Rajat Sharma

Why is Yamuna river in Delhi frothing?

akbSince Diwali, Delhi had been witnessing smog in the morning due to air pollution. On Monday, people across the world watched visuals of the Yamuna river in Delhi covered with froth, and Chhath Puja devotees standing waist deep in the river. Despite a huge spend of nearly Rs 5,000 crores by Delhi, Haryana and UP on cleaning up Yamuna over the years, the end result is disappointing. The water of Yamuna in Delhi is blackish, and it is neither fit for drinking, nor bathing or even washing hands. Thus Delhi is facing a twin danger of both severe air and water pollution.

Experts say, bathing in the river filled with froth could cause skin diseases. As the four-day Chhath Puja festival began from Monday, there was politics over devotees bathing in the Yamuna. While Delhi Disaster Management Authority has banned rituals on the Yamuna banks, BJP workers led by local leaders went with groups of Purvanchal devotees for the rituals on Monday morning. During Chhath Puja, water from river is taken for preparing ‘prasad’ and food, and the water is sprinkled inside homes. Seeing the abysmal quality of Yamuna water beneath the foam and froth, one wonders how devotees would be carrying out the rituals.

The visuals of Yamuna frothing near Delhi’s Kalindi Kunj could make one wonder whether these are from Alaska’s sub-zero temperature region, or of a glacier melting in Antarctica or of a river covered with ice. Yamuna is the lifeline of Delhi. Water from Yamuna upstream near Wazirabad and Sonia Vihar is used for drinking purpose, while Yamuna downstream carries industrial effluents and waste from households. The levels of biochemical oxygen and dissolved oxygen in Yamuna river are of very poor quality and not fit for even bathing, experts say.

The question is: what has happened to the Yamuna Action Plan and all other projects for which money was sanctioned, but all efforts went down the drain?

Let me state the facts. Delhi government has so far spent Rs 2387 crore on ‘cleaning’ the Yamuna. Neighbouring states Haryana and UP were also supposed to spend money on cleaning this river. UP government spent Rs 2052 crore, while Haryana government spent Rs 549 crore on ‘cleaning’ Yamuna. Adding all the money spent by these three states, it comes to Rs 4988 crore. The result: Yamuna continues to be a river of filth in Delhi.

You will be surprised to know, Delhi government has already spent Rs 1,514 crore under Yamuan Action Plan-1 and Yamuna Action Plan-2. Seventeen projects estimated at Rs 3941 crore were approved for cleaning Yamuna under ‘Namami Gange’ plan. The Yamuna Action Plan was implemented way back from 1993. Twenty eight years have passed and the Yamuna is still a river filled with garbage.

Charges flew back and forth between BJP and AAP leaders on Monday over the dirty Yamuna. BJP leader Manoj Tiwari reminded people of how Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal had promised to make Yamuna as clean as the river Thames of London. Tiwari demanded that the Supreme Court should take suo motu cognizance of the fact and seek accountability from Delhi government. In reply, AAP leader and Delhi Jal Board vice-chairman Raghav Chadha blamed neighbouring states Haryana and UP for collectively releasing 150 million gallons per day of untreated sewage into the Yamuna.

On the frothing of Yamuna river at Kalindi Kunj, Raghav Chadha said, water filled with huge amounts of surfactants falls into Kalindi Kunj from a height, which causes foam. He blamed Haryana government for the rising toxicity in Yamuna river.

Politics apart, the fact remains that BJP, Congress and Aam Aadmi Party have been in power in Delhi for the last three decades. The 1,400 km long Yamuna flows only 22 km in Delhi, and it is Delhi government’s responsibility to keep the river clean. Chadha has blamed the UP government too. He said, the Okhla barrage near Kalindi Kunj is operated by UP government, but UP minister Siddharth Nath Singh said, the state government is responsible only for flow of water at Okhla barrage, and not for treating water. He advised Delhi government to set up more STPs (sewage treatment plants) so that Yamuna can remain clean.

Experts say, detergent making factories in Delhi release untreated waste full of phosphatic chemicals which while reacting with acidic water cause foam. This, they said, can be stopped by strictly enforcing National Green Tribunal guidelines.

Under the Yamuna Revitalization Plan, it was proposed to ensure only permissible limit of pollutants in waste being released in Yamuna, but nothing much has happened during the last two years. A monitoring committee set up in 2018 by NGT was dissolved in January this year. Among the main reasons for Yamuna pollution are: low water level, 18 drains (mainly Najafgarh and Barapullah) releasing sewage into the river. The Najafgarh drain also carries waste released by factories in neighbouring Gurugram and Manesar. After Wazirabad, it is the Najafgarh drain which falls into Yamuna, polluting water and lowering oxygen level.

The question is: what is the Delhi government doing? One month ago, Delhi Pollution Control Committee prepared a report. It says, daily 720 MGD (million gallons per day) sewage (water waste) is produced in the capital daily. Delhi government claims there are 34 STPs (sewage treatment plants) working at 20 locations across the capital, which have a collective capacity of treating 577 MGD waste daily. The report says, these STPs do not work to optimum capacity. They can treat only 514 out of 577 MGD of waste daily. It means, 11 per cent waste falls directly into the Yamuna. In other words, 206 MGD of waste out of a total of 720MGD of waste, falls into the river directly, untreated.

Delhi government had told the monitoring committee that its STPs would be able to treat 99 per cent of waste by June 2019, but more than two years have passed. The Interceptor Sewage project is presently only on paper. More than 40 lakh people live in 1700 colonies across Delhi. Only 561 colonies have sewer lines. From rest of the colonies, sewage gets dumped into Yamuna through drains directly. Pollutants found in solid waste at some locations are 760 times more than the “desirable level”.

What, then, is the solution? Broadly, it requires two important steps.

One, raise the water flow level in Yamuna round the year. It means, neighbouring states must release more water in Yamuna during the lean season. A report from National Institute of Hydrology, Roorkee, says Yamuna, in Delhi, requires 23 cusecs of water during lean season. Since there are inter-state agreements existing already, implementing this is not an easy job.

Two, more and more sewage and waste must be treated by installing more STPs. Work is already going on for installing STPs at Rithala, Kondli, Yamuna Vihar and Okhla. In coming years, 42 STPs are proposed to be installed. Moreover, in 595 colonies, sewer pipes are being laid, to ensure that sewage is treated before entering Yamuna.

A strong political and administrative will is the need of the hour. At present, this seems to be lacking. Policies (neeti) are framed, but the intent (neeyat) is lacking. Whether it was the BJP, or Congress, or AAP, all the three parties promised a cleaner Yamuna, but it did not happen.

On November 13, 2015, chief minister Arvind Kejriwal had gone to perform Yamuna Aarti at Yamuna Ghat, ISBT. He had then promised he would rejuvenate Yamuna in the next five years. The world saw on Monday what happened to that solemn promise. Both the Centre and states spent nearly Rs 5000 crore to clean up the Yamuna over the years. Loan was taken from Japan for this purpose. All the money has gone waste, it went down the drain that is called Yamuna. Since 1993, deadlines for cleaning Yamuna were set and then extended several times.

A new deadline has been set now. National Capital Region Planning Board has set 2026 as the year by which Yamuna will become clean. Delhi’s AAP government has promised to clean Yamuna by 2023. I think, until and unless all the three state governments work in tandem with the Centre, Yamuna cannot be cleaned. People will have to join this mission too. They must stop throwing waste into the Yamuna. Only then can we realize the dream of having a clean Yamuna river in Delhi.

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