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Crusading for the Yamuna's Future

Indian Hindu devotees offer prayers to the Sun during the Hindu festival of Chhath, on the banks of the Yamuna River in New Delhi on Nov. 16.
Christophe Archambault
/
AFP/Getty Images
Indian Hindu devotees offer prayers to the Sun during the Hindu festival of Chhath, on the banks of the Yamuna River in New Delhi on Nov. 16.
Devotees carry an idol of the Goddess Durga into the Yamuna River for immersion on Oct. 21, the final day of the Durga Puja Festival.
Manpreet Romana / AFP/Getty Images
/
AFP/Getty Images
Devotees carry an idol of the Goddess Durga into the Yamuna River for immersion on Oct. 21, the final day of the Durga Puja Festival.
A man pushes trash and debris away as he stands in the Yamuna River.
Shivani Dogra for NPR /
A man pushes trash and debris away as he stands in the Yamuna River.

When the city of Delhi first grew on the banks of the river Yamuna, the river was pure and pristine. It flowed down to the dusty plains from the Himalayas, irrigating and supporting life as it wound through the city.

In the 17th century, the Emperor Shah Jahan had the imposing Red Fort built on its banks. On its banks also lie memorials to Mahatma Gandhi, Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, and many other famed Indian leaders.

The Yamuna is held sacred by the Hindus who believe "she" is a Goddess. Revered and holy, the river joins the Ganges 600 miles from Delhi at what is considered one of the holiest confluences of rivers in the Hindu religion.

Before the Yamuna enters Delhi, the river looks relatively clean. There are rushes and vibrant birdlife along its banks. This is in stark contrast with what it looks like as soon as it enters the city.

The river banks are strewn with garbage. Tiny methane bubbles crowd its surface, and the river lets off an unbearable stench.

Soon the waterway becomes a black flow of toxic waste and sewage — the city's waste piped into the river by what residents of Delhi call "drains." These are as wide as highways.

Whatever cleansing treatment is given to the drains' contents does not seem to have much impact. As it winds through the heart of the capital, the Yamuna, slowly dies — and most of the city's citizens don't care.

Most, but not all.

The river does have her warriors. One of them is 29-year-old Vimlendu Jha. He heads an organization called Swechha, translated as "one's free will." His one mission in life is to save the dying river.

He hopes to increase awareness and bring about change by organizing "yatras" – 15-day journeys four times a year — taking students and adults along the river to its source.

What he calls "awareness walks" along the banks of the river in Delhi are another means of spreading the word — or just making people in the city realize that they have a river that supports them and needs help fast.

"Attitudes need to change," he says. "Through these yatras we want to trace the degradation of the river by the modern temples, the industries, the traditional temples and the people. And it is incorrect to say that people who live on the banks of the river are polluting it. We, we who live kilometers away from it, are polluting it as much."

Jha knows he faces a huge task if he wants to change attitudes. But he also believes it's possible.

"Today, for example, I have got 10 people to show them Yamuna. They might not do anything for Yamuna in their lifetime," he says. "But if I can take 10 million people on similar environmental walks, maybe half a million people will do something about it. That's what the idea is: action and hope. That's what drives me."

Radio piece by Philip Reeves. Written piece by Shivani Dogra for NPR.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.
Shivani Dogra