Effluents and apathy have reduced Delhi's lifeline to a sewer. Thousands of fish die annually while the Yamuna's original custodians have nowhere to go. It all feeds into and spurs a climate crisis
“The water was as clear as glass – when the drains were cleaner – till 20 years ago. A coin fallen in [to the bottom of the river] could be seen from above. We could drink directly from the Yamuna,” says fisherman Raman Haldar, scooping a cupped palm into the muddy waters, bringing it near his mouth to emphasise the point. Seeing our mortified look, he lets it run down his fingers with a wistful laugh.
In today’s Yamuna, plastics, foil wrappers, muck, newspapers, dead flora, concrete debris, cloth scraps, slush, rotting food, wandering coconuts, chemical foam and water hyacinth offer up a dark reflection of the capital city’s material and mythical consumption.
Just 22 kilometres (or barely 1.6 per cent) of the Yamuna flows through the National Capital Territory. But the wastes and poisons emptied into that little stretch account for close to 80 per cent of all pollution in the 1,376 kilometre river. Acknowledging that, the monitoring committee report of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in 2018 pronounced the river in Delhi a 'sewer line'. The resulting severe depletion of oxygen levels in the water causes large-scale deaths of fish.
Last year, thousands of fish were found dead at the Kalindi Kunj Ghat on the southern stretch of the river in Delhi,and other aquatic life have become a near-annual occurrence in the Delhi stretch of the river.
“For a river ecosystem to survive, it needs a dissolved oxygen (amount of oxygen in water) level of 6 and above. Fish require a DO level of at least 4-5. In the Delhi part of Yamuna, the DO is between 0 to 0.4,” says Priyank Hirani, director of the Water-to-Cloud project of the Tata Centre for Development at the University of Chicago. The project maps real-time pollution in rivers.
Sitting next to their fishing nets on a grassy patch at the Ram Ghat bank, along Delhi’s north-east stretch, 52-year-old Haldar and his two friends are enjoying a quiet smoke. “I moved here from Kalindi Kunj Ghat three years ago. There’s no fish there, earlier there was plenty. Only some catfish remain now. Quite a few of these are dirty and cause allergy, rash, fever and diarrhoea,” he says, untangling a handmade net that resembles a puffy white cloud from afar.
Unlike other species that live deeper in the water, the catfish is able to float to the surface and breathe – and so survives better than the others. Predators in this ecosystem, explains Delhi-based marine conservationist Divya Karnad, concentrate toxins in their body because of eating fish lower down in the food chain exposed to those poisons. “So it makes sense that people eating catfish – a scavenger-carnivore – suffer reactions.”
Nearly 87 per cent of India's fish catch potential is available within waters of a 100 metres depth, says Occupation of the Coast: the Blue Economy in India, a publication of the Delhi-based Research Collective, a non-profit group active on these issues. Most of that is within reach of the country’s fishing communities. It fosters not just food, but also daily lives and cultures.
“Now you're breaking the small-scale economy of the fishers,” points out Pradip Chatterjee, head of the National Platform for Small Scale Fish Workers (Inland) (NPSSFWI). “They supply local fish to local markets, and if you don't get it, then you will bring fish from faraway places, again using transport which aggravates the crisis.” Shifting to groundwater means “using more energy, which will then interfere with the water cycle.”
That, he points out, means “water bodies will get affected, and rivers won't get recharged. Still more energy, from conventional sources, will be needed to fix this and get clean, potable water from the river. Thus, we are breaking nature-based economies forcibly, and putting labour, food and production into a corporate cycle that is energy and capital intensive…. meanwhile, rivers are still being used for dumping waste.”
When industries release effluents into the river, fisherfolk are the first to know. “We can tell from the stench, and when the fish start dying,” remarks 45-year-old Mangal Sahni, who lives at Palla, on the Haryana-Delhi border, where the Yamuna enters the capital. Sahni is worried about sustaining his 15-member family back home in Bihar's Sheohar district. “People have been writing about us, but our lives haven’t improved, only become worse,” he says, and dismisses us.
