A putrid ribbon of black sludge’

Published: September 1, 2009 - 17:54 Updated: July 2, 2015 - 14:41

Union environment minister said the Yamuna is not a river in Delhi. If it is a sewage drain, whatever happened to Rs 1,800 crore spent on cleaning the river?

The Yamuna is one of the filthiest and polluted rivers of the world. The river pays a heavy price for passing through one of the dirtiest, most congested (and insensitive) cities of the world - Delhi. This city dumps almost 60 per cent of its daily waste, including industrial effluents and sewage, into the river, and contributes 70 per cent of its total pollution load. Despite numerous attempts to revive it, the river remains a sewage drain, a dirty and stagnant nullah (drain), carrying thousands of harmful bacteria and toxic waste that cause fatal waterborne diseases.

The toxicity directly affects the ground water and agriculture land around it, and thereby enters the food and drinking water cycle. Indeed, fish and vegetables grown on the banks of Yamuna in Delhi are prone to be seriously toxic and dangerous. Most sewage treatment plants are ineffective, either working under capacity or do not have electricity as pending bills have not been cleared.

Meanwhile, the State promises to usher in electricity in every village and widespread progress with nuclear energy. When? And, how? Even when they can't clean up a dead river in the heart of its capital?

Yamuna traverses 1,375 km from Yamnotri, its Himalayan source in Uttarakhand, to Allahabad in UP, and maintains a seemingly good quality of water till it reaches Wazirabad in Delhi. In Delhi, 15 drains discharge their filthy muck and waste into the river, making it the most polluted river in the country with practically no biologically dissolved oxygen. It runs for 22 km in Delhi and what flows (does not flow) is basically stagnant filth, effluents, sewage and pollutants.

Delhi generates about 3,267 million litres per day (mld) of sewage while the city's installed waste water treatment capacity is only 2,330 mld. More than 937 mld of waste is not treated. Out of Delhi's 2,330 mld treatment capacity, 37 per cent is under-utilised and 1,270 mld of sewage is untreated and allowed to enter the river everyday. During summers, the Wazirabad barrage lets out little fresh water into the river and the only flow downstream is waste. Lesser fresh water would mean more discharge and greater pollution levels. The exit point for the river in Delhi is the Okhla barrage and during summers no water is released while the river is joined by the Shahadra drain downstream, massively adding more effluents. The Shahadra drain is not far behind the Najafgarh drain in polluting the river.

For the river water to be fit for bathing, Yamuna needs at least 24,000 mld of freshwater for dilution, but with no fresh water available for almost nine months the river has only deadly pollutants, toxins and wastewater flowing into it.

The dead river has a dilution requirement of 75 per cent, implying that for every 100 litres of wastewater, 75 litres of freshwater is required. Scientists state that with the flow of fresh water, pollutants (especially organic pollutants) degrade to a large extent. But at every step, this purified water is extracted, and larger loads of pollution make their way into the river. Newsweek describes Yamuna as "a putrid ribbon of black sludge" where faecal bacteria is 10,000 times over basic safety limits, despite the existence of a 15-year official programme to address the problem.

Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh recently said that Yamuna is not a river in Delhi. It is a nullah. So, whatever happened to the Rs 1,800 crore spent on cleaning the river?

Hollow promises made by Delhi and Central government to clean the river before Commonwealth Games in 2010 have met a dead-end. Yamuna is dead in a city that expresses no gratitude towards the river that meets more than 70 per cent of its water demand (before it turns into a virtual drain at Wazirabad in west Delhi). If towns (like Agra) downstream do what Delhi is so ruthlessly doing to the river, then even this 'river-nullah' might turn into a multitude of open sewers and drains. As environmentalist Sunita Narain said cryptically: "The River is dead. It just has not been officially cremated."

Union environment minister said the Yamuna is not a river in Delhi. If it is a sewage drain, whatever happened to Rs 1,800 crore spent on cleaning the river?

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This story is from print issue of HardNews