Every year, the images of devoted women stepping into the toxic froth-laden waters of the Yamuna for Chhat Puja in Delhi exude pain for both people and the river which has been bearing the brunt of rapid urbanization and industrialization in the city.
Of the many initiatives to clean the river, the most recent one was helmed by lieutenant-governor of Delhi, Vinai Kumar Saxena, which he has documented in Racing to Restore: the Yamuna Memoir. As many as 3792 unauthorized structures were removed and 273.5 acre was repossessed in the floodplain through the programme Saxena led, both as the LG and chairman of the high level committee (HLC) constituted by NGT. However, he had to leave the work “unfinished” after the Supreme Court stayed his HLC chairmanship in July 2023.
Saxena sketches his journey from being an admirer of the river to its custodian. He grew up on the banks of the Paishwani, a tributary of the Yamuna in Banda, the home town of Goswami Tulsidas, the author of the Ramcharitmanas.
“I used to swim and see through the water, the rippling sediments on the river floor,” he recalls.
His personal and professional sojourns in Mathura, Prayagraj, Farrukhabad, Gotan, Bhal and Ahmedabad kept him around rivers, especially the Yamuna, working for them, and learning from them. At some instances, he quietly made his contribution towards protection of rivers, on other occasions, he stood against stalwarts. He eloquently discusses his “David vs Goliath” battle with Narmada Bachoa Andolan supremo Medha Patkar in exposing the “farce being run” in the name of river protection.
“When waters of Narmada came gushing into Gujarat, I had a hand in making them flow,” he writes.
In 2015, he was appointed the chairman of Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC). His new office on Yamuna’s bank brought him closer to the river. He walked along the river, reflecting on its history, not knowing that the responsibility to do something for its polluted waters – first as the LG, Delhi and then as NGT-constituted HLC chairman – would soon beckon him.
“I took it more as an opportunity than an appointment,” he says. Unsurprisingly, among the first tasks he embarked on as LG, Delhi was to clean the Yamuna. And one of the first actions he undertook was to revive river Sahibi, once a tributary of the Yamuna, which had turned into a 57 km long “stinking, gas-emitting, marsh of putrid wastewater” – Najafgarh drain.
“I personally visited the entire stretch of the drain that carry millions of cusecs of dirt, silt, sewerage and enters Yamuna largely unhindered,” he writes. “I took a boat trip into the stinking Najafgarh drain, probably the first by an LG”.
Like anyone, he was also taken by surprise by the startling statistics. The outfall of sewage, mostly untreated, was about 744 Million Gallons per Day (MGD) against 930 MGD. This meant that 80 per cent of water supply in the city turn into sewage and much of it is drained directly into the river. Expressing his disbelief, he writes:
“I was appalled that about 85 percent of the pollution in the city is due to domestic sources.”
As fate would have it, his authority to work on the Yamuna strengthened when National Green Tribunal (NGT) “requested” him to chair the HLC for Rejuvenation and Restoration of Yamuna. As he took the “authority and opportunity to take ownership of the task” with both hands, visible differences, he claims, began to emerge as a result of development of 40 new de-centralized sewage treatment plants, rehabilitation of Kondli, Rithala STPs, partial gravitational de-silting, tapping of drains, upgradation of 13 CETPs and other activities to rid the Yamuna of pollution.
“Though not satisfactory, year on year data with regards to several parameters started showing improvement in baby steps,” he writes. Project Baansera, Delhi’s first bamboo theme park and Project Vatiika, an initiative to recreate wetlands through effective plantation, are cases in point evincing the impact his work brought and appreciated by G-20 envoys during a visit to ASITA on the Yamuna banks in March 2023. His role was also instrumental in adoption of O-zone in the Master Plan 2041 as an “area of no construction” and a regulated O(R) zone with “only essential utilities”.
However, to LG’s dismay, Supreme Court stayed the NGT directions appointing him as the HLC’s head in response to a petition filed by the Delhi government in May 2023 arguing that the river rejuvenation work should be invested with them. “The order stalled the initiatives that were being taken on a war footing for about a year,” he woefully writes. “The appeal was to disempower a person and not to strengthen the programme.”
Taking an apparent jibe at the ruling Aam Admi Party in Delhi, he says: “Yamuna is yet again getting inundated with the confusion of ownership. The framework is ready, the soldiers were ready but it is just that in proving a political point, the plot is getting lost.”
For political reasons or not, several programmes and millions of rupees have not been able to rid Yamuna of pollution, yet.