There are some 4 million people from traditional marine fishing communities dotting India’s coastline, from roughly 8.4 lakh families, according to the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute. But there are perhaps 7-8 times that number connected to or dependent on the fishing economy. And, says NPSSFWI’s Chatterjee, 4 million of those could be inland fish-workers. There have been, over decades, millions dropping out of fishing as a full-time or organised activity. “Almost 60-70 per cent of marine fishers have turned to other things as the community gets decimated,” says Chatterjee.
But perhaps because the very idea of fisherfolk in the capital is so unusual, there seem to be no records, no published data, of how many fishermen there were and are in the Delhi stretch of the Yamuna. Also, several are migrants like Sahni, making counts more difficult. What the surviving fishermen agree on is that their numbers have shrunk. Retired Forest Service Officer Manoj Mishra, who leads the Long Live Yamuna movement, feels that from thousands prior to Independence, there are now less than a hundred full-timers.
“The absence of fishers from Yamuna is an indication that the river is dead or dying. They are a marker of how things are,” says Research Collective’s Siddharth Chakravarty. And what’s going on “adds to, and is spurred by, a climate crisis that is driven by human activity. It also means that the biodiversity that rejuvenates the environment doesn't take place,” says Chakravarty. “That in turn affects the cycle of life, given that 40 per cent of the carbon emission is absorbed by oceans globally.”
With 40 per cent of Delhi having no sewer connection, countless tons of excrement and waste material from septic tanks and other sources, is just dumped into the water. The NGT notes that while less than 20 per cent of the 1,797 (unauthorised) colonies had sewage pipelines, “a staggering 51,837 industries are operating illegally in residential areas whose effluents go directly into the drains and ultimately, the river.”
The current crisis can be seen in the context of a river's death, in terms of its links with the scale, pattern and economics of human activity.
With their catch falling sharply, the fishermen’s earnings are down to a trickle. Earlier, fishing used to earn them enough. Skilled fishers could sometimes pull in Rs. 50,000 in a good month.
Anand Sahni, 42, who lives at Ram Ghat, came to Delhi from Bihar’s Motihari district as a teenager. “My earnings halved in 20 years. I get Rs. 100-200 a day now. I have to find other ways to support my family – machli ka kaam [fish work] isn't permanent anymore,” he says grimly.
About 30-40 families of the Mallah – or fishermen and boatmen community – live in Ram Ghat, a less polluted spot on the Yamuna. Retaining some fish for consumption, they sell the rest in nearby markets like Soniya Vihar, Gopalpur and Hanuman Chowk, for Rs 50-200 per kilo, depending on the variety.
A climate crisis with its fluctuations in rainfall and temperatures adds layers to the Yamuna problem, says Dr. Radha Gopalan, a senior Bengaluru-based environmental consultant. With the quantity and quality of the water compromised and the uncertainty of climate change, it exacerbates the problem leading to a huge reduction in quality and quantity of the catch.
“Fish die because of the polluted water,” says 35-year-old Sunita Devi; her fisherman husband Naresh Sahni is away seeking work as a daily labourer. “People come and throw in all kinds of garbage, especially plastic nowadays.” During religious events, she points out, people even dump cooked items like puri, jalebi and laddoo, adding to the rot in the river.
In October 2019, for the first time in over 100 years, idol immersion during Durga Puja was banned in Delhi after an NGT report noted that such activities were hurting the river in a big way.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Mughals built their kingdom in Delhi true to an old proverb about three things that make a city: 'daria, badal, badshah (river, clouds and emperor)'. Their water system, considered almost an art form, today lies as historical ruins. The British in the 18th century treated water as a mere resource, even building New Delhi to face away from the Yamuna. Over time, the populace exploded and urbanised.
In the book Narratives of the Environment of Delhi (published by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage), old timers recall how, between the 1940s and 1970s, fishing, boating, swimming and picnics at Delhi's Okhla area were a part of life. Even Gangetic dolphins were spotted downstream of the Okhla barrage, while tortoises sun-bathed on the islands in the river when the water ran low.
“The Yamuna has gone down dangerously,” says Agra-based environmentalist Brij Khandelwal. Soon after the Uttarakhand high court declared the Ganga and Yamuna rivers as living entities in 2017, Khandelwal sought filing of ‘attempt to murder’ cases against government officials in his city. His charge: they were killing the Yamuna by slow poison.
