows just outside of his ashram. “We are fighting for the life of the Yamuna, because the Yamuna is our life,” Goswami says. His son Suvarna adds, “We don’t call it the Yamuna right now. This dirty water, this is not the Yamuna. This is sewage water.”

Hindu religious ceremonies, like Holi or funerals, get a bad rap for polluting the river, Goswami says. It’s true that many rituals involve using the river for purification purposes. In the case of funerals, bodies are burned in riverbank pyres and the ashes are swept into the water. In certain instances, the bodies themselves are disposed of in the river. But these practices, prevalent though they are, make just small contributions to the overall pollution and state of the river.


The head of the Caitanya Prem Sansthan, Srivatsa Goswami

The main polluter of the Yamuna, Goswami points out, is a secular one, the sewage that flows from New Delhi and the cities along its banks. “Krishna cleans the Yamuna, but we have a responsibility also,” Goswami says. “More than religion, it’s the politicians, the economic community that have shifted their attention away--and the catastrophe is Vrindavan.” Outside the ashram’s walls, the river is clogged with chemical waste from manufacturing, pesticide runoff, and the detritus from riverbank housing and religious usage.

Vrindavan is 80 miles downriver from New Delhi, one of the most populated cities in the world, and one that lacks the infrastructure to provide for all of the city’s estimated 22 million people. This is especially a problem when it comes to waste and waste removal. Dr. Syamel Sarkar of Delhi’s Energy and Resources institute says that the city’s sewage treatment capacity currently hovers at about 50 percent. In the end, both the treated and untreated sewage flow straight to the Yamuna and on to Vrindavan.

The Yamuna River stems from a glacier in the Himalayas and runs for 855 miles through northern India.  But the 13 miles that run through Delhi are effectively “dead,” choked of oxygen because of the water’s high pollution concentration, according to Sarkar.

Fresh water upstream is diverted to farmland; before the river reaches the cities, more is directed to the drinking supply. High pollution and low water supply means that the river itself has a rate of toxicity far and above the average. Safe bathing water should have 500 bacteria per 100 milliliters; as of the latest tally, the Yamuna has 1.1 billion fecal bacteria in the same amount of water.

In Vrindravan, the problem is compounded; the river’s flow is essentially concentrated wastewater from Delhi. Sarkar says that groundwater depletion from wells and other obstructions along the way concentrate the pollution in the remaining groundwater, which is linked to the river. As a result, 22  miles of the Yamuna, from Delhi to Agra (including the section of the river that flows through Vrindravan) have recently been declared unfit for swimming or bathing.

But an official declaration means little to the people who depend on the river for their drinking water, jobs, or religious practice. Mornings at the riverbank are crowded affairs; people come to the water to wash, pray, or travel on one of the painted rowboats punting along the shore.

An estimated third of the population of Delhi lives in illegal settlements that aren’t connected to the sewage system or properly counted in census data. The riverbank slum-dwellers further complicate municipal plans: how can a government implement effective resource management if it isn’t quite sure how many people need those resources?

In Vrindravan, a plan to install a more comprehensive sewage system has stalled, leaving concrete pipes piled at the water’s edge. They lie along the main road by the river, dozens upon dozens of lengths of pipe tall enough for a small man to walk through. They hinder the traffic of rickshaws, buses, cows, and people along the roadway. In town, a public urinal on a quiet street empties into a runoff channel, where it mixes with rainwater, dung, and oil and gas remnants. The channel winds downhill, directly into the Yamuna, where it mingles with trash along the muddy riverbank.

Despite its polluted banks, the river has recently won a major protective foothold in the court system. In late March 2017, the Uttarkhand state government granted the Yamuna and the Ganges legal personhood, which entitles them to the same legal rights as a citizen. This means that any harmful actions towards the rivers can be considered “equivalent to harming a person.”1

The Indian government has made extremely public its efforts to protect the iconic Ganges, but less attention has been paid to the tributary Yamuna. The Yamuna Action Plan was launched in 1993, and the Indian government has spent millions over the last few decades trying to revive the “dead” river with no improvement in water quality, according to Sarkar.

However, the designation of personhood is a state decision, not a federal one. And religious leaders are not included in the decision-making body. Instead the three groups in charge of advocating on the river’s behalf are the head of the Ganges Clean-up Program, the chief secretary of the state of Uttarkhand, and a member of the state’s highest court. Non-governmental environmental advocacy groups, too, are noticeably absent.

Sarkar points out that the government, while it takes actions on the surface, cannot fix the problem without reaching across borders and working with other municipalities and the federal government to affect change. Sarkar warns that “as a stakeholder, the government cannot deliver results alone,” and needs to work with religious leaders, private companies, and across party lines.

Despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi trumpeting his efforts with the Ganga Action Plan over the past two years, the river remains dangerously polluted for many who rely on it for daily life and religious rituals, according to Goswami. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent over the last few decades, and India is still no closer to a solution for the Ganges and its tributaries.

While politicians struggle to turn campaign promises into effective positive changes for the river, Hindu religious leaders like Goswami must work in their own communities to affect smaller changes, such as using eco-friendly dyes, or organizing clean-ups of a popular temple in town to encourage Indians to take responsibility for their trash. It will still take a massive effort and commitment on behalf of all Indians to make the river as it once was, and safe for all people to drink and bathe in. “This dirty water is not the Yamuna,” Goswami says. “If we accept this dirty water body as Yamuna, we are doing it an injustice.”