Sunday, 23 August, 2009

India Cannot Remain Independent If India’s Rivers are Enslaved

By Madhu Kishwar

Citizens’ Pledge to Free Delhi’s Lifeline, River Yamuna from Pollution and Encroachments by Builder Mafias

On August 15, 2009, a wide spectrum of citizens joined together to pledge to Free Ganga Yamuna and all other rivers from pollutants and mindless encroachments on their riverbeds. The pledge was taken at Qudsia Ghat on the banks of Yamuna near Kashmiri Gate Bus Terminus. Major General Lakhinder Singh (retd), Maneka Gandhi, (Member of Parliament and Former Environt Minister), Master Baljit Singh, (leader of the villages and farmers affected by encroachments on Yamuna riverbed), and Madhu Kishwar of Manushi led the pledge taking ceremony.

Others who joined included Prabhat Singh, (Resident Editor of Dainik Bhaskar Chandigarh edition), Sunil Umarao, (Head of Department of Media Studies, Allahabad University), social activist Neelam Katara, Vijay Pratap of SADED, Ashok ji of Samadhai Mandir, IRS official, Rakesh Chitkara, Ritu Bammi of Smart Analyst, Dr. Anurag Bhagat of Parmanand Hospital, Aditya Kishwar of Reserve Bank of India and Rahul Govind from CSDS. It was encoraging to find people from diverse backgrounds-- students, film makers, academics, businessmen, bankers, street vendors, mallahs (boatmen), priests of Qudsia Ghat and most important of all villagers whose farm lands on the Yamuna riverbed are being forcibly taken away by builder mafias in collaboration with government agencies---make common cause on this issue.

In 2007 and 2008, the Yamuna Satyagraha remained focused at the site of the Commonwealth Games village. However, at the last minute it was decided to extend its reach to neighbourhoods located near the banks of Yamuna. Therefore, just four days before August 15, we selected Qudsia Ghat near Civil Lines and Kashmiri Gate area as an additional site for launching the Ganga Yamuna Satyagraha led by India's Waterman, Rajendra Singh. Manushi took the responsibility of organizing the event at the new venue to enhance the outreach of the Ganga Yamuna Satyagraha. Despite a mere two days notice, and incessant rain for most part of the day, over a 100 people turned up to take the pledge.

The approach pathway off the Ring Road was littered with garbage, potholes and slushy so that it was difficult to either walk or drive. Car wheels of several people got stuck in the slush. The stench emanating from the hideously polluted Yamuna was unbearable and gave many of us a terrible headache and nausea in the one hour we spent at the Ghat. Most shocking of all we saw people performing pujas and even bathing and cleaning in the foul sewage and industrail waste water flowing in what was once a resplendent sacred river. Pictures of Yamuna ghat attached with this mail say it all.

Each participant carried a bottle of Yamuna water in hand while taking the pledge which read as follows:
Realizing that the river Yamuna is the Life Line of Delhi,
Knowing that the river Yamuna is in a pathetic state due to the wilful neglect from the agencies of the state and apathy of citizens,
Recognizing that every citizen of Delhi is as much to blame for the sad state of the river,
Grateful that a Yamuna Satyagraha for the revival of the river Yamuna been sustained for more than two years now,
Acknowledging that I can make a difference through my active involvement for saving the river Yamuna, I pledge that:
1. I shall NOT POLLUTE the river in any manner including throwing of waste, plastic, and left over puja flowers, idols, clothes etc from religious ceremonies into the river
2. I shall RATION my personal use of daily water so that wastewater entering the river is decreased.
3. I shall SUPPORT Ganga-Yamuna Satyagraha in my personal capacity by participating in the activities of the Satyagraha.
4. I shall SPREAD awareness about and enlist support for the Ganga Yamuna Satyagraha among my friends, family, colleagues and neighbors.
5. I shall PERSUADE my neighborhood residents’ association to press upon the sewage department of the municipal corporation to stop the flow of untreated sewage into the river Yamuna,
6. I shall PRESS UPON the relevant authorities to stop converting the riverbed into a concrete jungle and instead encourage the growth of real trees and forests all along the riverbed,
7. I shall press upon our residents' association to IDENTIFY local water bodies and work together with the civic authorities to restore their health.
8. Apart from my individual contribution towards saving river Yamuna, I pledge to work towards making the 21st century an era of restoring the freedom of our rivers from all those activities that kill the river—freedom from encroachments on river beds by builder-politician mafias, freedom from industrial waste, sewage and other pollutants being poured into them, freedom for forests to grow on riverbeds and freedom to carry an ecologically necessary flow of fresh water.