Meanwhile, the union government is rolling out the Saragmala Project – linking waterways across the country to ports. But “If large cargos are taken to the hinterland,” warns NPSSFWI’s Chatterjee, “it'll again pollute the rivers.”
Haldar is the last generation of fishermen in his family. He is from Malda in West Bengal, lives at Ram Ghat for 15-20 days a month, and the rest of the time in Noida with his two sons aged 25 and 27. One repairs mobiles, the other sells eggrolls and momos. “The kids say mine is an outdated profession. My younger brother is also a fisherman. It's a tradition – come rain or shine – we only know this. I don't how else I'll survive...”
“Now that the fishing source has dried up what will they do?” asks Dr. Gopalan. “Importantly, fish is also a source of nutrition for them. We must locate them in the socio-ecological space, with the economic aspect woven in. In climate change, these can't be separate entities: you need diversity of income and diversity of eco-systems.”
Meanwhile, the government talks about climate crisis in a global framework where the policy seems geared towards fish farming fish for export, says Research Collective’s Chakravarty.
India exported $4.8 billion worth of shrimp in 2017-18. Overwhelmingly, says Chakravarty, this was farmed fish of an exotic variety – the Pacific White shrimp from Mexican waters. India is into this monoculture because “there is a huge demand in the US for Mexican shrimp.” Just 10 per cent of our shrimp export consists of Black Tiger prawn that is wild-caught in Indian waters. India is embracing a biodiversity loss that, in turn, affects livelihoods. “If the policy is going to be export oriented, it will be expensive and not geared towards local nutrition and needs.”
Faced with a bleak future, Haldar still takes pride in his craft. While a fishing boat costs Rs. 10,000 and a net between Rs. 3,000-5,000, he shows us the fishing net they make using foam, mud and rope. One net yields him Rs. 50-100 worth of fish a day.
Ram Parvesh, 45, nowadays uses a cage-like structure of bamboo and thread that can capture 1-2 kilograms of fish. “We learnt to make this in our village. Atte ka chara [wheat bait] is placed on both sides, and the cage is lowered into the water. Within a few hours, the small variety of fish, puthi, is caught,” he explains. Puthi is the most common fish here, says local activist Bhim Singh Rawat who works with the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People. “Chilwa and bachua are way less now, while baam and malli are nearly extinct. Magur [catfish] is found in polluted stretches.”
“We are the protectors of Yamuna,” declares a smiling Arun Sahni, 75, who came to Delhi four decades ago from Bihar’s Vaishali district leaving behind his family. Back in the 1980s-90s, he claims, he could get up to 50 kilograms of fish in a day, including varieties such arohu, chingri, saul and malli. Now it's barely 10, at most 20 kilograms, on a good day.
Incidentally, the landmark Signature Bridge on the Yamuna – twice the height of the Qutb Minar – that can be seen from Ram Ghat – was built at a cost of around Rs. 1,518 crores. The amount spent in ‘cleaning’ the Yamuna since 1993 – with no success? Over Rs. 1,514 crores.
The NGT has warned that the “… failure of [the] authorities is affecting life and health of citizens and threatening the existence of the river, and also affecting river Ganga.”
“The problem at the policy level,” says Dr. Gopalan, “is that the Yamuna Action Plan [that came up in 1993] is seen only from a technological point of view” without treating the river as an entity or ecosystem. “A river is a function of its catchment. Delhi is a catchment for the Yamuna. You can't clean the river without cleaning the catchment.”
Fishermen are the canaries in our coal-mine, points out marine conservationist Divya Karnad. “How can we not see that heavy metals cause central nervous system breakdowns? And then not see that drawing groundwater from areas near one of the most polluted rivers is having an impact on our mental health? Fishermen, who are at the edge, see the connections, and see the most immediate impacts.”
“This is my last bit of peace remaining,” smiles Haldar, ready to cast his net late after sunset. Best to cast their last nets around 9 p.m. and haul the catch in at sunrise, he says. For that way “the dead fish will be fresher.”
Shalini Singh is a journalist based in Mumbai and a member of PARI’s founding team.