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Yamuna on their minds

By Geetanjali Krishna
May 13, 2016 10:44 IST
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Swechha tries to ensure Delhiites don't forget their dying river.

A boy looks for recyclable items in the polluted waters of the Yamuna river in New Delhi.

IMAGE: A boy looks for recyclable items in the polluted waters of the Yamuna river in New Delhi. Photograph: Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters

Early last Sunday, probably around the same time that people across Delhi usually take out their trash, a group of school-goers gathered on the banks of the Yamuna.

Armed with picks, shovels and a shared sense of sadness over the toll that civilisation has exacted from the river, they got down to the business at hand -- cleaning a section of its banks.

"Last year, we went on a Yamuna Yatra, tracing the river down from its source, Yamnotri. When I saw how pristine its water was at its point of origin, and what it became as it flowed to the plains, it had a huge impact on me," says Sarina Mittal, a Class 12 student of the capital's Vasant Valley School.

Along with fellow students, Kamya Yadav, Ria Prakash and Lovina Vasudeva, she initiated the Dying River Campaign to raise awareness about the pollution in the Yamuna.

"Next year, we plan to hand over the campaign to our juniors," she says. "In the meantime, we plan to use events like this to foster empathy for the river amongst students, maybe even spur similar groups in other schools."

Laudable as it is, this campaign has especially made Vimlendu Jha proud.

The firebrand founder of Swechha India, he is the one who had taken these four students and their entire batch for the Yamuna Yatra.

Recently in the news for having challenged the Art of Living Foundation's World Culture Festival that controversially took place on the Yamuna flood plains, Jha has been taking people to landfills to make them understand that the stuff they throw in dustbins doesn't just disappear.

He also shows them the dozens of sewer pipes that spew waste directly into the river, so that they understand what happens every time they pull the flush inside their clean bathrooms.

Since he started Swechha in 2001, Jha has worked to return the Yamuna back into the mindspace of the people. Although she is a goddess in Hindu mythology, she has been treated shamefully.

Jha's office (India's first completely upcycled office, he says proudly) is peppered with posters of grim statistics about the Yamuna: Delhi's 19 drains contribute to 96 per cent of the Yamuna's pollution.

Ninety per cent of the pollution of the river is caused by untreated sewage from the capital. And incredibly, only 5 per cent of Delhi's sewage is treated before being released into the river.

One of Swechha's earliest triumphs, albeit small, was to get barriers placed along the bridges to prevent people from throwing waste, religious idols and more into the river.

Over the years, other than students, Swechha's walks have brought parliamentarians, lawmakers, bureaucrats and more to the river. Their upcycling programme converts tyres into wallets and laptop sleeves; bottles into self-watering planters and more -- all in an effort to save our so-called waste from our over-flowing landfills.

"Yet, the government, judiciary as well as citizenry have become adept at turning a blind eye to the fate of the Yamuna," he says.

Which is why Swechha's diverse set of programmes, ranging from afforestation and upcycling to education and enterprise, are all aimed at changing attitudes towards the environment.

Other than the Yamuna Yatra and educational walks, Swechha enables women across Delhi to run an app-based food delivery service called Million Kitchens, runs a fair trade upcycled products store called Green the Map, carries out afforestation drives and urban gardening workshops and conducts advocacy and educational programmes about the Yamuna across different forums.

Today, almost 70 per cent of Swechha's revenue comes from its enterprises -- walks, urban gardening workshops, sale of products and, of course, the Yamuna Yatra. "The rest comes from institutional grants," says Jha.

One of their recent drives has been about planting more trees. "We've planted and are maintaining an urban forest in Gurgaon," he says. "However, to plant more such forests, we would need more funds." Each sapling, he explains, costs about Rs 350 to maintain for a year.

In the years to come, Swechha is going to focus on getting in touch with more schools and universities to spread awareness about the Yamuna.

"In the Yatra, a lot of students are deeply affected when they see how clean the river is when it flows past villages full of poor, supposedly illiterate people -- and how polluted it gets when it reaches the cities where the rich urban elite lives," says Jha.

This attitude change, as the Vasant Valley students have demonstrated, can be transformative.

In spite of all this, can the river even rise up from the dead, so to speak? Jha is guarded: "As an individual, I can simply raise awareness. It is the government's duty to clean the river, and my right to demand it."

Meanwhile, Vasant Valley School students are planning more events, filing RTI applications and making cool time-lapse videos of their activities on the Yamuna Banks. Mittal adds, "I feel that if I can make even one per cent difference to the river, it will all have been worth it."

For more information, you can visit www.swechha.in or www.thedyingriver.com (external links).

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Geetanjali Krishna
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