The International Day of Action for Rivers is observed every year on 14 March. Initiated by the US-based ecological organisation International Rivers, the day was formally adopted in 1997 by the participants of the first International Meeting of People Affected by Dams. Since then, over 800 NGOs around the world have been using the occasion to highlight the destruction being wreaked on rivers in the name of development. The day is also an occasion to focus on issues of community access to clean flowing rivers, conservation, and matters of health and sanitation. This year’s theme is the “Rights of the Rivers”. For a river to have legal rights, it needs to be recognised as a person. While Bangladesh, for instance, has recognised all its rivers as such, in India the Uttarakhand high court granted the Ganga and Yamuna legal rights in 2017.
The latter is one of the most polluted rivers in the world, especially when it passes through Delhi. In an affidavit to the Supreme Court on 10 February, the Union government stated that total faecal coliform bacteria found in the river in Delhi ranged between 66,000 and 10 million mpn (most probable number)/100ml. For water to be potable, this concentration shouldn’t be above 2,500mpn/100ml. The Yamuna is, in other words, pure poison.
This fact reminded photographer Sankar Sridhar of the mythological tale of Krishna slaying the demon serpent Kalia, who had poisoned the Yamuna. “I have been in Delhi for 15 years now. But apart from crossing the Yamuna almost on a daily basis, I have never given the river any thought,” says Sridhar.
The award-winning photographer, best known for his haunting images of Ladakh in the depths of winter, laughs at the irony of his statement. An avid hiker in the Himalaya, he has spent years next to the tributaries and distributaries of the Yamuna in the mountains. “I have seen the Yamuna as a rivulet, a stream, a mountain river,” he says, adding that he could never connect the Yamuna of his memories to the sluggish and highly toxic river that flows through Delhi.
Until December 2018, that is, when he decided to tackle this sense of disconnect head on. Unable to go to Ladakh that winter, he headed to the Nigambodh Ghat in north Delhi instead, to watch the migratory birds that flock to the Yamuna every winter. At Nigambodh, Sridhar found a surreal scene. Thick grey smog was choking the black, nearly still river. And across this curtain of grey and black, thousands of blindingly white gulls were flying about, creating striking patterns. “I went there every morning just to watch. I would take my camera, but the idea wasn’t really to shoot, but try and find a way to capture this dreamy, ethereal mood. So one of the first things that I had to figure out was what kind of patterns these birds would make,” says Sridhar.
Over two winters, Sridhar has compiled a stunning set of images of birds and people nourished by this river of poison every winter. While people take a dip in the waters every day to wash away their fear of death, migratory birds are in turn fed by the boatmen and priests who live on the ghats. In mythology, Yamuna is considered the twin of Yama, the god of death.
In Sridhar’s evocative photographs, the river of death turns into the river of dreams. “Everybody’s dumping waste, everybody’s killing the river at some level. Yet at another level, the people who live on the Yamuna believe that it’s a living, breathing organism. It exists. It’s alive and it’s breathing,” says Sridhar.