Can India's Sacred But 'Dead' Yamuna River Be Saved? The river enters Delhi relatively clean but by the time it flows out, it's a "toxic cocktail of sewage, industrial waste and surface runoff," says an environmentalist. Urbanization is partly to blame.

Can India's Sacred But 'Dead' Yamuna River Be Saved?

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We heard yesterday that New Delhi is choking on the world's worst air. Today we turn to the water in the city and the river that runs through it. The Yamuna River begins in the Himalayas, and by the time it moves down into New Delhi, it's the dirtiest river in India. NPR's Julie McCarthy brings us this report.


JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: A fire crackles along the Delhi banks of the Yamuna River. A cremation at twilight - a young mother run over while fetching water. The stench of the river engulfs the sad assembly. The backdrop turns the scene surreal. Before the funeral pyre, floating down the river, look like icebergs. It's over 95 degrees in Delhi tonight. This is chemical waste being poured into the river. Downstream, the living reside along the garbage-strewn banks. A colony of shacks sits beneath the Old Iron Bridge. Its tracks carry trains across the Yamuna, on the northern edge of the city. Like the Ganges, the Yamuna is sacred to Hindu believers. Devotes dangle garlands from the bridge's hulking girders and pitch money from its railings. Eight-year-old Ravi dives into the contaminated water to retrieve their offerings.

Did you find anything this morning?

RAVI: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: He has just pulled them out of his mouth. He has indeed found coins here in the Yamuna River.

RAVI: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: For the past 18 years, Mohammad Zamir has beaten rags against rocks. Washing remnants, he stands in the filthy water from dawn till dusk.

Mohammad, do you worry about the effects of this water on your own health?

MOHAMMAD ZAMIR: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: "No, the water looks black because of the shadows falling on it," says this father of four. Yet, according to the 2011 water quality data from the Central Pollution Board, by the time the Yamuna exits the city downstream, it is lethal. The water contains 1.1 billion fecal coliform bacteria per 100 milliliters of water. The standard for bathing is 500 coliform bacteria.

MANOJ MISHRA: That is the reason why this stretch of the River Yamuna is called as dead, because there is no life here. There cannot be life here.

MCCARTHY: There is no fish here?

MISHRA: Yeah, there is nothing here.

MCCARTHY: Noted environmentalist Manoj Mishra walks along the banks, explaining that upstream, huge amounts of water are channeled off to irrigate farmlands. Just before the Yamuna enters the city, millions more gallons are siphoned off for Delhi's drinking water, shrinking the flow further.

MISHRA: A river that does not flow is no river. And as you can clearly see, there is no flow here. This is a toxic cocktail of sewage, industrial waste and surface runoff. Absolutely unfit for any use whatsoever.

MCCARTHY: Unbridled urbanization is to blame. New arrivals drawn to the capital by a liberalized economy settled wherever they could. Over 30 percent of Delhi's 17 million people live in settlements that are officially illegal and not connected to any municipal sewer service. When the underserved population openly defecates, the waste finds its way into drains that dump directly into the river. The Yamuna's 13-mile stretch through Delhi is a dumping ground.

R.S. TYAGI: You will find every law in Delhi, but there is no enforcement (laughter).

MCCARTHY: That's Delhi Water Board member R.S. Tyagi. He says there is lax enforcement about illegal dumping of arsenic, zinc and mercury. And Tyagi says the Yamuna is administered by no less than two dozen government agencies.

How is anyone ever accountable?

TYAGI: In this way, nobody can be accountable.

MCCARTHY: No drinking water is drawn from the river's worst stretch, but the state of Delhi's water has given rise to a lucrative industry of home water filters. Manoj Mishra says families without them fall sick.

MISHRA: That's how their life is. It is. It's - it is. And it is highly irresponsible in some ways, even criminal. But the solution lies in getting the river back.

MCCARTHY: An experiment to revive the floodplain of the Yamuna is thriving. A butterfly, bird-filled wetlands in North Delhi replicates the flora and fauna of what was here a hundred years ago, according to field biologist Mohammad Faisal.

MOHAMMAD FAISAL: Wetlands act as a nursery for the river itself.

MCCARTHY: He says thousands of migratory birds are back, 20 species of fish, 35 species of dragonflies. Artist and activist Ravi Agarwal says this 450-acre biodiversity park is the beginning of an overdue healing.

RAVI AGARWAL: Nature and the city become too oxymoronic words. They don't sort of sit with each other. Earlier they used to just flow into each other, and there was a very beautiful coexistence.

MCCARTHY: Coexistence can revive the Yamuna, he says, but Delhiites must want it. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi.

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