Life and times of a river and its people

Life and times of a river and its people

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Majnu Ka Tila: Historic to modern via filth and sewage

A filthy trickle of a channel that is called Yamuna flowed away from the bank. Watching over her students at the Yamuna floodplains at Majnu Ka Tila, Urmi Chakraborty went back in time.
Her first memory of the Yamuna was when she traveled from Dehradun to Delhi long time ago. Crossing the Yamuna bridge to enter Delhi, she came face to face with the black and filthy water, actually a big drain. “I was disheartened. This was not the river we taught in schools,” Urmi, now a teacher at Sardar Patel Vidyalaya (SPV), Lodi Colony recalled.

Majnu Ka Tila’s Tibetan Colony was the stop two on day one of the Yamuna Katha. Dorjee Khandup, resident welfare association’s Pradhan gave a brief history of the colony. The colony was set up with 361 families on 10.2 acre area in 1961. The Government of India gave them the place after several people fled Tibet following the Dalai Lama. 

Dorje Donghup giving insights in Majnu Ka Tila's history

A short tour of the colony and then, the Yamuna Katha members were at the riverfront. The access to the river was between two homesteads through a broken high brick wall. Rinzin Wangmo, president of the women’s association from the Tibetan colony explained, “This wall is to stop people from throwing garbage into the river. (But) it also has a negative fallout. Youngsters are hardly aware there is a river beyond.” 

Rinzin Wangmo giving insights on Majnu Ka Tila's resident's attitude towards Yamuna

For most present, this was possibly the first actual encounter with Yamuna riverfront. Vast expanse of soil-cum-sand neatly cut into rectangular or square plots for growing vegetables. Traces of garbage, filth marked the human imprint. A narrow raised dirt track through the farms led to the trickle of a river, stark black. Migrant labours had built kuchcha houses  (wooden shacks) on the floodplain and with minimal essential things carry out their lives for at least six months on the riverbank. 

Urmi’s fascination – nay passion – for rivers started with her days in West Bengal. Visit to the Ganges at Kolkata was a regular feature. Then with her husband’s transferable job, she moved to places and enjoyed rivers far and wide – Narmada at Ankaleshwar in Gujarat; “filthy” Brahmaputra at Guwahaty; Bindal at Dehradun, Ganges again at Haridwar. “I stayed at Dehradun for so long, went to Haridwar but never once for a dubki (holy dip in a sacred river),” she added.     

Although staying in Delhi since last three years, it was only recently that she came into direct contact with the Yamuna when students of class X eco-club were carrying out an ‘Urban Sanitation Project’. “Students are enthusiastic enough and have strong values too. But, we never brought any students to the riverfront. Now I think, I will ... specially to show them the visible difference ‘before’ and ‘after’ Wazirabad,” she promised.

Vidhu Narayanan, 39, Urmi’s colleague can identify with the “distance” between a citizen and the river. A typical Delhi girl, she spent her childhood in RK Puram government colony. In all her growing years, she remembered crossing the Yamuna only once to reach a place called Yamunapaar (trans-Yamuna). 

Vidhu Narayanan during a discussion with residents of the Tibetan colony

However, things changed when in 2003 she shifted into a flat at Mayur Vihar in east Delhi. “The first thing my husband and I noticed was the Yamuna from our back window,” she exclaimed.

Now, at the Majnu Ka Tila riverfront with hardly any water in the river, Vidhu was shocked. “During monsoon when the juggis (shanties) come to the road side, we know there is flood happening. I remember last year’s flood distinctly. The river was full of water. Where has the water gone now?”

“It is not a natural river anymore. There is a drain emptying sewage right downstream the Wazirabad barrage,” informed Dwijender Kalia, core group member and river specialist. 
Soaking in the experience, the students and the Yamuna Katha members explored every possible aspect of the riverfront. Nobody kept track of time and was reminded that food was waiting for them. Wonderful lunch at a Tibetan eatery followed.

Panel discussion: “Majnu ka Tila and Yamuna – Strong or loose connection?”

Post lunch session saw a panel discussion at the Tibetan school compound. GIZ’s Regina Dube introduced the topic. Dorje briefly talked how the colony has changed over the years and the problems they are facing currently owing to the narrow congested lanes and their equation with Yamuna.  

Rinzin said, “In order not to pollute Yamuna, we pick up the garbage and burn it. But it is the polluted water that comes from upstream is what disturbs me.

Burning garbage to avoid river pollution - reality in Majnu Ka Tila

Delhi Jal Board’s Ajay Gupta said, “Unplanned growth has led to the pollution. However, we are hopeful and confident that with the interceptor sewer programme under the Yamuna Action Plan (YAP), Yamuna will be clean in three-four years.”

Members of Delhi Jal Board engaging into the discussion

When it was suggested to Rinzin to go for composting at the farm plots at the riverfront, she immediately said those farms are not ours. This prompted GIZ’s Aparna Das to put a question: “Whose river is this?” 

Farm plots at the riverbank

Migration has prompted unplanned growth and led to heavy urbanisation. But this has happened so rapidly and therefore unplanned. Dwijender Kalia pointed out “The plan is always made for long a term. The DJB plan – YAP – is only for four years … any plan should be made for at least 40 years.”

Atul Jain, who works for promotion of organic farming explained, “ The river should not be looked as mere resource for drinking water … river’s have their own eco-system. Each stakeholder has a distinct role for ensuring a pollution free river.”

The message that everybody took home was: “It is possible.” 

To a question, can Yamuna be pollution free? Urmi affirmed, “Yes, one day for sure. But it is not for a single person to do this job. Everybody has to pitch in” even as Vidhu showed the way, “I have already started working on a module for my students”

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