As the sun’s rays push through the clouds, a city wakes up. Some splash water on their faces, some prepare tea while some water the plants. When everyone's day begins, so does the need of water.
Be it Indus valley or Mesopotamia, civilisations mostly originated along water bodies. Rivers did not only provide life, but they provided ancient societies with access to trade, literature and technology.
A city was built along the eastern banks of the river Yamuna in 1638. This was the walled city of Shahjanabad, built and named after the great Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. Tributaries of the Yamuna flowed through the city and several rulers tapped the streams and fed the water through massive sluices into tanks, to provide water for their people. Today, these tributaries have dried up and become cemented tunnels underneath the city that carry sewage to the Yamuna.
Historian Sohail Hashmi believes that the Yamuna was useful for the farmers and fisherfolks, but it never provided potable water to the city. It could be one of the reasons why the third ruler of Tughlaq Dynasty, Sultan Firoz Shah Tughlaq, constructed a canal to source drinking water from a northern branch of the Yamuna to Delhi. Tughlaq was credited for the construction of several irrigation canals, including the 240 kilometre long canal that connected the Yamuna and the town of Hissar, now in the state of Haryana.
Even though the Yamuna could not be used to draw drinking water, it added charisma to the old city. People would get on a boat and go to the islands on the river to buy watermelons. Families hired tongas from Shahjanabad to the Okhla canal to enjoy picnics and watch sailboat racing.
In the book Delhi: Unknown Tales of a City, author RV Smith describes a time when kite fliers and pigeon-fanciers went to the open spaces near the Yamuna bank and engaged in competitions. Slowly, as encroachments on the Yamuna bank increased, the pigeon-fanciers began showcasing their talents of calling back air-borne pigeons from their rooftops.
Hashmi says it is only in the last 60 years, that the tributaries of the Yamuna were destroyed and now it carries only sewage.
Until the Britishers introduced the flush toilet system in 1890, the city followed a dry waste method where solid waste was collected in a pit. The flush system required a huge amount of water for its functioning and the sewage was dumped back into the Yamuna.
A city that had a different personality now has a makeover. Today, Yamuna is a black nullah with white toxic foam that stinks.
We can still be hopeful and learn from Seoul, South Korea where the Han River was revived. Much like the Yamuna, the Han River was the hub of the industrial and urban waste. The city government of Seoul developed walkways, bicycle paths and parks alongside the river. Seoul can also teach us about waste management. The Seoul government converted their dumping grounds into eco-parks and used the methane produced by the waste into electricity.
The Yamuna River once added grandeur to the city. It was only when we turned our back to the Yamuna, it became the sewage drain, in the backyard of our city.