Yamuna’s toxic tale: Art of Living event is only the latest chapter in a long pollution saga


The river Yamuna has been at the centre of controversy recently, thanks to the World Culture Festival being organised by the Art of Living Foundation led by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, on the flood plains of the river in New Delhi.
The level of deterioration in the condition of the Yamuna has only increased over time and various measures have appeared to be inadequate to address the situation.
Over the years, various institutes and environmentalists have submitted reports highlighting the extent of pollution in the river. According to a report , ‘Current condition of the Yamuna River – an overview of flow, pollution load and human use’ by The Energy and Resource Institute (TERI), the biggest contributors of pollution of the Yamuna are the cities of Delhi, Agra and Mathura. The stretch between Wazirabad barrage and Chambal river confluence is critically polluted and a 22 kilometre stretch in Delhi is the most polluted one.
Waste being dumped in the Yamuna river. File photo. AFPWaste being dumped in the Yamuna river. File photo. AFP
The report listed rising population density, untreated domestic waste water , industrial effluents and religious activities and immersion of idols as major sources of pollution in the capital.

According to a report in The Times of India in 2015, the Yamuna river has biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) of 55 milligrams per litre (mg/L) compared to the permissible limit of just 2 mg/L. This is almost 50 times more than the limit.
A Central Water Commission official was quoted as saying that the contamination level is ‘irreversible’ and that such water cannot be used either for irrigation or for drinking. The polluted water of the Yamuna has also had had a negative effect on the ground water in Agra, the official further said.
In December 2015, the Ministry of Water Reources published a report where the Central Pollution Control board (CPCB) assessed the water quality of the river at five different locations in Delhi.
The monitoring results suggested that the river Yamuna upstream of Wazirabad Barrage at Palla met the water quality criteria for C- class i.e. the water could be used for drinking purposed after disinfection treatment.
Downstream of Wazirabad Barrage the river gets polluted due to the discharge of waste and water containing organic matter and from the drains in Delhi. The water quality was not even found to be fit for the E-class criteria, after testing for all parameters except pH.
In Wazirabad the dissolved oxygen (DO) content is 7.5 milligrams per litre, which reduces to 1.3 mg/l when it exits the city limits, reported India Today.
In 2012 a study – ‘Yamuna, the poisoned river’ – published by TERI, water samples from 13 locations were taken over a stretch of 22 km at every 2 km from the Wazirabad barrage.
Some of their key findings were:
The levels of nickel, manganese, and lead in Yamuna water were found to be higher than the international aquatic water quality criteria for fresh water.
Levels of nickel, manganese, and mercury were above the permissible international standards in agricultural soil along the river.
Two hotspots for soil contamination were identified — around Wazirabad and at Okhla barrage. Higher levels of heavy metals contaminants were found in these regions.
Bio-monitoring of the vulnerable population – women and children close to the affected area – revealed that there were high levels of heavy metals (mercury, chromium, lead) in the urine of urban children. There was a high likelihood of high blood lead level in these children.
The NGT’s role
According to a Daily Mail report, in January 2015, the National Green Tribunal directed authorities to execute a comprehensive clean-up programme of the Yamuna. Six months after the order, the ground reality was still the same. There was little action on the Rs 4000 cr plan, according to the report.
Environmentalist Manoj Misra had petitioned the National Green Tribunal (NGT) seeking that it should monitor the ‘Maili se Nirmal Yamuna Tevitalisation Project 2017’. He questioned whether agencies concerned had even read the entire judgment of the tribunal ‘to appreciate the big picture.’
A report by the Indian Express in May 2015 said that the NGT ordered every household generating sewage in the NCT of Delhi, to pay environmental compensation, irrespective of whether or not they had a sewerage connection. The funds collected from the compensation were to be utilised for the construction of new sewage treatment plants (STPs) as part of the Maili se nirmal Yamuna Revitalisatio Project 2017.
In 2015, during the festival of Ganesh Chaturthi, NGT had banned immersion of idols made of non-biodegradable material into the Yamuna and asked the agencies to keep a check. But according to a report by The Hindu, people had completely disregarded the imposition and were still found immersing idols in the river. There were neither mobile toilets nor any dustbins for the disposal of the waste.
An article in Catch News reported that the NGT had slammed the Delhi Jal Board, concerned about the rising levels of ammonia in the river. Two plants – Wazirabad and Chandrawal – were shut to stop the river from being further polluted. The levels of ammonia in the river ranged between 2-2.5 ppm (parts per million). Delhi’s Water Minister Kapil Mishra wrote a letter to Union Water Resources Minister Uma Bharti, expressing concern over increasing levels of ammonia in the raw water.
Over the years the government appears to have made several efforts to control contamination. The authorities relocated some 17,801 industries between 2006 and 2009 to legitimate industrial clusters. Some industries like the coal-based Indraprastha power plant was decommissioned in 2010.
In 1987, the Central Pollution Control Board evolved Minimal National Standards (MINAS) for discharge of effluent under the provision of the Environment (Protection) Act of 1986. Some 10 Common Effluent Treatment Plants (CETPs) have been built for the existing 31 industrial clusters in the past decade.