Toxic Water and Filthy Ghats

‘Yamuna Ghats Are Unworthy Of Holding Sacred Chhath Puja’

Poonam Singh, 47, a Yoga teacher and activist in Delhi, says toxic water and filthy ghats heaped misery on Chhath devotees like her for years

Chhath is considered a Mahaparv or the festival of festivals. However, the amount of pollution we have had to navigate over the years to be able to perform this holy ritual is unimaginable. I stay in east Delhi and I have been holding the Chhath puja for 24 years (since 1997) mostly at Yamuna Pushta area. And not once did I find the Yamuna ghat without toxic waste, filth and muck – absolutely unworthy for holding a religious ritual.

In 2018, I got a chance to perform Chhath at Hrishikesh and I marvelled at the experience. A clean river in its glorious flow can lift your spirits. It makes you calmer as you are not worrying about the toxicity of the water or stepping upon dirt and filth. Last year when Covid happened, many devotees (including me) tried to improvise and recreate small water bodies on our terraces. However, even though the water was clean, the community feeling was missing. People couldn’t meet each other, or guide and help each other in this festival. This year also I am performing the Chhath on our terrace, simply because the condition of the Yamuna is unbecoming of hosting a sacred ceremony.

Singh (seated right) with her family and friends performing Chhath puja at her terrace

I still remember how it used to feel when we had to go through the mud and slush in order to reach the ghat. Since 2016, apart from the dirty water, the air pollution added to the misery; it became unbearable to stand in the water for long stretches of time and inhaling the pungent air. We all could smell the toxic fumes coming from the river.

Plus, there would be too many people jostling for space. My eyes used to burn and water a lot, and I had severe skin irritation the following days. In order to save our health, I used to take clean water from home for the evening and morning arghya (water offering).

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Only last year I became the president of the Delhi chapter of a Kanpur-based NGO called Paryavaran Suraksha Sansthan and hope that in the future we can take care of the issue of clean rivers and ghats. But it’s beyond the capacity of one NGO to tackle the issue. We need serious, collective efforts. Doing Chhath on the terrace is also no easy task given the pollution levels. So much effort is made to create pandals, install loudspeakers, give a holiday etc. but no efforts are made to give devotees their most basic need: clean water and air.

I somehow feel our lifestyle was earlier closer to nature. As the Chhath festival signifies, the season change was marked with immunity boosting foods and mentally preparing oneself for the bleak, cold winter months ahead. We need to go back to a more nature-friendly lifestyle. Serious dialogues are the need of the hour between government and civil society. Climate change is an issue of serious concern and we shouldn’t take it lightly.

As Told To Yog Maya Singh


By Rajat Arora Late last year, the Delhi government declared a medical emergency with the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) sending out alarming messages on its website, calling for states to tackle pollution on a “priority basis”. The CPCB held frantic meetings to keep the public updated on the alarming PM (particulate matter) levels. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal termed the situation an “emergency” even as the Meteorological Department forecast that a change of weather was most unlikely. The World Health Organisation in 2014 classified New Delhi as the world’s most polluted capital, with air quality levels worse than Beijing; and it appears that in 2017 the situation worsened multiple-fold. Delhi’s air quality is usually known to worsen ahead of the onset of winter as the cool air traps pollutants near the ground, preventing them from dispersing into the atmosphere, a phenomenon known as inversion. While Delhi has always had its fair share of pollutants attributed to the exploding vehicular population. (What can you expect if 1,400 new vehicles are added to the roads every single day?) According to government statistics, the total number of vehicles in Delhi exceeded 10 million for the first time in 2016. There is official apathy to keep a check on vehicular emissions; and the annual winter problem is exacerbated because of the stubble burning by the farmers. A report in the Lancet (world’s leading medical journal) said that pollution had claimed as many as 2.5 million lives in India in 2015, the highest in the world. And it’s only a guess the role of the nation’s capital has on this “achievement”. How much sense does it really make in always working on a war-footing, in utter desperation, year-after-year, when there is a need to work on this all through the year so that the situation that only seems to be worsening year-after-year is judiciously controlled? Construction activities were suspended temporarily; the city chiefs called for a total ban on trucks entering the city; schoolchildren were asked to refrain from going to schools and told to stay indoors because they are the most vulnerable to pollution that is usually at its peak in the mornings. Why be concerned only about the children and the aged? The microscopic particles, which are smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, are considered harmful because they are small enough to lodge deep into the lungs and pass into other organs, causing serious health risks to even a normal human being. Retailers selling air purifiers are making merry as sales have surged significantly. People are moving about with masks and scarves over their nose, hoping that it could bring respite. The hashtag #smog was the top trending on Twitter, Facebook as 2017 closed, even as the people of Delhi continued to demand stronger measures to curb pollution. But what does one need to do? Primarily start with planting more trees. Development and upgrading of infrastructure should not mean felling of trees and starving people of oxygen. The government should ensure that polluting industrial establishments move out of the city limits and also stringently limit approvals to these units in areas of habitation. The government machinery should also start looking at greener alternatives in place of pollution-emitting fuel in vehicles. While the to-do list could be long, it is imperative to start somewhere because pollution has now overwhelmed the action taken and what is unfolding today is a scary story. (Rajat Arora is an Interventional Cardiologist and Medical Director at Yashoda Hospitals in Delhi. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at]]>

