India kills her goddess

Ernest Waititu, for the Pulitzer Center

Some hundreds of meters after Wazirabad Bridge, a furious mass of darkened fluid tears through the huge concrete drain to the valley where Yamuna River once used to piously meander. According to Hindu mythology, Yamuna is the daughter of Surya, the sun god, and sister to Yama, the god of death. Goddess Yamuna is associated with sanctity and purity. But not even godliness would have saved the river from the twin evils of a poorly managed sewage and a reckless disposal of industrial waste.

Dirty Drain

And as India's industry rumbles and its economy thrives, the world's largest democracy continues to fail in dealing with its human waste. Delhi has 15 million people and dumps 57 percent of its sewage into this river. In an erratic march to join the league of developed nations, not even the advice of Mahatma Gandhi – India's father of the nation and one of the most revered citizens of the world – who asked Indians to consider decent and hygienic disposal of human waste central to their civilization, has been heeded.

Further downstream, we take a boat to experience the Yamuna first hand. Methane gas bubbles from the river. Weighed down by tones of polythene bags brimming with garbage and religious sacrifice that land down here from atop a bridge above the river, the flow virtually stagnates.

The stink intensifies, notwithstanding that the Indian government has spent $500 million to clean the river. Delhi still gets much of her water from the Yamuna further upstream. But when the river enters the city, it is time for the city to give back, discharging millions of liters of sewage and industrial effluent back to the river.

Rowing Raft

Any one who has visited India quickly appreciates the challenges of providing services to more than a billion people in all its practicalities by just watching the cities' crowded streets. But it seems that managing Rivers like Yamuna is not just a question of services strained by enormous population, it is also a matter of corruption in high places.

Vimlendu Jha ,the founder and leader of Swechha - We for Change Foundation – an organization that works with young people on issues of environment and citizenship and has been championing the cleaning of River Yamuna since 2000 – says that the government of India has used a lot of money to clean the river yet nothing has happened due to corruption. Says Jha, "money has gone somewhere else, money has not been utilized. There is corruption."

The corruption has all but killed life in the River. Jha says that, according to the Central Pollution Control Board in Delhi, the water quality in Yamuna's course within the City of Delhi is "E class, not even fit for animals…only fit for industrial cooling."

Typically, people do not hate their gods or their holy places. Three Hindu priests spread their mats and pray at the banks of the river. A man walks into the river, dresses down to his underwear and bathes – it is a pilgrimage many make to this river on regular basis. For the ordinary folks, it is time to offer sacrifices to the river goddess: they throw coins, wrapped polythene bags and valuables into the river, undoubtedly adding to the river pollution.

Cow Eats Garbage

As the god thrives in the bounty, man too must live: homeless people who have found a home here by the side of Mother Yamuna take makeshift boats and fish out what belongs to the gods. Baij Naith returns to the banks to open his bags – he doesn't get more than worship paraphernalia: some dead flowers, a picture of some god and dirt. But he must keep trying, he makes 40 rupees a day from this job, he says.

And just above where we stand, a metro cruises through an overpass transporting the burgeoning Indian middle class to their offices and businesses.

Some two hundred or so meters away, two families gather for the final rights of a departed family member. The ashes will later be sprinkled into the river on its way down to the Ganges – the most venerated of the goddesses. If you get your ash sprinkled here says Rajesh Sharma, a manager in the Indian textile industry who has just offered his sacrifice of yellow flowers, your "soul goes straight to heaven."

In India today, rivers like Yamuna are not just final resting places for the departed; they are also abodes to a concoction of massive industrial waste, rivers of sewage from the many affluent neighborhoods not served by sewage networks, and loads of fecal matter washed from the fields where millions of people still defecate openly.

The poor of cities like Delhi, who continue to defecate in the open, have taken a lot of flak for polluting the environment. Never mind that much of the city's sewage treatment system doesn't work, and the affluent have continued to send their sewage down rivers like Yamuna, undoubtedly polluting the river more than the poor.

As we leave the river, a new group of priests take their turn for prayer by the banks of the river that Delhi seems to all but have killed. They look, to me, like ordinary poor people, who would have done the least in adding the torrents of chemicals and sewage to the river that is now no more. The powerful smell of industrial chemical is all about them.

Yet they pray on, even when the water they clean their hands with has been carried down from cleaner sources elsewhere, perhaps a pointer to the notion that they could be paying their tribute not to this goddess that lies lame before them, but to a goddess whose grandeur only lies in the history.

And one cannot help but gather that for all the good that comes with industrialization, modernity and its attendant luxuries, Yamuna's death is still a heavy price to pay.