The Context of the Free Ganga Yamuna Satyagraha

The independent India envisaged by Mahatma Gandhi, father of the nation, was one which gave its citizens “Swaraj” not just freedom from British rule. Our colonial rulers had not just enslaved India’s people but also its natural resources by assuming eminent domain over forest wealth, water bodies, rivers, and all its land including the mineral wealth that lay underneath. Gandhi envisioned a society which would provide a life of respect not only for its citizen but also look upon nature with reverence, treat the bountiful resources of nature as a gift to fulfill the legitimate needs of all human beings rather than as mere “resources” to be exploited and plundered for the greed of a few. Sad to say, in the last 62 years of independent India, this has not come to pass. Every day, new plans are being made to and enslave and destroy our rivers, forests and land. New dams, embankments, temples, hotels, malls, and residential complexes on riverine lands are nothing but enslavement of rivers under the guise of “development.” Large scale deforestation in the Himalayas, mindless construction activities on fragile mountains, melting of glaciers and global warming are all contributing to the ecological disaster story of India!

The village and urban communities that depend on these rivers for their very survival have no say in the matter. They are not even getting adequate amounts of clean drinking water, leave alone assured irrigation for their crops or other needs. The legendary prosperity of the Ganga Yamuna belt is now history. Repeated droughts followed by regular floods have impoverished this region and made agriculture and related activities economically unviable. Consequently, millions are abandoning agriculture and village based industries and flocking to urban centres as economic refugees. Our cities are ill equipped to handle such huge inflows and have become living symbols of civic chaos and squalor. This is not the Independence we deserve; this is not Independence worth celebrating.

Ganga, a river considered so sacred and pure that a mere dip in it was expected to wash away one’s impurities, is today a dead river because we are allowing it to be treated as a sewage carrier. Billions of rupees have been siphoned off in the name of cleaning Ganga but today it is twice as polluted as it was when the Ganga Action Plan was launched in mid 1980’s. Yamuna the largest tributary of Ganga and running over 1370 km from its origins till its confluence with Ganga in Prayag has some of the oldest and holiest cities lying on its banks. Delhi, Agra, Vrindavan and Mathura are cities that came into being because of this river. And yet all these cities have become the main cause of defiling and destroying the river by pouring into the river humongous amounts of sewage, industrial waste and plain garbage.

When Yamuna enters Delhi, the city government captures all its water at the Wazirabad Barrage to subject it to chemical treatment and use it for drinking water to supply to the residents of Delhi. Except during the three months of monsoon, not a single drop of river water is allowed to flow downstream for nine months in the year. Instead, Delhi pours all its sewage, industrial waste and garbage into the river so that the river is effectively dead and its water so filthy that fish and other water creatures cannot survive in it. If one stands up to one’s ankles or knees in one of the ghats of Yamuna River in Delhi, the skin breaks into a nasty rash. What Delhi sends downstream cannot be called water; it is sheer poison.

After the intervention of the Supreme Court, Yamuna Action Plan was launched in 1993 to save the river. More than $500 million have already gone down the drain under the pretence of cleaning the river by stopping the flow of untreated sewage in it. Today, the river is in a worse shape than before.

This sad state of affairs led to the launch of the Yamuna Satyagraha on August 1, 2007 in Delhi under the leadership of Waterman Rajendra Singh, with the ultimate objective of reviving the river Yamuna in its entirety and to link this struggle to the much larger struggle for saving all other rivers which are in similar if not worse plight.

The decision of the Delhi Government to construct the Commonwealth Games Village on the riverbed acted as the trigger point for the two- year old Satyagraha. Flood plains are vital for the river ecology and an integral part of the ecosystem. Delhi Government has been allowing mindless encroachments by vested interests to take over the flood plains for massive building projects. The construction of the Akshardham Temple on the riverbed paved the way for numerous such building projects.

In response to the Yamuna Satyagraha, the Lt Governor of Delhi had declared a moratorium on any new construction in the riverbed. However, on 30th July 2009 a three-member bench of the Supreme Court of India quashed the Delhi High Court order that had put various restrictions on the construction activities on Yamuna river bed citing environmental hazards. This has strengthened the hands of the builder mafia that wants to convert the entire Yamuna river bed into a massive real estate enterprise with malls, multi storey apartments, corporate offices, golf courses, cinema halls and all the rest that follows.

Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak had said “Independence is our birth right.” Since rivers are our life line, the Ganga Yamuna Satyagraha extends this slogan to uphold the nature given right of all our rivers to flow freely on their course to the ocean without being converted to filthy sewers. We are launching this movement by holding the first ever Ganga Yamuna Azaadi Shibir on the shores of the Ganga in Kolkata and a Shapath Diwas (Pledge Day) on the shores of Yamuna at Qudsia Ghat in Delhi. Thereafter, we will be holding a series of Shibirs in various parts of India, to mobilize citizens to uphold the Freedom- of- Flow for Ganga, Yamuna and other rivers in order to take this movement to its desired conclusion.

[Pictures available here]

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