Beliefnet
NEW DELHI, India (AP)--The elephant twirled its trunk, enjoying itsmorning bath. Children frolicked in the water as women in saris prayed.Two men laughed as they paddled by in the slow, dark current.

Another day by the black waters of the poison river.

As morning dawns, the Yamuna, one of India's holiest rivers, meanderingdown from the icy Himalayas into the fertile northern plains, drawsthousands to its muck-clogged banks.

They have learned to live with the river, which is clean as it entersNew Delhi but becomes a roiling black current as it snakes throughIndia's capital, taking on sewage, pesticides and pollutants.

A decade after the Yamuna's pollution became a public concern, India'sSupreme Court is finally demanding that New Delhi state take action tosave the source of drinking water for some 60 million people.

In the last 10 years, the Yamuna has become the dumping ground for allconceivable waste in this city of 12 million people.

Each day, mountains of industrial waste and raw sewage from hundreds ofthousands of homes flow into the river through 19 massive drains.Hundreds of tons of waste from hospitals, slaughter houses, dairies andrestaurants are pumped into it.

According to some estimates, nearly half a billion gallons of wastespills into the Yamuna each day, as well as tons of pesticides from theneighboring farming state of Haryana, from which the Yamuna enters NewDelhi.

Many Indian rivers are considered holy. Hindus believe that taking a dipin their waters will cleanse them of sins.

But the Yamuna has become a health hazard.

According to Dr. Indira Khurana at the Center for Science andEnvironment in New Delhi, accidental ingestion of the river's water canlead to stomach ailments and hepatitis. Bathing in the more pollutedstretches causes rashes and infections.

But the biggest risk is from the liver-damaging pesticides that arewashed into the river from upstate.

Rudimentary effluent plants--which treat the water, but not to thepoint where it is drinkable--are not advanced enough to purify thewater of pesticides, which Khurana said weaken the body's immune system.

"There is also a greater risk of cancer and genetic defects, though nostudies have yet established the direct link between the water'spollution and these disorders," Khurana said.

Even the elephants that live by the river and earn a living for theirkeepers by performing at weddings and birthday parties are breaking outin rashes from the polluted water.

Still, many Hindus believe they can ward off death by bathing in theYamuna, named after the sister of Yama, the Hindu god of death.

Activists say successive governments are to blame.

"It's not the problem of a river. It's the problem of governance," said Sunita Narain, deputy director of the Center for Science andEnvironment, a think tank in the capital.

"Of the water that flows downstream, very little is river water. It'smainly all that comes from the drains,'' said Rajat Banerji, co-authorof a book on the Yamuna, "Homicide by Pesticide."

In 1995, the court ordered the government to build 16 sewage treatmentplants to clean the water that goes into the river. Only five have beenbuilt. But even those still have no network of sewage pipes linking themto local homes and businesses.

"The scandal is that the treatment plants were set up so badly--someare underutilized, some with over capacity," Narain said. "The plantswere not built to treat chemical waste, just biological waste."

In May, the Supreme Court criticized the government for its inaction andimposed a symbolic fine of $240.

"The government is criticized and sometimes justly," said ChiefSecretary P.K. Bhatnagar, the New Delhi state government's top official.

"We regard the Yamuna as a heritage of Delhi city. It has to bemaintained at any cost. Its glory as a sacred river has to berestored."

Under pressure from the court, the state government run by the Congressparty has promised several steps to fight the pollution.

Bhatnagar said the 16 sewage plants ordered by the court in 1995 will beready by June 2001.

Teams of government officials are raiding factories located by theYamuna and 3,000 have been served notice to stop polluting the river.Illegal slums built along the river are being uprooted.

Next on the hit-list are dairies, hospitals, slaughterhouses andrestaurants that empty their waste into the river.

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