FJA 2020 Shortlist

Category: Excellence in Environmental Journalism

Shalini Singh (India)

Climate Change


Story 1

Big city, small farmers, and a dying river

City farmers? Yes, sort of – in the national capital, struggling as a choked Yamuna river and the destruction of its floodplains spur the region’s climate crisis and devastates their livelihoods

Insaan ab na jhagde se marega na ragade se
marega tho bhook aur pyas se.”

“Humankind will now die not of conflict or stress
But of hunger and thirst.”

So, it's not just science ringing alarm bells about climate change then. India’s literary epics had it nailed down ages ago, asserts 75-year-old Delhi farmer Shiv Shankar. He believes he is paraphrasing lines from the 16th century classic Ramcharitamanas (see video). Shankar may be a bit rusty in his reading of the classics, and you might find it difficult to locate those lines in the original Tulsidas poem. But the words of this farmer in the floodplains of the Yamuna river seem well suited to our own era.

Shankar, his family and many other cultivators describe, in painstaking detail, the many changes in temperature, weather and climate affecting what is one of the largest floodplains in an urban area anywhere. Just 22 of the 1,376 kilometres of the Yamuna flow through the National Capital Territory, and its 97 square kilometre floodplains account for barely 6.5 per cent of Delhi’s area. But that seemingly small presence has a big impact in balancing the climate, also functioning like nature’s thermostat for the capital. 

Farmers here note the changes now underway in their own idiom. Till 25 years ago, says Shiv Shankar’s son Vijender Singh, people here started using light blankets by September. “Now,” says the 35-year-old, “winter doesn't start till December. Earlier Holi in March was marked by a very hot day. Now it's like celebrating the festival in winter." 


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“The water was as clear as glass – when the drains were cleaner – till 20 years ago. A coin fallen in [to the bottom of the river] could be seen from above. We could drink directly from the Yamuna,” says fisherman Raman Haldar, scooping a cupped palm into the muddy waters, bringing it near his mouth to emphasise the point. Seeing our mortified look, he lets it run down his fingers with a wistful laugh.

In today’s Yamuna, plastics, foil wrappers, muck, newspapers, dead flora, concrete debris, cloth scraps, slush, rotting food, wandering coconuts, chemical foam and water hyacinth offer up a dark reflection of the capital city’s material and mythical consumption.

Just 22 kilometres (or barely 1.6 per cent) of the Yamuna flows through the National Capital Territory. But the wastes and poisons emptied into that little stretch account for close to 80 per cent of all pollution in the 1,376 kilometre river. Acknowledging that, the monitoring committee report of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in 2018 pronounced the river in Delhi a 'sewer line'. The resulting severe depletion of oxygen levels in the water causes large-scale deaths of fish.

Last year, thousands of fish were found dead at the Kalindi Kunj Ghat on the southern stretch of the river in Delhi, and other aquatic life have become a near-annual occurrence in the Delhi stretch of the river.

“For a river ecosystem to survive, it needs a dissolved oxygen (amount of oxygen in water) level of 6 and above. Fish require a DO level of at least 4-5. In the Delhi part of Yamuna, the DO is between 0 to 0.4,” says Priyank Hirani, director of the Water-to-Cloud project of the Tata Centre for Development at the University of Chicago. The project maps real-time pollution in rivers.


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