Millennium Post

Living on a dead river

Yamuna through Delhi is not a river. The definition of a river is that it must have life and how you
measure life is that it must have capacity to dissolve oxygen. And the dissolved oxygen content in Yamuna as it passes through Delhi is zero. Which means its dead... it just hasn’t been officially cremated – Sunita Narain, Centre for Science and Environment

Apart from vertical towers of concrete which are being occupied by people from different flocks, close to Lutyens’ Delhi, the national capital has fertile farmland spread in 22 km. The farmland could be easily seen while traveling on road from Akshardham to Sarai Kale Khan, on the bank of Yamuna. Vegetables rich in Vitamins, minerals such as spinach, mustard, potatoes, onions, cauliflower, radish, etc are grown in these farmland to cater to the need of residents of Delhi.

The world outside, hardly knows about the poor living conditions of farmers who have been living there from generations with uncertain future as they still don’t own the land on which they have been farming from years. When Millennium Post reached out to them, it came to notice that most of them have migrated from small towns and villages of Uttar Pradesh mainly from Etawah and Mathura.
These fertile farmlands spanned around 22 km along with the course of the river as it flows through the city – from Wazirabad in the north to Okhla in the south. Most of the farmers either rent out these acres from the owners, who live elsewhere, or act as sharecroppers, dividing the earnings with the absentee landlords.

During the investigation it has also came to notice that some have been ploughing these fields for more than a generation; others have started more recently. The population of these farmers is estimated at around 7,000 but since no one has done work with the population of the area, exact number of people engaged in farming on the Yamuna riverbed cannot be ascertained. Nobody from political parties have reached out to them as these farmers are living without government identification cards and don’t have access to any government facilities. Every year they are forced to evict their house when water in Yamuna exceeds during Monsoon season and reconstruct their hutments again.

According to a farmer, who has seen different governments in Delhi, government officials, who visit the area occasionally, warn them about being ready to face the eviction from the area. The emissaries of government threaten them that their land could be taken over by the government whenever it needs it for any development project, although they are being compensated adequately.

A farmer further said that during the recent projects of Metro and flyovers farmers were compensated Rs 35 lakh for a bigha.

Problem is even bigger for farmers like Chandra Mohan, who migrated to Delhi from Mathura. Mohan is paying Rs 30,000 annually as rental for the piece of land to a Gurjar who “owns” the land. Mohan’s family is doing farming on Yamuna riverbed land for last 10 years. The farming economics of cultivators is that earning from the first six months of farming are utilised to sustain their livelihood, while rest of the farming are used to pay yearly rent. “I have 10 bighas of land for which I have to pay Rs 30,000 yearly rent. Living in jhuggi is very cheap in comparison to rented room or house in Delhi. We pay Rs 6,000 annually for renting out jhuggis, while similar amount of money would have to cough up monthly if one hires a house in Delhi,” said Chandra Mohan, whose family is engaged in growing seasons vegetables such as cabbage and ghia.

They claim that they sell one to two quintal of vegetable daily at Okhla sabji mandi (vegetable market), the second largest mandi after Azadpur in Delhi. Though, they have small size of land, but are able to get higher profits by growing three or four seasons of vegetables and selling their product directly into local markets, avoiding middlemen entirely. Doing farming here comes with its own benefits in comparison to their hometown as they are paid more, and they also have close access to valuable services like education, healthcare and labour opportunities.

“Living here has its own pros and cons, although we are in continues threat of getting our jhuggis bulldozed, but we have a vast a possibility of earning more than in Mathura, Chandra Mohan said.

It’s not that only farmers face problems, cultivating on these lands affects environment in many ways. Studies have pointed to the alarming levels of pollution in the Yamuna, its impact on soil and groundwater in the area.

A 2012 study from The Energy Resources Institute (Teri) found high levels of nickel, lead, manganese, chromium and zinc in water samples from various locations in Yamuna. Teri, reported, “During the monsoon season, the river water (in Delhi) floods the land and contaminants reach the soil. The vegetables growing in this soil absorb the contaminants. Vegetables grown in the floodplains, namely spinach, cauliflower and radish, were tested for the contaminants. The concentration of heavy metals was found to be the highest in spinach, followed by cauliflower, and the least in radish.”

Another study done the same year by National Reference Trace Organics Laboratory and Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), along with the Union ministry for environment and forests, found traces of Lindane, a carcinogenic pesticide, in the river.

Ashu Choudhry, a farmer does not agree with the fact. According to Choudhary, the water he uses for irrigating crops comes from a tubewell on the farm, a norm in the area with several of them dotting the landscape. He is convinced that the vegetables he cultivates are inferior to ones cultivated at other farms. Although he does admit that customers doubt about quality of vegetables as they come from Yamuna bank, and sometimes even hesitate to buy them. “Sometimes I meet customers who ask where the vegetables are from. They do not buy them when I say it is from the Yamuna. But that is okay. There are several others who do not have a problem,” Choudhary said.  

The Yamuna farmers present a paradoxical situation, on one hand they are living a life of uncertainty, deprived of many facilities, which are provided by government for benefit of farmers while on the other their farming on this land poses a grave danger to the Yamuna river, due to excessive usage of pesticides and fertilisers on the land.

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