Can the Yamuna be saved?
Agra: Even as thousands are undertaking a march from Mathura to Delhi to raise awareness to save the "dying" Yamuna river, people in this Taj city wonder in sadness if it was still possible to revive one of India's holiest rivers that is now seen as a mere sewer.
"Can we not think of the Sabarmati river-front experiment in Ahmedabad? Not too long ago, the river was a drain. Today, it is a sight to behold," Surendra Sharma, president of the Braj Mandal Heritage Conservation Society, asked.
"Permanent walls have been built on both sides of the riverbank preventing release of any discharge from the city into the river. They have covered nullahs in which all the small and big drains open. The covered space is used for commercial and social purposes to recover the costs of running the system. This appears a fairly reasonable and workable solution," Sharma added.
According to environmentalist Shravan Kumar Singh, "The politics of pollution must stop. It's no use blaming one agency or state. In the Taj city, despite the orders of the Supreme Court, dhobies (people who wash clothes in the river) have not been shifted. Dairies within the city and the crematorium at Taj Ganj or the hundreds of petha (sweet)-making units in the interiors have not yet been shifted."
The march by people is a reflection of deep anguish: Each day, hundreds of worshippers of Lord Krishna in Vrindavan, Mathura and Agra return disappointed and deeply frustrated from the Yamuna, as they cannot take a holy dip even on festivals because of the filth and effluents in the river. There are heaps of dirt, and dead bodies are dumped into the river.
The demands of the marchers include the release of a minimum quantity of water into the Yamuna round the year from the Hathini Kund barrage, some 100 km upstream of New Delhi, and effective checks on drains in the national capital that dump pollutants, effluents and sewer waste into the river - literally turning it into one huge drain.
Residents of Yamuna Kinara Road on the banks say that the river banks 500 years ago were so beautiful that the Mughals built some of their finest monuments like the Taj and Etmauddaula here. The glory days of the river, however, are lost and will never return, say residents.
The dozen-odd ghats along the riverfront, once the centre of thriving commercial activity, now appear a wasteland.
From the Kailash temple to the Dussehra Ghat adjacent to the Taj, there were more than a score of permanent ghats, some of them red sandstone ones, others made of marble. Behind the Red Fort, there were permanent ghats with highly decorative canopies for women from Mughal royal families.
While some ghats fell prey to long years of neglect, others were razed by overzealous bureaucrats at the behest of late Sanjay Gandhi during the Emergency, to make way for a picturesque river front like Mumbai's Chowpati. Before that dream could come true, his mother, prime minister Indira Gandhi was swept out of power in the 1977 elections.
Today, those who take the Yamuna Kinara Road cover their noses to escape the stench.
Goswami Hari Mohan Shrotriya of the Mathuradheesh Temple rued to IANS: "There was a time when all of Agra could spend a leisurely summer evening on the river bank, visiting the row of temples here. Children used to feed tortoises here, and cultural and religious activities set the place abuzz. Now, people seem to have forgotten there is a river in the city."
Hathi Ghat near the fort still survives, but the whole area has been rampaged by transport companies, whose vehicles are parked there.
Activists have been exerting pressure on government agencies, asking that cleanliness drives be undertaken and pucca ghats be built. They have sought that the silt be dredged out.
So far the government has however failed to respond to these demands.
The Yamuna has been the repository of arts, culture, architecture, history and Hinduism's Bhakti movement. Yamuna activists say millions of rupees have gone down the gutter in the two Yamuna Action Plans which have not made any discernible change to the river system that sustains life and agriculture affecting millions of people in the three states of Haryana, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh.
The Supreme Court has expressed its extreme displeasure that despite the creation of a Yamuna Development Authority and Rs.12,000 crore (over $2 billion) having been spent, the river has been reduced to a drain and its waters are unfit for drinking or even bathing.