September 19, 2020
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Delhi: City Limits

Once There Was A River

And we'd like to think there always will be. Charting and rediscovering the perilous course of Delhi's historic waterway, the neglected Yamuna.

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Once There Was A River
T. Narayan
Once There Was A River

The ghats at Jamuna Bazaar descend to the river on broad flagstones. The Yamuna licks at their feet, coaxing a red boat into the water. When the boat is midstream, the man flings a sweeping shower of grainy pellets around him. From nowhere come thousands of birds, circling and swooping in ever-tightening circles, plucking the pellets from the water and soaring away. The air is dense with the flutter of wings beating at the autumn light, a dizzy wheeling that goes on and on until the food disappears. The birds go to roost and the magic ebbs away.

The birds are black-headed gulls. As he moors the boat, the man informs me that they come from Siberia. In the four months of winter, every morning and evening, he feeds them on behalf of his uncle, a well-to-do businessman in Shahdara. "Forty kilos in the morning, sixty kilos in the evening. Three thousand rupees a day, it costs Mamaji." Why does he do it? "Bahut door se aate hain ye panchhi. Hamare mehmaan hain." Siberia and Shahdara. A man with an import-export ka business and an imagination. Black-headed gulls. The river is the link.

When I’m here, it always puzzles me. Here is the Yamuna, pulsing through the heart of the city. Without her, there would be no Delhi, new or old. She’s what defines us, our life and blood in countless ways. She offered a liquid line of defence in times of war, and nourished us in times of peace. It is no accident of history that we live here on her banks. For centuries, the forested ridge and the river are the parentheses that have held together the honeycomb of Delhi’s streets and dwellings. And yet, when I’m here, the city falls away. The noise and bustle recede into the distance. Here there is only water, light and a vast panorama of fields, grasses, birds and boats. This paradox describes Delhi: the city of 13 million with a river and a forest running through it, defying conventional notions of what urban space should be.

Yet, we need these spaces because we are city-dwellers. Satya Narayan works in Hotel Ambassador near Khan Market. I ask him why he comes here. "Yahaan bahut khula-khula hai. Tasalli milti hai." We pay ten rupees to a boatman to ferry us to the island that lies midstream. As we walk up, we unsettle the pariah kites that are warming themselves in the sunny sand. They rise and hover, then snuggle back into bed. In an odd way, it is reassuring, it’s good for the soul to know that there are gulls and kites going about their business even as the city seethes all around them.

Brinjal cultivation on the dry riverbed near Nizamuddin bridge

On the island are sprawling fields of vegetables—cauliflowers and cabbages grow vigorously, with beds of marigold and roses behind them. In the summer, there are cucumbers and melons. Lines of labourers from eastern UP bend and straighten, planting baingan and mirchi. Water gushes from a bore-well. Bilkul meetha pani hai, declares the farmer. The groundwater recharged by the Yamuna may be sweet, but what’s in the river is still and stinking, foam-flecked and laden with the flotsam of our packaging revolution.

A boatman steers his boat through a river of industrial sludge

Make no mistake: the river scene is magical but the water is black with filth. On Kartik Purnima, I watch with awe as worshippers bathe in what looks like raw sewage. The guruji at the Bhishma Vyayamshala on the ghats tells me phlegmatically that he takes a dip in the river twice a day. There’s a difference between the eye and the mind, he says. The eye sees only the surface, the mind perceives true meaning. I disagree with this lofty indifference: shraddha and safai, surely the river needs both, faith and clean water?

A filthy city drain disgorges its contents into the Yamuna

There don’t seem to be many takers for my point of view, though. Devout Hindus still believe in the purificatory powers of the Yamuna. To them, she is Jamnaji, Yama’s sister, Ganga’s companion, eternally sacred. The figures of Yamuna and Ganga flank temple entrances all over the country. Hindus still cremate their dead along her banks; she is the axis mundi fording this world and the next. But when the guruji urges mind over matter, he’s actually fudging things a bit. The mourners at Nigambodh Ghat recognise that Jamnaji is filthy. Since their mind’s eye can’t resolve the paradox of divinity and disgust, the Delhi government has come to their aid, piping in an exclusive supply of gangajal to bathe the mortal remains of their dear departed. It’s absurdly ironic: they might as well be bathing in Bisleri. As Anupam Mishra, a cultural historian of water, observes, "ulti ganga beh rahi hai." It’s an upside-down world when we live right next to this great river yet, instead of cleaning it, resort to such ridiculous stratagems.

The river has its own ragpicker

This river takes so much shit from us. Literally. We take all of the Yamuna’s water and return only sewage and industrial effluent, most of it untreated. Upstream of Delhi, the water is blue, says environmentalist Ravi Agarwal. In the city, it’s a different story. Without even a minimal flow of freshwater through the year, the river’s lost her ability to cleanse herself. Her faltering pace is checked by silt and muck, accumulated rubbish that only an intensive systematic campaign can clean up. Despite court orders, despite crores of rupees spent in public funds, the Yamuna is dirtier than ever. What is clear, however, is that the Delhi government is squarely to blame for this scandal. What’s also clear is that the government gets away with it because most of Delhi doesn’t give a shit. The Yamuna doesn’t matter. She’s not on our mental maps. If we think of her at all, it is as an obstacle; going jamna paar is about hazarding across a congested bridge, nothing more.

