2016-06-30
NEW DELHI, India (AP)--The elephant twirled its trunk, enjoying its morning 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, meandering down from the icy Himalayas into the fertile northern plains, draws thousands to its muck-clogged banks.

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

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

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

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

According to some estimates, nearly half a billion gallons of waste spills into the Yamuna each day, as well as tons of pesticides from the neighboring farming state of Haryana, from which the Yamuna enters New Delhi.

Many Indian rivers are considered holy. Hindus believe that taking a dip in 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 and Environment in New Delhi, accidental ingestion of the river's water can lead to stomach ailments and hepatitis. Bathing in the more polluted stretches causes rashes and infections.

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

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

"There is also a greater risk of cancer and genetic defects, though no studies have yet established the direct link between the water's pollution and these disorders," Khurana said.

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

Still, many Hindus believe they can ward off death by bathing in the Yamuna, 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 and Environment, a think tank in the capital.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teams of government officials are raiding factories located by the Yamuna 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 and restaurants that empty their waste into the river.

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