Ananda Banerjee

It is ingrained in our cultural thought process that the river cleanses everything and over centuries we have abused its resources, only to turn it into a sewer

A file photo of immersion of Durga idols in Yamuna river in Delhi. Photo: Harikrishna Katragadda/Mint

On any given day, if you pass through the Nizamuddin Bridge over the Yamuna in Delhi, you are bound to find cars of all shapes and sizes parked haphazardly along the curb. The occupants of these cars get down and nonchalantly toss garbage, mostly remnants of religious ceremonies, in polythene bags into the Yamuna river, sadly called a sewer by many.
The volume of vehicles increases manifold during the festive season. Motorists will make a beeline to the Yamuna the day after Diwali to dump religious waste into the river, heedless of the Delhi government’s longstanding ‘Save Yamuna’ campaign urging citizens not to pollute it. Although the government has installed a metal mesh preventing commuters from throwing garbage into the river, it has failed to change age-old beliefs and habits. This is not just limited to Delhi, but a practice followed across the country where people continue to litter and pollute public spaces.
So much for Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Campaign)—a national sanitation campaign launched by the Narendra Modi government. Does the government have the political will to change age-old cultural beliefs, habits and practices of millions who still bathe, wash and dump waste in the river and litter the streets? Does India need another ‘cleanliness’ project such as the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) and the Yamuna Action Plan (YAP) that have wasted colossal amount of taxpayer’s money or do we need self-introspection and a change in our religious beliefs and practices? Can Modi’s Clean Ganga Plan stop teeming millions from abusing the river in the name of culture and restore its flow to the sea?
It is easier to clamp down on industrial pollution by putting in place checks and preventive measures rather than cultural pollution, which has been taken for granted for centuries. The task becomes more difficult when we look at our population.
Interestingly, the Swatch Bharat campaign was launched on 2 October—the beginning of a month-long festive season which starts with Navratri. We are now celebrating Diwali and Chhath Puja (27-30 October) and Kartik Purnima (6 November) is just around the corner. This is the time we burden our rivers the most, with tonnes of religious waste, without ever thinking that it is our only source of fresh water, our drinking water. Also, it doesn’t occur to us that someone living downstream has to deal with our waste. Is this the hallmark of a great civilization?
It is ingrained in our cultural thought process that the river cleanses everything and over centuries we have abused its resources, only to turn it into a sewer. Over the years that I have spent walking on river banks I have stumbled upon all sorts of personal items—clothes, letters, photographs, utensils, coins that people had thrown for the river to carry away, but it couldn’t because it has been choked to death by our act of foolishness.
How will Swachh Bharat succeed if we don’t change our habits?