Dirty RIVER blues

  • 14/06/1998

Dirty RIVER blues it started off as a picnic. About 50 children in the 12-13 age group from schools in and around Delhi were taken on a boat ride down the river Yamuna on Saturday, May 2. The aim: sensitising the children to the state of the river that flows through the city but is seldom noticed. What emerged at the end of the ride was, however, quite different: shock and alarm at the way the city is ignoring the river that used to be its lifeblood, and is now a non-entity.

"Until today, I did not realise how dirty was "dirty". It is only when I saw this nullah for a river that I realised the extent of the pollution," said Neha, 13, of Summer Fields school, with an expression that had all the elements of innocence confronted with reality. "I am still in a state of shock," said Radha Pandey, a wispy 12-year-old from Sardar Patel Vidyalaya. "While I was so scared of that filthy water falling on me, I saw a little boy brushing his teeth with it," she emphasised with a look that can only be described as horror.

The boat ride was organised by the environment education unit (eeu) of the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (cse) as part of the launch of Gobar Times, the bi-monthly children"s supplement with Down To Earth. The children were accompanied by resource persons from cse, including experienced campaigners and resear-chers who have been working on river pollution. Officials from the Central Pollution Control Board (cpcb), the Delhi Environment Action Network (dean) and Development Alternatives (da), a non-governmental organisation, were also present. dean was also represented by "student volunteers" of the Naval Public School who have been trained to use mobile water testing kit, known as Jaltara, to sample water quality. School children were quite excited at the prospect of learning to test water from their highly trained and articulate peers.
The measure of a river All ancient civilisations emerged on the banks of rivers. Rivers have been central to the growth of human society. "The river is a indicator of a society"s standards. A dirty river means a dirty society, and Delhi is the worst society in the world," said Anil Agarwal, director, cse, in his address to the children. They were told what Delhi does to the river.

The city vomits about 1,800 million litres of untreated sewage into the river everyday. And also some 300 million litres of industrial waste, everyday. It was also pointed out that the city can only clean up about half of all the wastewater it generates. When the children were told that roughly 70 per cent of Delhi"s drinking water comes from the river, the children were left wondering at the state of the water they drink and the abject apathy towards such an important factor in the city"s life. They were noticing the complete lack of any cultural and social ties between the urban populace and the river.

The entire exercise was to let the children physically experience the state of the river and its relations - or their absence - with Delhi. And what they learned could never have been imparted in the restricted environs of the classroom. It was more than mere words or pictures in a textbook. The river was there, and in a state that few of the children could have imagined. The shock therapy could be seen at work by itself. The children - tomorrow"s decision makers - were trying their level-best to come up with solutions to improve the situation, something that has eluded most people concerned about the state of the river.
Overwhelming response The organisers were quite apprehensive about the event given the heat of Delhi"s summer. But the response from the schools of the city was very enthu-siastic. As news of the event spread around and the crowd started swelling, the organisers discovered that the three boats that they had hired would prove to be inadequate. Another boat was pressed into service to accommodate the large number of friends and teachers that the children brought along with them.

"I want the beautiful, not the gutterful"

The children and teachers assembled at 6:15 in the morning at cse"s office at India Habitat Centre in order to start early and beat the heat. The eeu had prepared a range of informative material on the river, including posters an fact-sheets on the pollution levels in the Yamuna, water crisis in Delhi, and traditional water harvesting structures in Delhi. These were distributed to all the participants in the boat ride, as were Gobar Times T-shirts. Children were very eager to wear the T-shirts then and there, not prepared to wait in announcing their concern on environmental issues.

The children were taken in buses to the Hind Boat Club near the Kashmere Gate Inter-State Bus Terminus. Here, cse resource persons gave a curtain raiser to the trip, explaining to the participants what was in store. The enthusiasm of the children was as infectious as it was feverish. After this, the participants assembled on the bank of the river and got on to four motor boats, each with a capacity to carry 25 people. The participants were also accompanied by television crews from Star News, the Amul India Show and Aaj Tak. As the participants boarded the boats, they were given life jackets.

"Yamuna smells, looks like hell"

But the picnic atmosphere that prevailed till now was disappearing fast in the face of a fearful reality. Here, there was a short briefing on the state of the river upstream, how it arrives from the mountain pure, and is then loaded with pesticides from agricultural run off in Haryana. The children saw people bathing and offering prayers on the banks of the river. Even as teachers warned them not to touch the water, a drain between Nigambodh Ghat and the Old Yamuna Bridge could be seen releasing water that was particularly foul, had an abominable stench, and was as black in colour as a drain can be. Innumerable plastic bags were floating in the river, telling all and sundry that they will not decay but remain in the river for a long time.

