The crisis of river Yamuna is pronounced by a deep sense of loss afflicting the lives of riverfront people who were crucial in shaping the river’s many rhythms and cultures. In the present mood of transience and conflict, amidst the emerging river front politics, these communities seem to be caught in the eye of the storm.
This book makes an effort to encapsulate this present conflict. Deconstructing the nature of claims and stakes that riverine communities have on the riverbanks today, it is an attempt to describe to current processes of marginalization of certain groups, and disengagement with nature for the sake of development. The author makes an attempt to capture this current reality of India by discussing it in the framework of one of its holiest rivers trapped in a modern city. It aims to respond to a mood f confusion about what Delhi symbolizes today and what the Yamuna has come to mean to this modern, yet historic city.
Tracing the river from Yamunotri to Allahabad, the book delves into her cultural essence and the various meanings she symbolizes across time and space. The Yamuna comes out as a versatile fluid, a cultural mosaic and an emotional power that comprises infinite realities. The book describes the multiple ways in which communities have engaged with the river religion and mythology, livelihood recreation, and now, technology and economics.
It discusses the ideologies behind these different notions of the Yamuna and how these conceptions have come in conflict with each other and are now leading to contests over her terrains. The crisis of riverfront communities in Delhi is meticulously illustrated. Alongside, a debate on ecological democracy is unfurled with the lingering question of how does one engage with nature today.
Shedding new light on controversies that envelop the river today, this book is a sharp critique of the way the Indian government ad economy have dealt with his situation in particular and the larger case of the environment and communities in general. While rooted in current and tangible realities, the narrative transcends that element and engages in a form of philosophical rumination. A personalized narrative with many poetic musings, it is an academic discussion laid out in a lyrical format.
Sarandha is a young Delhi based activist and writer, currently working with the centre for Science and Environment. After graduating from lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University, in Sociology, she worked with Goonj, a Delhi based NGO. In 2008 she completed her Masters in Social Work from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai and returned to Delhi. Having a passion for socio-political issues, she has been writing for journals, newspaper and her blog on these subjects. An avid traveler and thinker, she also dabbles with philosophical and travel writing.
This is Sarandha first book, most of which was written when she was twenty-three being twenty Six now, Sarandha is still a seeker. She does not claim to have all answers or readymade solutions to problem she discusses and questions she poses. Being the grand-daughter for a non conformist, maverick thinker and a poetess who has researched and written on Jain scriptures, she belongs to a family with a strong grounding in Indology. Sarandha did most of her schooling from Mirambika, a free-progress, non-conventional school in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Delhi. It is here that her first recalcitrant ideas about the universe were kindled. This unconvention familial and educational back ground has contributed extensively in making Sarandha a philosophical radical.
I consider it an honor and a privilege to write this foreword for Sarandha’s passionate work of scholarship and theory about the place, condition and future of the river Yamuna in the life of Delhi’s residents.
Though a highly focused and situated study, what marks “in search of Yamuna: Reflections on a river Lost”, is its large scope in terms of universal experience and the modern predicament in worldwide contexts. From the earliest human settlements, rivers have been perceived by humankind to be the life-blood of social existence. In India, since the proto-historic migration of Indian populations out of the Indus-Saraswati valley eastward to the plains fertilized by the Gang and Yamuna, this river and the ancient site now occupied by Delhi have held exceedingly prominent positions. It becomes a part of the thrust of Sarandha’s work to narrate this history, lost in the mists of legends like those of the Mahabharata, where the origins of the river related her to the God of Death, Yama and to the God of Love, Krishna. The environs of the present city of Delhi provided the setting for the court intrigues of Indraprastha and Hastinapur and the great war of the epic. Later in the historic period, the Gupta kings consolidated their empire centering it once more in the triangle between the rivers Ganga and Yamuna, known as the two-waters. The rivers now entered the Indian visual archives as goddesses, the Ganga standing on the Indian visual archives as goddess, the Ganga standing on the Makara and the Yamuna on the Kurma. Sarandha traces the many poems and legends which drew the river as goddess into the minds of Indians throughout its length and breadth, but most so to the people of Delhi, who continued to treat the river like their communitarian source of life, living in harmony with her in a rich ecosystem. Sarandha points out how this ecosystem continued into the 1960s and even later, in spite of increasing disruptions by the forces of modernity. The river offered her for cultivation and drinking. For transport of humans and goods, for washing of cloths, bathing, swimming and recreation, while its banks provided seats of learning, body-building and of cremation. Those living on the bountry of the river considered they blessed, living by the grace and in the lap of their Mother.
The subjective power of the river was hardly lost to the many Muslim rulers of North and Central India, many of whom built their royal habitations on the banks of the Yamuna, whether in Delhi or close by at Agra. The mystique of the river powerfully occupied, for example, the imagination of Shah, Jehan, who had his own chambers in the Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal built in view of each other, with the river meandering between them. Perhaps a new set of meanings came to inflect the semiotics of this period, but one can see such changes too as accretions, adding to the continuous life-flow of the river. Undoubtedly, the ancient mythos of death, love and immortality continued to work in Shah Jehan’s imagination is his architectural use of the river.
As Sarandha brings out so well through her theoretical argrments through the book but most so in the last chapter, it is from the period of British occupation that a progressive change begins to wither away the relation of river and population around the city of Delhi. The imperial footprint of the British set about disciplining the city in terms of rules regulating public behavior and the use of space. This colonial control was part of the widespread and worldwide systemic thrust of modernity to govern territories through strict and ubiquitous policies, supposedly for the “public good” but properly as a resource in an expanding network of world capital. Still, colonial control of the city of Delhi was carried out more for control of imports and exports and the leisure enjoyment of imperial masters than for territorial resource exploitation and remained slow in its disturbance of the riverine ecosystem. But the alliance of capital and state administration initiated by colonial rule was here to stay as the epistemic paradigm of modernity, and political independence only accelerated the process of marginalizing the river in the life of the city’s population.
