On the banks of Yamuna in Delhi, kids ask ‘Where is the river?’

On the banks of Yamuna in Delhi, kids ask ‘Where is the river?’

Ashok Kumar/OneWorld South Asia

Delhi children collect on the banks of river Yamuna to volunteer for a clean up drive organised by a non profit.

New Delhi: Even as the river Yamuna in Delhi gives an impression of being a sewer drain in certain areas, kids who accompany their parents for doing religious rites question their guardians if they are actually on the banks of a sacred river which originates in Himalayas, and about which they have read so much in their school text books.

Shreyas, a ten-year-old student, who accompanied his parents on Kudsia bank in Delhi for some rituals on the bank, was in complete disbelief when he went close to the stenchy river water full of plastic bottles and bags, paper plates, rotting food and all other kinds of trash floating on it. When he was asked to offer a bunch of flowers they were carrying, he innocently asks, “Where is the river, mommy?”

A married couple who hailed from Karnal said that in their home town Yamuna was much cleaner. Their two kids, both kindergartners, refused to go too close to the river, complaining to their parents about the awful smell that emanated from the water.

Yamuna, a holy river, which is known as Delhi’s lifeline, and is sacred to millions of Hindus, is said to India’s most polluted river full of toxic waste. The river stretches for 1,370 kilometres, of which, only 22 kilometres flow through the national capital. According to environmentalists, 80 per cent of Yamuna’s pollution is caused in this short but densly populated stretch.

It was a rare occasion when Kudsia Ghat, near Kashmere Gate area in Delhi, was swarmed by hundreds of school children as part of ‘Yamuna Shramdaan’, a campaign for the manual clean up of the river. The campaign was a part of the International Volunteer Day Celebration organised by Swechha, a Delhi based youth NGO.

Swechha has been campaigning for spreading awareness towards a clean Yamuna for 14 years. Over all these years, Swechha team and volunteers have been going to the river almost every week and have organised ‘Shramdaans’ at least 25 times, by directly engaging over 50,000 citizens in the clean up drives.

“Our purpose behind these ‘Shramdaans’ has been twofold. One is to bring Yamuna back to the mind map of the populace and to increase political attention it deserves for swift action beyond action 'plans' and rhetorics,” said Vimlendu Jha, Executive Director of Swechha.

“We plan to go back to the river again with the youth of the city to bring the focus back on the power of volunteering for Delh’s lifeline,” Vimlendu said.

The event which was supported by the United Nations Volunteers, UNDP and Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, was organised to highlight the high level of pollution in the river and seek solution from the government, and responsible action from the citizens. Over 2000 Delhiites along with students from over 25 private and government schools also volunteered for the event in large numbers. Around six-truckloads-of-trash was collected from the banks of the river in a span of 2-3 hours.

Somya Singh from the Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication, Pune, said that it was high time attention was paid to river Yamuna. “With Yamuna's condition deteriorating from bad to worse, it is becoming a pressing problem. On speaking with college students across Delhi about this issue of Yamuna, I found that most students were genuinely concerned and wanted to volunteer,” she said.

Gokul Prasad, who hails from north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, and makes his living by collecting plastic waste from the Kudsia Ghat, said despite the poor quality of water, the river bank attracted thousands of believers on auspicious days. Prasad shares his experiences of the toxic laden water, “Sometimes with a sudden gush of (toxic) water, thousands of fish would swim to the shore for their life, only to be piled up on the shore as a mass of dead fish,” he said.