Photo Essays | Environment | South Asia

Delhi’s Dying Holy River

The Yamuna River is more raw sewage than freshwater these days, and that’s taking a heavy toll on local people.

By Delhi Photo Expedition for
Delhi’s Dying Holy River

The Delhi Pollution Control Committee’s analysis last year said the dissolved oxygen levels in the river were nearly zero.

Credit: Avinash Giri
Delhi’s Dying Holy River

Water coming from the Okhla Barrage on the Yamuna in South Delhi overflows with toxic froth and filth, which is full of chemical waste coming from manufacturing plants.

Credit: Rajeev Frederick
Delhi’s Dying Holy River

At a glance, this seems to be a snow-covered river, but its stench is nauseating, even from a distance.

Credit: Aarti Kumar
Delhi’s Dying Holy River

Many locals jokingly call it “the iceberg of the Yamuna.” They take selfies at the river bank with the froth in the background.

Credit: Anubhav Chauhan
Delhi’s Dying Holy River

Although the National Green Tribunal (NGT), a special tribunal that handles cases regarding the environment, has banned the dumping of waste on the floodplains of the river, people can be seen openly throwing garbage into the Yamuna.

Credit: Rajeev Frederick
Delhi’s Dying Holy River

Many Hindu devotees come to the river bank to perform religious rituals, as the Yamuna is considered a goddess in Hindu mythology. As part of the ritual, they throw flowers, ashes, and pots in the river, which adds to the pollution. Sometimes, they also throw precious jewelry as an offering to the river goddess.

Credit: Arpita Singh
Delhi’s Dying Holy River

Images and idols of Hindu gods and goddesses, part of a religious ceremony, can be found floating in the river.

Credit: Rajeev Frederick
Delhi’s Dying Holy River

Many ragpickers roam around the river bank, collecting the garbage dumped into the river, which they sell in the market.

Credit: Avinash Giri
Delhi’s Dying Holy River

Three-year-old Kiran (left) doesn’t know what a school looks like, but has started helping her grandmother (right) in picking trash. She has a keen eye for identifying useful articles.

Credit: Stephen Edison
Delhi’s Dying Holy River

Members of a family warm themselves around a fire. They migrated to Delhi from the state of West Bengal in search of livelihood. Kalajan (left) catches fish in the Yamuna with the male members of his family, whereas the female members work as ragpickers along the river bank.

Credit: Avinash Giri
Delhi’s Dying Holy River

Although pollution has almost wiped out fish in the river, Kalajan (right) and his brother (left) enter the river every day to try their luck. He said that fishing was once profitable but now it’s an uphill task.

Credit: Avinash Giri
Delhi’s Dying Holy River

To catch fish, fishermen have to sail through the heaps of toxic froth containing harmful chemicals.

Credit: Meagan K. Clark
Delhi’s Dying Holy River

Though the NGT has prohibited the cultivation of edible crops and vegetables on the floodplains of the Yamuna due to its ill-effects on human health, nearby farmers eke out a living with staple crops like cauliflower.

Credit: Meagan K. Clark
Delhi’s Dying Holy River

An aerial view of the Yamuna shows the extent of the pollution.

Credit: Vishal Arora

Before you can see the Yamuna River or hear its roar, you smell its nauseating stench from a distance. When you finally glimpse it, the waterway looks like a sewer. Originating from the pristine Himalayan ranges further up north, the water of the Yamuna River carries with it raw sewage, untreated industrial runoff, and garbage as it flows through Delhi, destroying not only its marine life and biodiversity, but also the prospects for survival of those who depend on it for livelihood.

More than three-quarters of the pollution of the Yamuna, considered one of the most scared Indian rivers in Hindu lore, is found in a small stretch in Delhi – about 14 miles – that covers roughly 2 percent of the river’s total length, according to a monitoring committee overseeing its cleaning.

The Okhla area in South Delhi was the city’s prime fishing ground from the late 19th century to the early 20th century, according to the Delhi Gazetteers, but there’s no freshwater anymore. Instead, there’s a flow of untreated sewage, thanks to the discharge of toxic industrial chemicals released into the river.

The pollution has killed most of the fish population, but desperate fishermen, mostly migrants from the states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal, still cast their nets for whatever little they can catch.

The river is a testimony to the need for a balance between modern development that comes from industry and the conservation of natural assets. While the Indian government claims that it is spending millions of rupees on the cleaning of the Yamuna, the visible evidence gives a completely different picture, as shown in these photos.