Nehruvian plicies called for large-scale industrial production and the concentration of raw materials and labor forces in urban centers such as Delhi. An agricultural economy which valued the river was replaced by an economy which brought about the desertion of the village and an ever-increasing influx of people from the peripheries to the cities. Rivers were dammed and bridged so as to exploit their energy potential and carry people, materials and goods over large distances efficiently over them. Enormous, unforeseen quantities of human and industrial waste were dumped in the river, causing pollution figures to reach levels where life ceased to be possible in its water. As with outcaste waste carriers of the past, who were asked to make themselves invisible to the citizens of the town, high walls were erected to hide the dead and dirty river from the city’s populace.
While Sarandha’s early chapter provide us with the results of her fieldwork and her ruminations based on these, her last chapter draws out the broad theoretical framework, showing the treatment of the river as an endemic modern problem based in the relations between civil society, state and capital. Though the term “civil society” already implies the public sphere of modernity and may be fruitfully differentiated from “community” the term more proper to the organic human-river eco system so severely disrupted today which Sarandha describes the, alliance of the alliance of state and capital which she theorizes is an undeniable fact of our time. Today, there seems to be more of a hue and cry about the environment and the need to revive the dead river, but Sarandha points out how in sit of such well meaning attempts, something essential in the man riverequation has been lost. Neo-liberal globalization spreads across the world city and its water privatized by bottling companies. Ubiquitous world capital would claim the river as a resource with the state ensuring and enforcing such commercial use while policing out free unhygienic and indisciplined uses. Modernity has succeeded in exiling the subjective life of the river from the community of its users, rupturing age old historic continuities in the process. Sarandha’ book is a deeply felt plea for a worlding of the river, an ownership by the people of the terrain which belongs to them as they belong to it, in an integral life, both subjective and objective.
Often I find that those things that I as an Indian, take completely for granted, treat as a matter of fact and pay the least amount of cognizance to, seem most absurd to the eye of an ‘outsider’. One such case is that of river in India being putrid with filth and shackled by dams, while also serving as deities in temples and goddesses in the Hindu pantheon. To me, this wasn’t absurd at all. “of course the Yamuna is a sewer, it always has been”. . . “of course the Yamuna is a goddess, she is mother to all. To say these two sentences in the same breath with utmost casualness would be tantamount to schizophrenic behavior to one who is not accustomed to Indian ways. As I dwelt upon this thought, I realized just how incongruous my own thought processes are: just how schizophrenic we Indians have become, simply by taking everything for granted.
This was a revelation. And I decided that I needed to probe into it. How can a Goddess, a mother, be treated this way? As I plunged into a messy broth of ideas and conflicts, seeking answers to this query, I was sucked into an even messier broth of thousands of more questions and much more serious issues. The world was now my observatory and I watched its experiments unfold on the stage set by Delhi, my home, my ancestral city. My own observations and memories about Delhi and its changing urban form, which I have carried with me since childhood, now resurfaced.
Delhi’s unprecedented rate and scale of urbanization over the last few decades has placed enormous stress on the natural environment of the city. Loss of green cover; loss of biodiversity; increasing air, surface and water pollution; depleting water bodies; receding water tables; and high incidence of disease and mortality are all results of environmental exploitation in the city once upon a time, have depleted. The most pressing environmental concern is the continued degradation of the Yamuna River. The ridge forest has degraded tremendously in the past few years, with growing urbanization, mining and quarrying causing an enormous loss to biodiversity. With the Yamuna and the Ridge battered, the lungs of the city are under grave threat. Straining the cerebral cells lying in my memory gland, I recalled ho most of this has taken place before my eyes, in the short span of just 23 years.
I recall how simultaneously the poorer sections of the city’s populace are suffering great setbacks with the onslaught of neoliberal development. Being pushed to the fringes of existence they are being forced to fight for survival. In the name of environmentalism and city beautification, the poor are increasingly facing the brunt of demolition and removal from the city by being pitted against the environment. Go beyond protection and conservation? What kind of association do the poor have with their natural habitat considering that their physical proximity to it is far greater?
These concerns have confused me since childhood. Growing up in metropolitan city, observing poverty and environmental degradation was but natural to me. Questions related t these issues were the general topics that shaped the disposition of my curiosity. As I summoned all these buried memories and musings from my childhood observations, I couldn’t help asking, “What went wrong?” and so, in decided to explore the complex nexus between natures, culture, governance and development. And there could be no better site for this than my own home city, a place that has fascinated me for the longest time.
In the early parts of my rendezvous with the Yamuna, I was very unsure of what I wanted to know in fact I did not know what I desired from this rendezvous. However, my conviction and my passion for the subject directed me to the field and kept me engaged with it, without having any clear idea of what I was seeking in the river’s murky waters, what I was going to ask of her people, what I aimed to observe and why….
I decided to visit the river, hoping that the sight of her would evoke me, would answer me, would give me what I was searching for but her lifeless form failed to inspire me. I wasn’t disappointed as I was still getting some sense, a feel of the wonderland I was about to plunge into, the voyage I was about to embark on. What associations do we uphold with our rivers today? What do rivers means to us? What is their significance in our personal and collective ecologies? How do they shape our day-to-day chores, as well as our overall socio cultural spiritual dispositions? These were the questions I began my researching or whether at all it would culminate into a book, uncertainty besieged me.
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