The Parched Tiger: India’s Troubled Waters

Courtesy of The Wall Street Journal, a detailed look at the tragedy of India’s Yamuna River which, born in a glacier in the Himalayas, is so defiled by the time it leaves Delhi that it can’t sustain life:

The Yamuna River that flows through this ancient city has helped sustain some of India’s greatest empires. Hindu poets celebrated its life-giving properties. The Mughal dynasty built the Taj Mahal and other monuments along its banks.

Today, the Yamuna is a foul sludge for much of its 855-mile run. In Delhi, it is black and nearly motionless, covered in many areas with a foam of industrial chemicals, floating plastic and human waste.

Every 100 milliliters of the Yamuna in Delhi contains 22 million fecal coliform bacteria, up from 12,250 in 1988, scientists say. Anything over 500 is unsafe for bathing, India’s government says. The comparable standard in Vermont is 235.

Illnesses ranging from diarrhea to brain worms are reported along the river’s edges. By the time the Yamuna exits Delhi, it is so defiled that scientists have declared the next 300 miles “eutrophic,” or incapable of sustaining animal life.

“The fact that I cannot take my children to their own river, in their own city, is for me a tragedy of colossal proportions,” says Pankaj Vir Gupta, a 47-year-old architect and professor who splits time between India and the U.S. “Right now we don’t have a river,” he says. “We have a drain.”

For years, global environmentalists have focused on China, whose rapid industrialization made it one of the world’s most polluted major nations. Now it’s India’s turn.

Unlike China, which has become wealthier and is starting to clean up, India is in the early stages of industrial growth. It is following the same road China took to get richer, meaning more factories and cars. Yet, it already has some of the world’s worst environmental problems.

A government report in 2015 found that 275 of 445 rivers in India are severely polluted, including the Ganges. An international nonprofit, WaterAid, says 70% of India’s surface water is contaminated. Diarrhea, often caused by drinking bad water, is the fourth-leading cause of death in India, ahead of any cancer, and kills far more people than in China, which has a larger population.

Greenpeace says that in 2015, the average Indian was subjected to more air pollution than the average Chinese for the first time, as China’s “systematic efforts” to improve air have started working. A 2016 WHO report found that 10 out of the world’s 20 most polluted cities were in India, based on residents’ exposure to deadly small particulate matter.

One reason India is an environmental mess at such an early stage of its development is that it has failed to master the basic services of sewage and water treatment which some other developing nations addressed when incomes rose.

Of the over 16 billion gallons of sewage that India produces every day, 62% ends up on nearby water bodies untreated, according to the Central Pollution Control Board, a federal pollution monitor.

Many Indian cities that built wastewater treatment systems don’t fully use them because of electricity shortages or other problems. Several others haven’t built them at all.


On top of that, damage from India’s industrialization is accumulating, just as Prime Minister Narendra Modi promotes a “Make in India” campaign to accelerate its growth as a manufacturing nation. Industries India has fostered, such as leather tanneries, are heavy polluters, while the national power grid is weighted toward coal.

Although India has only 22 motorized vehicles per 1,000 people, versus 118 in China and 821 in the U.S., the numbers are growing fast. India rolled out new emission-control norms in 2010, but lax enforcement means many drivers continue to violate them.

A senior official with the prime minister’s office said that the government’s growth policy wouldn’t have any harmful impact on the environment.

The Yamuna river—which touches the lives of more than 100 million people through northern India—is a classic example of how India’s unresolved poor-nation problems are combining with modernity to create an environmental nightmare.

It begins 21,000 feet up in the Himalayas, fed by a glacier. Religious devotees say it was birthed from the union of the sun and a goddess of consciousness.

Sureshwar Sinha, an 83-year-old retired Indian Navy officer, said he remembers swimming in the Yamuna in Delhi as an 11-year-old in 1946. In the mid-60s, he steered a boat that capsized on the river during a yachting regatta. “It was like a mountain stream,” he recalled.

Problems mounted in the 1980s. Engineers had built several dams on the river north of Delhi to provide drinking water for the capital and irrigation for the states of Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh. Those states, India’s breadbasket, powered the 1960s “green revolution,” feeding the masses.

The dams left little water in the river to flow to Delhi, whose population growth outstripped the city’s ability to treat sewage and wastewater.

By the 1980s, Delhi’s population had reached more than six million, and some 120 million gallons of untreated sewage entered the Yamuna daily, according to the Central Pollution Control Board. With its freshwater depleted due to dams, wastewater started dominating the river.

Mr. Sinha, the retired naval officer, said the Yamuna began smelling of excreta around that time. He says he went to the Central Water Commission, a regulatory body, and made a case for releasing more water from dams upriver so the Yamuna could regain some self-cleaning ability. He says he was told that using the river for irrigation was more important.

Pradeep Kumar, an officer currently in charge of river management at the Central Water Commission, said the government constructed large dams and canals on the Yamuna and other rivers to achieve “food and energy security” for its people. He added that releasing more water into the Yamuna from existing dams alone wouldn’t solve the pollution.

Today, Delhi has more than 16 million people. Local authorities say about half of Delhi’s residential area doesn’t have sewer lines.

Prime Minister Modi has unveiled plans to build more toilets across the country, but areas like Anna Nagar—an encampment of about 15,000 people by the river near central Delhi—remain under-served. Many of its residents lack toilets and defecate in the open. A drain carries the waste directly to the Yamuna.

