Revitalising Yamuna in Delhi: Connecting with the people who matter

The exhibition was an attempt to throw light on policy-level recommendations by giving due importance to the stories of the people living around Yamuna as they are the first victims to its degrading condition.

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Yamuna: view of pollution                                                                    Photo by Kartikeya Jain

It is well established that rapid growth and industrialisation in Delhi has led to degradation of the quality of river Yamuna. According to a study, approximately 80 per cent of the pollution is caused by Delhi’s population. It has reached to such an extent that people have started calling it “green soup” between the Delhi and Agra stretch.

‘Revitalising Yamuna: Alternate Imaginations’, an event organised at UChicago Center, New Delhi was a step towards recording and documenting a different narrative with an emphasis on qualitative research on Yamuna river. From a free-flowing river to a dam(ned) destination for urban pollutants, the once-beautiful river has witnessed an abysmal deterioration.

Tracing human engagements with Yamuna through the event’s exhibition ‘People of Yamuna’, Leni Chaudhuri, Country Director of the Tata Centre for Development at UChicago, in her inaugural speech said, “This event is a step forward in translating the research findings into ground reality”.

The exhibition was an attempt to throw light on policy-level recommendations by giving due importance to the stories of the people living around Yamuna as they are the first victims to its degrading condition.

The event also featured a panel discussion which tried to incorporate these local dwellers and one of them commented on how the footfall of foreigners has declined in the areas around the river. This awareness among the local dwellers is indicative of their concern and their affinity towards the river. They are connected to the river but the degrading condition of the river might become a cause for their woes. The panel discussion also highlighted the socio-ecological prong of the study.

Prof. Meeta Kumar and Prof. Reema Bhatia from Miranda House, University of Delhi, commented, “It is as if we treat our rivers like we treat our women.” In a way, they were commenting upon the analogous relationship that exists such that despite adequate laws and policies in place in the concerned field, the ground reality presents a contrasting picture.

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“Merely laying stress on the mechanical application of policies without trying to take the voices of local people into account is not an adequate step towards protecting the holy river.”

Another feature of the event was a presentation on the ‘socio-economic impact of river water pollution: voices from the ground’ which was presented by UChicago in collaboration with the Young India Fellowship, Ashoka University. They conducted a fieldwork which covered a small stretch near Yamuna and involved around 90 respondents. Through the survey, they tried to provide a platform for the sidelined voices – the locals.

They assessed the socio-economic cost by studying the impact of river pollution on health and communities living on the banks of Yamuna in Delhi indicating the impact of pollution in Yamuna on the livelihood of low-income groups. It also stressed on the importance of flow of river.

Panel discussion at UChicago Center

The Centre for Community Knowledge (CCK) at Ambedkar University Delhi, has been documenting memories, people’s voices, and experiences of the Yamuna River under their project ‘The River and the City’. Their stories were woven together into a 30-minute documentary that brought forth the realities of various riverine communities that associate themselves with the Yamuna.

A film, The River and the City: Yamuna in Delhi,  showcased the research and attempts to move beyond the mainstream ideas associated with the pollution of the river. The short film by the team at CCK, Ambedkar University Delhi, co-directed by Kartikeya Jain, research assistant at CCK, Ambedkar University, strives to become a voice of the people living around Yamuna and thereby focuses on the socio-ecological dimension of the Yamuna.

In the film, the CCK team weaved different stories and experiences of different people in a single thread and emphasised on enhancing the stake of these people in policy-making and implementation process associated to addressing the issue of river Yamuna.

It also threw light on the paradox linked to ritualistic connection with the river which latently leads to increased disconnection of the river from the city.

Kartikeya, while introducing the film, commented on his experience during the process of making this film that how one of the local dwellers claimed while indicating the degraded condition of Yamuna,  ‘Naale mei Astiya thodi dubayenge’ (We can’t bury the ashes of the dead in a drain) .

“Kartikeya shared with Delhi Post the purpose behind making a movie of this sort and said that rather than becoming the voice of the local dwellers, he wants the local dwellers to speak for themselves.”

Hence, one takeaway from this kind of assessment of river Yamuna is that the role of local citizens as key stakeholders is significant in successful implementation of a policy and their stake in the policy process should be enhanced because of their awareness and close affinity with the object of the policy.

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By doing this, the event tried to link river quality indicators (DO level, ph level, etc.) with the other qualitative and substantial indicators. A move away from the idea of sole focus on the quantitative research findings to the qualitative aspects and impact of the pollution of river Yamuna by emphasising on the voices from the ground is a better way to address the issue of river. It emphasised on the need to make an attempt to complement the existing quantitative researches on the river Yamuna in Delhi with the prong which was untouched – the socio-ecological dimension which is making the existing research more comprehensive.

Understanding various dimensions of the river is significant to gauge the intensity of ecological alienation of residents. Bhim Singh Rawat, an environment activist and an Assistant Coordinator of South Asia Network on Dams River and People, commented that the behaviour of people in Delhi is atypical regarding the river and the increased selfishness portrayed in the urban middle classes has to be translated to address the issue.

These anecdotal aspects need to be looked at to bring back life to the River Yamuna and to revitalise it not in parts but by also focussing on the aquatic life that completes it.