It is India’s most polluted river and yet for the fishermen who survive on its dying aquatic life, the Yamuna is still a lifeline.
Govinder Singh’s father, Mahinder Singh came from Pakistan post-partition and settled in Jagnola village, north-west Delhi. He was a shikari (hunter) there. When he came to Delhi, he became a fisherman on the banks of river Yamuna.
Over the decades, he has been able to monopolise the business. The Singhs have the sole authority to fish in the muddy waters of Yamuna from Palla village, north-west Delhi all the way to ITO, central Delhi. The monopoly is not because of Mahinder and Govinder’s exceptional business acumen, but due to the decreasing catch in the river.
The situation is the same at Wazirabad barrage. For the fishermen there, a day is divided into numerous occasions of hopefully casting the net into Yamuna and then hopelessly pulling it back in, without a catch.
Still, every day, Govinder as well as the fishermen of Wazirabad, scour the tea-coloured waters for fish. The source of this river is the Yamunotri glacier in the Himalayas, but the crystal-clear water of the mountains becomes the filthiest river in the country by the time it’s sludging its path along the east of Delhi. By the time it reaches the city, it’s shrivelled because some of the river water is channelled out to irrigate fields and to meet the capital’s water needs. Into the shrunken Yamuna is emptied sewage, industrial waste and garbage. The river in which the hopes of fishermen drown is a toxic cocktail.
Govinder, who runs his father’s business, now employs only five fishermen. At one point, he had 60 people working for him.
“In the urban stretch of Yamuna there are no phytoplanktons or zooplanktons left; these play an important role in maintaining the aquatic life of any water body. They have vanished,” said ecologist and retired professor, CR Babu. Yet in the non-urban stretches of the river, for instance in parts of Uttar Pradesh, the Yamuna boasts of a rich aquatic life with different species of fish, crocodiles and turtles.
During the monsoon, the river revives briefly because the rains dilute the pollutants in the river. For most of the year, however, there are more fishing boats than fish on the Yamuna.