The Yamuna tempts bathers to take the plunge at Jamuna Bazaar Ghat

I wonder if people would care more about the river if it were more visible. To be able to see a landscape is the first step to relating to it. The waterscapes carved by the Thames and the Seine are cherished because you can walk along embankments, watch life go by, light and water reflecting and refracting mood and tempo. These are the quintessential urban commons. If Mumbai and Chennai have their Chowpatty and Marina, Delhi could have its Yamuna waterfront. A place which is khula-khula, jahan tasalli milti hai. We could walk through fields of marigold or sit and watch trains go by on the Loha Pul, the old railway bridge. We could row on the river and feed the circling birds. It’s not just about nature and culture, it’s also about our history. We could imagine a Mughal emperor racing his elephant along a bridge of boats, the earliest precursor to the pontoon bridges that come up every October to ease the cross-river traffic, now soon to be permanently retired. We could remember why Delhi is located just so, on this particular crook of the river, and how life used to be oriented to its rhythms. We could also come to appreciate how much we need the river, her role in recharging our water and keeping us alive as a city.

All of this is possible. We can revive a relationship with the river. But not if we fall in with the plans of the Delhi government to hasten construction on the riverbed. The Commonwealth Games village, the Metro depot, Parsvnath mall—each project, bit by bit, gnaws away at the guts of our city, already eroded by Akshardham temple, power plants and the Delhi secretariat. This is autophagy; we destroy ourselves by eating our own internal frontier. We are told that these encroachments will give us a London-like waterfront but that’s a lie. What we are witnessing is another great enclosure movement, where public lands are being commercialised for private benefit.

Farmers sit in protest near the Commonwealth Games site

Manoj Mishra of the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, indefatigably battling the destruction of the riverbed, points out that the ecological health of the city depends on keeping the Yamuna’s floodplain intact, protecting it from encroachment. The farmers of Patpar, Mandavali and Shakarpur who were displaced to make way for Akshardham and now the Games Village were doing exactly that. Baljit Singh, general secretary of the Delhi Peasants’ Multipurpose Cooperative Society, has documents dating back to 1949, granting coop members the right to cultivate on the Yamuna riverbed. "The sarkar talks about creating biodiversity parks, but we have been maintaining biodiversity for almost sixty years," he says. "Just let us be."

The farmers sit on satyagraha at the Nizamuddin bridge, but their MP, Sandeep Dikshit, refuses to meet them. There are big bucks involved in converting the riverbed into real estate. Not only the Delhi government, but the government of Uttar Pradesh and even the central Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) have grand visions for the Yamuna floodplain. The MoEF deftly suggests that revenues from commercial development be used to pay for river clean-up. It makes as much sense as cutting out someone’s guts to make sausages in order to finance their cancer treatment. And this advice comes from the Ministry that’s charged with protecting our environment.

An elephant under the ITO bridge

The government’s greed and folly sink my spirits. I return to the Jamuna Bazaar ghats and look at Loha Pul. Its reticulated form is alive with traffic, road vehicles below and trains above. In contrast, the Metro Rail bridge upstream is anonymous, characterless concrete. There’s more than aesthetics to my affection for the Loha Pul. It is, after all, the only true bridge in Delhi. None of the others— Wazirabad, ISBT, ITO, Nizamuddin, the DND Flyway—actually span the river fully. Instead, most of their piers rest on piles, leaving only a 500 metre-wide channel for the river to flow through, effectively narrowing the Yamuna’s width and silting up its sides. But the eight angular arcs of the Loha Pul, connecting Delhi to Kolkata, sit on brick arches that respect the river’s need for space and acknowledge how her girth expands in the fullness of the monsoons. This is how a bridge should be.

As we row below the British-built arches, we talk about human sacrifice. It is commonly believed that no bridge or dam can be successfully built without a bali, preferably of a young girl. The boatman, Ganesh, believes that it is so. Look at the Loha Pul, he says, "ek bhi accident nahin hua hai." Whereas the DND Flyway witnesses regular fatalities. "That’s because they didn’t offer a sacrifice." For a macabre moment, I wonder exactly how the bali is performed. Do they send the victim tumbling down into the water? Do they cut off her head? Or do they bury her alive in bricks and mortar? Maybe it’s a myth, maybe it’s a metaphor for the violence and displacement that dams and embankments bring in their wake. But it is also a reminder of the darker powers of nature, of furies unleashed unless properly propitiated. Of catastrophic floods catalysed by human folly. As happened in north Delhi in 1978. It’s a delicate balance between the river’s power and ours. We think we have the upper hand but it’s an illusion. We pollute and destroy the river and, by doing so, destroy Delhi, our selves and our city.
There’s a story about the river recounted in the Siyar al-Awliya, a 14th-century biography of Hazrat Nizamuddin. One day the Sheikh saw an old woman drawing water from a well near the river Yamuna. He stopped and asked her: "Since the Yamuna is so near, why do you take the trouble of drawing water from this well?" The woman replied: "I have an old, destitute husband. We have nothing to eat. The water of the Yamuna is very tasty and induces hunger. Because it quickens our appetite, I do not take water from the river."

Can you imagine that? Water from the Yamuna so sweet that it makes you hungry. This once was. Can it be so again?
Back on the ghat, I watch an old man steer a dinghy of recycled styrofoam through the water. He is collecting waste from the river—the bright, non-biodegradable packets that we use and throw. That’s how he ekes out a living, cleaning up our mess. A yellow wagtail follows him about, briskly nodding its approval. Suddenly, for no good reason, I feel hopeful again.

This piece first appeared in Outlook Delhi City Limits, December 2007.

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