Cleaning Yamuna will require improving sewerage networks, cooperation between Delhi and neighbouring states

The white sheet is a sign of an ecologically-dead river. Release of inadequately treated water or untreated sewage from areas not connected to the city's sewerage network precipitates frothing.

In the past month-and-a-half, Delhi’s ruling Aam Aadmi Party and its main Opposition, the BJP, have traded charges over Chhath puja rituals in the capital. The latest dispute between the two warring parties pertains to a Delhi Disaster Management Authority (DDMA) order of September 30 prohibiting rituals along the Yamuna’s banks. The BJP holds Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal responsible for the ban, even though the DDMA helmed by LG Anil Baijal has justified the prohibition as a Covid precaution. On Wednesday, BJP leaders defied the ban while Kejriwal appealed to the Opposition to desist from politics over Chhath. Much more serious than this bickering, though, is the state of the Yamuna. For about a week, the river has been shrouded by a sheet of pollutants that could be mistaken for snow from a distance. For the past three days, social media has been flooded with visuals of devotees taking a dip in the river enveloped by the toxic foam.

The white sheet is a sign of an ecologically-dead river. Release of inadequately treated water or untreated sewage from areas not connected to the city’s sewerage network precipitates frothing. During the period when the river’s flow is lean, it is not able to wash off this detritus. The foam has been visible for more than a decade. But, by all accounts, it has been covering a greater expanse of the river in the past five years. Delhi Jal Board’s Vice-Chairman Raghav Chadha — an AAP member — has blamed UP’s Irrigation Department, responsible for maintaining the Okhla Barrage, for the pollution. The Delhi government maintains that the frothing is only downstream of this point. He has accused sugar and paper mills in places like Meerut and Shamli of releasing untreated wastewater into the Hindon Canal at the Yamuna Barrage. The Haryana government has also been criticised for squeezing the river’s flow to the capital. It’s apparent that like for most pollution-related woes of the capital, cleaning up the Yamuna requires cooperation between the Delhi government and its counterparts in the neighbouring states. That, unfortunately, has proved to be the river’s bete noire.

According to an NGT committee report of 2018, the 22 km stretch of the Yamuna from Badarpur to Okhla — about 2 per cent of the river’s total length — accounts for 75 per cent of the river’s pollution. The committee warned that if minimum flows are not maintained at this point, it would be virtually impossible to rejuvenate the river. It’s time that states which share the river’s basin revisit this report, and institutionalise mechanisms of cooperation.

This editorial first appeared in the print edition on November 12, 2021 under the title ‘The frothing river’.

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