Gas Chamber: Mayur Sharma saw it coming

Winter is no longer the sole season of despair in the Capital and its NCR hinterland, home to 46 million living and breathing human beings, as much as all of Spain.  Some people, however, didn’t wait to find out. Celebrity food enthusiast Mayur Sharma was one, quitting the city he was born and lived in for clean air. His story:  

It’s been around a year and I think this is the best decision I have ever made. We had been thinking about leaving Delhi for a long time but it was in the pollution-shock winter of 2016 that we pulled our kids from school and and lived in Goa for the three months — November, December, January — when the air was really bad. We moved to a rented house in Goa. Moving even for three months was not an easy task as we had to uproot ourselves. We took the decision that at least my wife and children are going to move out of this gas chamber, move to a cleaner environment for a period of two to three months till January when the air is really bad. We came back here after that because the kids had to finish school. However, after returning to Delhi, we came to the decision that it was time to say bye to this city. And in August 2017, we finally moved. My kids were very young – the older one in Class 3 and the younger in Class 1. They had a lot of friends in the neighbourhood and were very young – born, brought up and started schooling here and us too – though we grew up in a different Delhi. I was leaving a house I’d stayed in since 1976, which I shared with my parents. We had quite a life here but then there – in Goa – when you breathe the clean air and drive through the lush green fields, you know it is different. So yeah, I was very happy with my decision. Though, it invariably meant a lot of travelling for me. But I was anyway doing it – just added a bit more to it. A lot of our friends are already inquiring about it – four or five couples that I know have already moved. And more of them are considering it – things are slowly gaining pace in Goa. There are lot of good school options there – our focus was not that – oh, we can’t move because education might suffer but that is not a concern anymore. Delhi is my city – I was born here, I grew up here, I wish I could be there for it. I mean, the right to breathe is the most fundamental right more than food, more than water. And that right is being seriously compromised right now. I know of people who have started a whatsapp group and share concerns about the city. I know the government, the administration; the people want to do something for the city and focusing on it and making it a big deal – which it is – so I know all hope is not lost. But I don’t think I will want to come back to this city. Even if the government takes an initiative and cleans it nice some day, it will be difficult coming back. There is not just one issue – there are several. Corruption, there is no option for school, safety – they are equally important. There are multiple practical solutions and they have been debated to death in the last few years. I have seen some very sensible people talk about it but they have to be implemented. Vested interests have to be kept aside as I believe everything is possible you if you get down to doing it.

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Gas Chamber: 'Delhi's air is killing us all'

For 38-year-old Dr Balvinder Singh, it was the concern about the long-term health of his two daughters that led him to pack up and leave the Capital and the hard-to-get job he had there. He lives and works in Udhampur now, a life that is fresh in more ways than one.

It was a tough decision for me to quit my job at the prestigious Central government hospital Safdarjung and move to Jammu and Kashmir. People work really hard to get an opportunity to work at Safdarjung, but I said goodbye to this premier institution in order to save my family. I was staying with my wife and two little daughters in the Safdarjung campus but I could not risk the life of my family by staying in Delhi further. Delhi’s air is slowly killing us all, and I am saying this from my experience as a doctor. I have seen patients with severe lung infections, breathing issues and multiple other problems which are either caused due to inhaling poisonous air or get aggravated by it. I made the decision to quit Delhi in 2016 when smog had choked the city, and we finally shifted out in April 2017. The smog that covered the entire city in a blanket of thick smoke was a warning of us. It is impossible to think to ask my kid to stay at home or to wear a mask before leaving home. There is a constant fear that an invisible killer is outside waiting ready to attack anyone. The question I faced was: what kind of life am I going to give to my family? We now live in Udhampur. Delhi’s maddening traffic and poisonous air made me find a job in a state-run hospital before shifting there. The decision to move was not easy for the family but I did it to ensure a healthy life for my two-year- and six-month-old daughters. It was tough to leave our friends and colleagues back in Delhi and start a fresh life, but we should also accept that we are blessed by God to get this life and it is our responsibility to be fit and healthy. Children are most vulnerable of us all as Delhi’s air can cause everlasting respiratory problems. After a few years when I will see my kids healthy, the relocation will have been the right decision.
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