“It is only now that I have started to understand what this is all about and now its time to say good bye,” said an enthusiastic Chhotu Khan, one of the team members of Yamuna Katha.
The group of Yamuna Katha yatris had been together since the evening of October 11, 2011 (Tuesday). It was a motley group of people from diverse background, with no connect with each other, but necessarily, all concerned about the Yamuna.
The day’s event was at a place little downstream of the Okhla barrage (this barrage is the border between Delhi and Noida in Uttar Pradesh) on the Delhi side. This is the riverfront of the Madanpur Khadar village, more famous because it is here Durga idols are brought for immersion. The site offered a pathetic scenario with the wooden skeletal remains of the recent Durga idol immersions. Foaming shallow waters were hemmed in on the bank side by the remains of the Durga Puja rituals. There was some repair works going on at the barrage adding to the noise levels.
Bhola and Babita, the other two core members of the team, were the most happy as, how Bhola put it: “This is my ghat (stepped embankment), this is my area.” Bhola’s family has been living at the Madanpur Khadar village for generations. While his father and rest of his clan went on to do fishing for their life, Bhola shifted to becoming a fishing contractor and employees several people under him.
A pandal on the very ghats was the august venue for the discussion “Imagine there was a river”. Arif Ali, professor at the Jamia Milia Islamia and Rakhshanda Jalil from the Council for Social Development joined the Yamuna Katha members. GIZ’s Regina Dube too joined in on the last day.
Prof Ali recalled the time when the Britishers developed the Okhla riverfront as a picnic spot way back in 1870. Okhla village was then just a small hamlet of 20-odd families: some of them were potters while most of them had buffaloes for livelihood. The river bank saw cultivation of a variety of fruits and vegetables.
He also lamented the fact that Delhi has just 2 % of the length of Yamuna but contributes to 90 % of the pollution.
Rakhshanda Jalil, who has been working for preservation and spreading awareness about heritage monuments, drew parallel between the monuments and the river. “People either are not aware there is a monument and do not at all visit it; or abuse it. Similarly, we have turned blind towards the river, we have stopped coming here.”
Another Madanpur Khadar resident Ratan Singh, who now is employed by city’s water utility Delhi Jal Board (DJB) informed there was a time up to some 40 years ago, when Yamuna waters would be used directly for cooking purposes even for functions such as marriage. “But see the irony. Today if my hand dips in the water, I have to wash it with soap at least twice otherwise, my hand will itch and have infections.”
The debate ranged from what causes pollution and how can one prevent it to how flow rate of the river can be increased and how to deal with the increasing pressure of the population. Bhola pointed out how the local police, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) and other government departments work in tandem to provide all kinds of facilities and maintain cleanliness at the time of festivals. His simple query: “If they can do this on three occasions in the year, why not for the rest of the year.”
Back at the hotel after lunch was ‘reflections’, time to go over the last four days of journey together. There were confessions about personal discoveries and in general the mood was ‘we need to meet again.’ Environmentalist and Gandhian Anupam Mishra joined in the Yamuna Katha yatris at the time of reflections.
Bhola, who also works as a life guard, proudly promised: “I have been saving humans for so long. Now I will work to save the Yamuna.” Chhotu Khan said it took him quite some time to realize that he too was a member of the team and he felt proud being associated with it. The two teachers, Vidhu Narayanan and Urmi Chakraborty said they would take back the experience to their school and bring their students to the river bank.
Gayatri Chatterjee said Yamuna gave her a realization that she has yet to learn much and suggested the proceedings be in Hindi to take it to larger audience. The Yamuna Katha in-house river expert Dwijender Kalia suggested a Yamuna Parikrama (circumambulation) till Prayag, where the Yamuna meets Ganga. Rashid Khan, the haathi-wala, resolved to join the larger fight.
Anumpam Mishra said in our limited life span, we cannot even think of cleaning the Yamuna. “Instead, we should concentrate on not polluting it,” he said.
With a resolve to meet again and again, everyone dispersed with a promise to self – as Ashish said – to make the Yamuna Katha (a tale of Yamuna) into a Yamuna Mahakavya (an epic for Yamuna).