On Delhi’s Toxic River, Prayers to a Sun Struggling to Shine Through Smog

NEW DELHI — As the worshipers descended the slope to the riverbank, dressed in their festival best and carrying offerings, a voice on the loudspeaker repeated: “The water is deep, don’t let go of your child’s hand, don’t let them in the water.”

It was a much needed warning for the thousands of families in attendance for the four-day Hindu festival of Chhath that ended on Thursday, a celebration of the sun deity Surya that involves fasting and making offerings while standingin water.

They needed the warning because the river’s water was, in fact, barely visible, blanketed with a toxic foam of industrial waste and sewage. If you didn’t know better, you could mistake it for the morning after a night of heavy snowfall.

Many worshipers in northern India celebrate the festival at the Yamuna River, a religiously significant tributary of the Ganges that runs through the capital city of New Delhi.

Every year, the festival season of November brings unwelcome reminders of how devastatingly polluted the water and air around the city remain. The Yamuna, one of the main sources of water for Delhi, is so overwhelmed by waste in the 13-mile stretch that cuts through the city that it is highly unsafe for bathing or irrigation.

But the Yamuna’s decades-old problem of pollution gained new prominence in embarrassing fashion this week when the local administration in Delhi tried to scrape together a last minute cleanup at the festival site. It sent out boats to try to sweep away the foam, laid down bamboo barricades to stop it from spreading and even deployed workers with hoses to sprinkle the river with clean water.

When the Chhath festival is a religious rite, it is also a celebration, with fireworks and a carnival atmosphere. 
Families spend the final night of the festival camping out, hoping to land a good spot by the river for sunrise prayers. 

“What are you doing?” a reporter asked a Delhi government worker in a video.

“I am spraying water to kill the foam,” he said.

Yet, none of these shambolic efforts seemed to dent the spirits of the worshipers as they thronged by the thousands to the riverbank — not the foam below, the smog above or the Delhi government’s warnings that the coronavirus that wreaked havoc in the city earlier this year was still a threat.

Their explanation: What’s a little foam in the face of faith?

The families arrived in taxis, traditional sugar cane offerings jutting out the windows, and they got there packed in the backs of tractor wagons and large trucks. They came in bright saris and in shiny suits. Many walked barefoot, and some carried their own sound systems — with a car battery for power.

“I am not worried,” said Kiran Devi, who had not eaten in three days and would break her fast only when the festival ended with the final prayer. “Once I go in the water, it will be fine.”

Some cleared the foam with their hands, pushing it away to create a little space for their prayers. Others used sticks. The foul odors were inescapable.

Just before dawn, worshipers begin to gather at the river’s edge. 
Fireworks along the banks of the polluted Yamuna river.

Ms. Devi arrived for sunset on Wednesday, and her extended family of 10 would spend the night by the riverbank to wait for the sunrise worship that is the festival’s culminating event. The women, who made up the majority of those fasting, arranged the baskets of offerings with bananas, coconuts and radishes, and filled the diya lights, small clay lamps, with ghee before lighting them. The men mostly lingered and chatted.

Her brother-in-law, Sonu Prasad, 36, who sells buttons, said he knows what contributes to the pollution of the river: “When I shower, it goes into a small canal, then a big canal, then it goes into the river,” he said.

“It’s a sewer,” Ms. Devi’s husband and Sonu’s older brother, Ravi Shankar Gupta, said. “But the sun deity says: ‘Even if you stand in a gutter and make an offering, I will protect you for the rest of the year.’”

“It would be great if they improve it, but even if they don’t, what can we do?” Mr. Gupta added, pointing to the infighting over the pollution between the states that the river flows through. “We will still live, and enjoy life.”

The Yamuna forms the boundary between two states, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, a circumstance that has complicated the already tortured process of cleaning it up. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent in recent decades, to little effect. Less than half of the roughly 16 billion gallons of daily sewage in India’s urban centers is treated, according to government figures, and much of the rest pollutes the country’s rivers.

New Delhi, overwhelmed by a growing population, treats about two-thirds of its sewage. But hundreds of millions of gallons are still dumped into the Yamuna untreated, along with untreated industrial waste, in its slog through the city.

Delhi gets a good portion of its drinking water from the Yamuna, which enters the city limits relatively clean. After that, the river is pummeled with wastes.

“We extract everything and in return we give back the sewage only,” said Sushmita Sengupta, a geologist and senior program manager at the Center for Science and Environment in New Delhi.

Women and children play with the toxic foam in the Yamuna river after sunrise.
The air was so polluted on Thursday morning that it was impossible to see the sunrise.

One of the reasons the authorities for decades have failed to address the problem of river pollution is bureaucratic red tape and “the multiplicity of agencies” involved, said Avinash Mishra, a top adviser on water and land resources to the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“It’s become a volleyball,” Mr. Mishra said.

He warned that the country’s water woes, if not tackled with urgency, could have dire ramifications for an already slowing economy.

“The moment the water is contaminated, there is water shortage, which impacts human working days,” he said. “It generates so many waterborne diseases that it will impact your services, your industries, urbanization and the living standards of your population.”

Undeterred by such considerations, the worshipers thronged to the river for the sunset on Wednesdaymany of them staying the night on the riverbank to catch the sunrise the next morning.

“In society, when someone falls low, when someone grows poor, they stop respecting that person,” said Premchand Jha, who works as a driver. “Here, we give as much respect to the setting sun as we do to the rising sun.”

The fasting women stood in the water, in meditation. In front of them was foam and more foam, the orange melancholy of the setting sun reflected on the brief slice of water that appeared between the puffy white clouds.

A celebrant stands in the Yamuna River.
Families bring plenty of provisions to the festival, so they can break the three day fast with a sumptuous meal.

Around them the carnival commotion continued all night, and picked up again as dawn approached.

Children threw ear-piercing firecrackers at one another’s feet. Teenagers streamed the festivities live on their Facebook pages. Others posed for selfies, picking up the foam and posing as if it was a puff of snow. There were tattoo artists and ice cream sellers and balloon sellers. And of course, small chai stands.

“There is no sugar in this, brother, what kind of chai is this?” one young man said, pushing his cup through the crowd to the tea seller. The chai-man pinched some sugar, and dropped it in the cup.

Ms. Devi’s family had come prepared with a rug, a couple sleeping bags and blankets for the children. Her husband, Mr. Gupta, explained that they were staying the night because they wanted to reach the water’s edge to see the sunrise before things got crowded.

“Whoever comes earlier will get a little more from the sun god,” Mr. Gupta said.“A little blessing, and maybe a little property.”

As the sunrise neared, the fasting women entered the water and remained knee deep in their final meditation. But there would be no dramatic climax — the sun simply wasn’t visible through the Delhi smog.

“We can’t shine extra light on the sun, we have ruined that too,” Mr. Jha, the driver, said. “But I checked online. The sunrise is between 6:30 and 6:40. When we see the first glimmer of redness there, then the sun has risen.”

Dawn on the final day of the festival.

Karan Deep Singh contributed reporting.

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