The present state of the Yamuna river from Delhi to Agra, a distance of roughly 250 km, is alarming. Described now as a huge sewage canal, Yamuna water is unfit for human consumption. It cannot even support bacteria or aquatic life.

Yamuna finds mention in the Rig Veda. The founder of the Mughal dynasty, Babar, was lyrical about the quality of Yamuna water. It was Yamuna water that compelled Shah Jahan to build his dream monument the Taj Mahal along the river bank.

But what of today? How do we describe Yamuna today? A sewer canal, a drain, a big gutter, a civilisational sink?

In the past 25 years government agencies have spent over Rs.800 crore (over $140 million) to clean up many Indian rivers. The latest report of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, however, candidly admits that the two great rivers Ganga and Yamuna continue to flow dirty.

The funds have been spent on cleaning the drains that lead to the rivers, by putting in sewage treatment plants (STPs) and sanitation facilities. Unfortunately no improvement is noticed in the overall situation. The pollution load continues to increase.

To quote a government committee, "the quality of water in the Yamuna river has not shown the desired improvement, particularly in Delhi, due to enormous increase in pollution load and lack of fresh water in the river during (the) lean period".

No proof about the poor quality of Yamuna water, generally unfit for human consumption between Delhi and Agra, was ever required, but when hundreds of thousands of fish continue to die at regular intervals in Agra and Mathura, it is natural for alarm bells to ring. In the past two years there have been mass deaths of Gharials in the Yamuna due to pollution.

The Yamuna, as it meanders through Delhi over a 48-km stretch, picks up huge quantities of chemical wastes and toxins as also more than 225 million gallons of untreated sewage every day before leaving Delhi. When it enters Agra, the river is overloaded with additional discharges from industrial clusters in Faridabad, Ballabhgarh, Palwal and Mathura.

What the people in Agra get to drink cannot be called water by any stretch of imagination, according to a number of research studies including one by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). At several points the water is jet black with a thick layer of waste floating on the surface.

In Agra, Braj Pradesh Kranti Dal president Surekha Yadav and environmentalist D.K. Joshi have filed law suits against dozens of government officials under relevant sections of the Air and Water Pollution Act of 1974. The state pollution control board officials routinely send out warnings to the polluters but have not proceeded against them.

Subijoy Dutta, a US-based scientist and president of the Yamuna Foundation for Blue Water, has submitted detailed proposals for installation of floating aerators and diffusers to neutralise pollution in the Yamuna, but so far there has been no response from government agencies.

"Elsewhere, pollution of this fatal nature would have been treated as a criminal offence against humanity and those responsible for it would have had to pay a heavy price for their acts but in India people are seemingly becoming immune to pollution and their sensibilities have also been insensitised," Subijoy said in an email interview.

The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) monitors the water quality of the Yamuna in Delhi and it is graded in the severely polluted category, fit only for recreation, aesthetics, and industrial cooling.

The 48-km stretch of the Yamuna that flows through Delhi contains 7,500 coliform bacteria per 100cc of water. The Yamuna receives an estimated 600 million gallons of untreated sewage every day from the greater Delhi area and leaves New Delhi carrying an inconceivable 24 million coliform organisms per 100cc. The same stretch of the river picks up every day five million gallons of industrial effluents, including about 125,000 gallons of DDT wastes.

What can be done?

A large number of NGOs, pressure groups, eco-clubs, citizens' movements, have been active, doing their bit to clean up the Yamuna, but given the dimension of the problem, these piecemeal and sporadic efforts cannot yield any tangible benefits. One way to resolve the problem could be to use the Indian armed forces to desilt, dredge and clean up the river between Delhi and Agra, with citizens also participating in a joint operation. At the same time the laws relating to water pollution need to be given teeth and implemented rigorously.

(Brij Khandelwal can be contacted at

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