The picnic is over
The boats took a stop at the Yamuna Pushta Vihar, and the children from upper-middle class were confronted with poverty and desperation that was a revelation for most of them. They saw children their own age - some younger - bathing and swimming, least bothered about the water that was most foul and black. The disgust at seeing humanity in this state was mixed with a sense of envy in some children, a result of seeing the abandonment with which their poorer counterparts were splashing the water. The boats were surrounded by the little swimmers. "Itne gande paani mein kaise naha rahe ho? (How are you bathing in such dirty water?)," asked an inquisitive child to another who was swimming. The answer was a giggle, followed by a back-flip, splashing water in the face of the enquirer, as disappeared in the water. A defiant face picked up a bit of floating scum and scrubbed his teeth with it. This was a great shock. "Achcha bhi lagta hai, bura bhi lagta hai (it feels good as well as bad)," said another child who was swimming.

The banks were dotted with people defecating, washing clothes, dying units and carcasses of animals. The children had been provided with cameras, tape recorders, pencils and pads to better acquaint themselves with the only people of the city who were in direct contact with the river, the hopelessly poor. This was the first encounter of its kind for the young investigators, meeting people living in unimaginable filth and squalor. An old man could be seen collecting plastic bags by putting sticks in the water, bobbing around on a huge pile of plastic bags, a picture of desperation. Nobody seemed to remember the picnic mood of 20 minutes ago.

"I don"t want the Yamuna to die"

"What do you think should be done?" a television reporter asked a participant. "We have elected a new government. May be they should do something about it," came the reply. "We should also not just throw garbage into the river," chipped in another child.

As the boats carried on, they reached Rajghat. Nandini Basu, a researcher at the cpcb, explained to the children that fly ash from the Rajghat thermal power plant was directly released into the river. The plant also draws water from the river for the purpose of cooling, she pointed out, adding that the extremely hot water is also released into the river. The children found out to their consternation that there were no living organisms in the Yamuna beyond the ito point in Delhi. The river, they could see, did not have a chance of survival.

"I want a change in the attitude of people"

Searching for answers
The children had got a jolt by now. Visibly disturbed and shaking their heads, they found themselves com-pulsively drawn into debates and discussions regarding the river and the means to improve its present state. "Why do these people use this water. Can"t the government give them proper water." "There should be strict laws to prevent people from polluting the river. The government should tax everyone." "Will your parents agree to more taxes?" These and other voices could be heard in the animated groups of participants. The children had forgotten that they were hungry, and had to be reminded of the sandwiches and soft drinks given to them. The packet of a soft drink, Frooti, became an issue with the children. "Don"t throw it in the river. Put in a box, We"ll dispose it later," said one. "But it will land up in the river just the same," pointed out another.

This brought the boat ride to its end. The children were taken via bus to the cse office to do something that was also a first for all of them: a chance to document their experiences in a special issue of Gobar Times that they were to bring out themselves, of course with assistance from cse resource persons, who included journalists. Hungry, hot and tired as the children were after the demanding physical effort and the even-more-demanding mental effort, they had unflagging energy. An impromptu newspaper office was set up at cse"s office complete with writers, a copy desk, a design team and a photo department. The children were taking their task seriously. Reporters and editors could be seen conferring furiously and exchange notes, as the photographers rushed off to select the pictures that they felt were appro-priate. Some of the children put up an exhibition of posters and photographs of the river taken by them.

"I demand a change in the government towards the environment"

What was achieved in the boat ride could not have been done in any other manner. The first-hand experience left a mark that would never be wiped out from their mental make-up. There could not have been a more effective way to get children interested in deve-lopment and environment issues. If environmental issues, with all their contradictions and complexities, are reduced to simplistic notions about cute animals and lovely trees, we end up creating a notion of the environment that is isolated, romantic, and devoid of the human sphere. To avoid this, children need to be exposed to the harshest of the realities, and helped in preparing themselves for the world that awaits them. The boat ride helped the children understand the complexities of the most important issues of the day. And they were showing all the willingness and enthusiasm that befits so young an age, coupled with an understanding that is only ascribed to adults.

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