Meena Devi, a 43-year-old mother of four who lives there and works for a health nonprofit, says she and other parents constantly worry about children dying from diarrhea. “The same fly sitting on the waste comes and sits on our food,” she says.

Other riverside residents have suffered seizures caused by tapeworms three to six millimeters wide in the walls of their brains. Some doctors attribute the condition to eating leafy vegetables grown near the Yamuna.

R.M. Bhardwaj, a Central Pollution Control Board senior scientist, says the government hasn’t done epidemiological studies in Delhi to assess the river’s health impact. He agrees it is a concern.

The river is “a waste-flowing channel,” he says. “It requires all kind of caution.”

Environmentalists also point to the threat caused by “pickle liquor,” a toxic fluid used to make stainless steel that is often released directly into the river. An Indian court has ordered dozens of Delhi factories to close after the government put them on a “seriously polluting industries” list.

Some of those factories, including Kalyan Steel Rolling Mill in Delhi’s north, remain open.

Sumender Gupta, who runs the Kalyan mill, told visiting reporters his factory conforms to government pollution-control guidelines and has its own effluent treatment plant. Efforts to close down factories like his are part of a “conspiracy,” he said.

“Our industrial area is competing with China,” he said. Authorities “are trying to destroy us.”

Untreated waste flows into the Yamuna River in the Wazirabad area of Delhi.

Dinesh Jindal, a law officer with the Delhi Pollution Control Committee, a local environmental regulator tasked with the enforcement of the court’s order, said the agency is waiting for the government’s final decision on the matter. He said the Delhi government is studying the “socio-economic impact of the closure, which will make some 250,000 people jobless.”

Some 100 miles south, in the pilgrimage towns of Mathura and Vrindavan, devotees fall sick every year after sipping Yamuna water, religious leaders say. The area has a special significance to Hindus, who believe it is where the deity of love, Krishna, and his spiritual consort Radha grew up playing and drinking from the Yamuna.

Another 35 miles downriver, in Agra, some environmentalists say the absence of water in the Yamuna is causing the Taj Mahal to sink, removing support from its foundation and causing its minarets to tilt toward the drying banks of the river. The government says it hasn’t confirmed the damage.

In the past two summers, millions of mosquito-like insects called goeldichironomus swarmed the Taj Mahal and excreted a green substance on its walls, marring their bright sheen. Manoj Kumar Bhatnagar, an Archaeological Survey of India scientist looking after the Taj Mahal, said the Yamuna’s stagnant polluted water provided a breeding ground, killing off small fish that would normally feed on the insects’ larvae. In addition, ashes from nearby cremation grounds have led to a high concentration of phosphorus, which enhances the reproductive output of the female, Mr. Bhatnagar says.

In Agra, the famed Taj Mahal co-exists uneasily with the polluted Yamuna River.
In Agra, the famed Taj Mahal co-exists uneasily with the polluted Yamuna River.

India doesn’t lack funds to address its worst environmental problems, officials say. It has already spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to clean the Yamuna.

The problem, environmentalists and some government officials say, lies in a bewildering bureaucracy that has more than a dozen local, state and federal entities looking after the river, often with little coordination and poor planning.

The federal government oversees the river overall, planning its use and development. But responsibility for building and operating infrastructure like wastewater treatment facilities belongs to state governments and cities that lie along its banks and share its water. Often, they don’t work together.

Mr. Sinha, the former navy officer, petitioned India’s Supreme Court in 1992, saying the Yamuna’s health was linked to the people’s rights to life and liberty.

The Supreme Court ordered Haryana, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh to ensure at least 10 cubic meters per second of fresh water flowed. After failing to follow the order blaming each other for several years, the states have recently started releasing the prescribed fresh water, but environmentalists say it’s not enough to restore the river’s health.

In 1993, the Indian government launched a Yamuna Action Plan with a Japanese government aid agency, the biggest effort to date to clean up the river. It led to the construction of more than 35 sewage treatment plants over the next two decades.

Even today, Delhi can still only treat about half of the more than 1 billion gallons of waste it produces daily, according to the Central Pollution Control Board.

Activists and other critics say the plan neglected the simple task of connecting toilets to treatment facilities with sewage lines. In other cases, they say, staff failed to operate the treatment plants properly, leaving many underutilized.

“We thought that by just creating sewage treatment plants, it will clean the river,” said Uma Bharati, India’s former water resources minister who is currently the minister for drinking water and sanitation in the federal government of Prime Minister Modi.

But officials “didn’t bother” with who’d run the plants or what would happen if they didn’t have proper maintenance, she said. “We have abused the faith of the people.”

Ms. Bharati said her ministry was changing the way new wastewater treatment facilities would be designed and run, with federal utilities taking responsibility for their operation. The government would soon call a global tender to build and run newer plants, she said. “I want big people to come in this.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Sinha, the retired Indian Navy officer, continues to fight at India’s Supreme Court. He’s championing restoration of at least half the river’s original flow throughout its full stretch.

Supporting his case: Infusions of freshwater from tributaries downriver from Delhi mean the Yamuna is almost clean when it reaches its conclusion, merging with the Ganges 300 miles southeast of the Taj Mahal.

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