Where is my river?

January 12th, 2012

This side of the river. And that side of the river. For many of us in Delhi, the Yamuna is an important reference point. It comes up in our conversations every now and then when speaking about locations or when giving directions. But unfortunately, that’s all that the river has become – a mere reference point, a meandering blue line that runs through one corner on the map of Delhi. The river is not really in our thoughts. It’s just there, an ugly, polluted ordeal that we have to deal with during rush hour.

Why just the Yamuna? Most major rivers in our country, the lifelines around which ancient civilisations thrived, are no longer part of our lives. Driving around Delhi, dealing with the chaos and the blaring horns, does the thought ever occur that there is a very alive river flowing through the city? Are tourists who come from across the world for the ‘Incredible India’ experience and have Old Delhi, with its choked lanes and innumerable sounds and flavours on their don’t-miss list, ever tempted to make it to the banks of the Yamuna to enjoy a quiet evening out? What would it be like to go boating in the Yamuna? Or canoeing? Or fishing on a sunny winter day? Or bird watching? Given the state of the river, these are unthinkable thoughts.

In few other countries would a river that offers such immense possibilities and opportunities be so blatantly mistreated. Take the Thames, for example. There are over 200 rowing clubs on the river. Kayaking and canoeing are popular and so are events such as the Thames Meander that involves rowing, swimming in the river and/or running along it. Let alone such sports, can one even think of taking a stroll by the Yamuna?

Some months ago, an art project, which was incidentally organised in collaboration with the Delhi government, did try to draw attention to the Yamuna and make the people of the city aware of the forgotten river. Cultural shows were organised. Art exhibitions were held. Every possible effort was made to draw people to the banks of the great river. It was a good idea and a great starting point for the government. If only it had the will to make this a sustainable exercise and develop the riverfront. The way things are today, the river is barely visible even from any of the bridges that connect the two parts of Delhi, on this side of the river and that.

While the forgotten river sits right under our noses, cocking a snook at us for our shortsightedness, we find ourselves lured by property developers who promise to create riverside and seaside experiences for us for a few crores. And foolish as we are, we continue to ignore what is real and instead chase the unnatural for a similar experience. So, the Yamuna continues to remain one of the most polluted rivers in the world. Despite the Yamuna Action Plan which was initiated in the early 1990s and the crores of rupees that have been washed down the river, the water body is a mess. Three years ago, in 2009, the government admitted in the Lok Sabha that despite the Yamuna Action Plan, the river was no cleaner than it was 20 years ago.

The river of great opportunities is today Delhi’s biggest dumping ground. Delhi throws close to 60 per cent of its waste into the Yamuna. The question is: how to reclaim the river from the city?

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