Prayers to the sun in a toxic river in India

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as Worshipers descended the slopes to the banks of the river, dressed in their best clothes and carrying offerings for their festival, a voice repeated over the loudspeaker: “The water is deep, don’t let go of your child’s hand, don’t let them into the water.”

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It was a much-needed warning to the thousands of families present for Chhath, a four-day Hindu festival that culminated on Thursday, a celebration of the sun god Surya that includes fasting and making offerings while standing in water.

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


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

Every year, November’s festival season brings unwelcome reminders of how devastatingly polluted the water and air around the city are. The Yamuna, one of the main sources of water for Delhi, is so full of garbage in the 13-mile stretch that runs through the city that it is highly unsafe for bathing or irrigation.

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But the Yamuna’s decades-old pollution problem gained new prominence in shameful fashion this week, when the local administration in Delhi tried last-minute clean-up at the festival site. It sent boats to try to clear the froth, put up bamboo barricades to stop it from spreading, and even deployed workers with hoses to sprinkle clean water on the river.

Some people cleaned the foam with their hands, pushing it away to make a little room for their prayers. Others used sticks. foul odors were unavoidable

“What are you doing?” A reporter asked a Delhi government employee in the video.

“I’m sprinkling water to kill the foam,” he said.

Yet, none of these shameful efforts seemed to dent the souls of the worshipers as they thronged the banks of the river in crowds of thousands – not the foam below, the fog above or the Delhi government’s warning that this year The coronavirus that wreaked havoc in the city at the beginning of the year was still a threat.

His interpretation: What is a little froth in front of faith?

Families arrived in taxis, traditional sugarcane offerings popped out of windows, and they packed into the back of tractor wagons and large trucks. They came in shiny saris and glittering suits. Many walked barefoot, and some had their own sound system—with a car battery for power.

“I am not worried,” said Kiran Devi, who had not eaten anything for three days and broke her fast only when the festival ended with the last prayer. “Once I get into the water, it’ll be fine.”

‘The water in Yamuna is deep, do not enter’

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‘The water in Yamuna is deep, do not enter’

Some people cleaned the foam with their hands, pushing it away to make a little room for their prayers. Others used sticks. The smell could not be avoided.

Ms. Devi arrived for sunset on Wednesday, and her extended family of 10 would spend the night by the river to wait for the sunrise puja which is the closing ceremony of the festival. The women who made up most of the fasting, arranged baskets of offerings with bananas, coconuts and radishes, and lit diyas, small earthen lamps, filled with ghee before lighting them. The men mostly stopped and talked.

His brother-in-law, 36-year-old Sonu Prasad, who sells buttons, said he knew what contributed to the pollution of the river. “When I take a bath, it goes into a small canal, then into a big canal, then it goes into a river,” he said.

“It’s a sewer,” said Ravi Shankar Gupta, Ms. Devi’s husband and Sonu’s elder brother. “But the sun god says: ‘Even if you make an offering by standing in a drain, 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 pointed to the conflict over pollution between the states through which the river flows. “We will still live, and enjoy life.”‘

Women take a dip in Yamuna river on the occasion of Chhath festival

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Women take a dip in Yamuna river on the occasion of Chhath festival

The Yamuna forms the boundary between two states, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, a situation that has complicated the already tortured process of cleaning it up. Millions of dollars have been spent in recent decades to no avail. According to government figures, less than half of the approximately 16 billion gallons of sewage treated daily in India’s urban centers are treated, and much of the rest polluting the country’s rivers.

Overwhelmed by a growing population, New Delhi treats almost two-thirds of its sewage. But millions of gallons are still dumped into the Yamuna on the way to the city along with untreated industrial waste.

Delhi gets a good part of its drinking water from the Yamuna, which makes a relatively clean entry into the city limits. The river then fills up with garbage.

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

Avinash Mishra, a top adviser on water and land resources to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, said officials have failed to address the problem of river pollution for decades, involving bureaucratic red tape and “a plurality of agencies”. ,

Women bathing in Yamuna among the foam

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Women bathing in Yamuna among the foam

“It has become volleyball,” said Mr. Mishra.

He warned that there could be dire consequences for the already slowing economy if the country’s water crisis is not dealt with quickly.

“The moment the water gets contaminated, there is water scarcity, which affects the human working days,” he said. “It generates so many waterborne diseases that it will affect your services, your industries, urbanization and the standard of living of your population.”

Frustrated with such views, worshipers flocked to the river for sunset on Wednesday, many of them staying the night along the river to catch the sunrise the next morning.

Premchand Jha, who works as a driver, says, “When someone falls down in society, when someone becomes poor, they stop respecting that person.” “Here we are as much as the setting sun. We give respect to the rising sun.”

Fasting women stood in the water, meditating. There was froth and more foam before them, the orange gloom of the setting sun reflected on the little piece of water that stood out among the puffy, white clouds.

Devotees stand in Yamuna, unaffected by its pollution

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Devotees stand in Yamuna, unaffected by its pollution

Around them, the carnival commotion continued all night and intensified again at dawn.

Children threw ear-piercing crackers at each other’s feet. The teens live-streamed the celebration on their Facebook pages. Others posed for selfies, posing as a gust of snow by raising the foam. There were tattoo artists and ice cream sellers and balloon sellers. And, of course, little tea stands.

“There is no sugar in it, brother, what kind of tea is this?” A young man said while pushing his cup from the crowd towards the tea seller. The chaiwala ground some sugar and put it in the cup.

Ms. Devi’s family had brought a rug, two sleeping bags and blankets for the children. Her husband, Gupta, explained that they were staying at night because they wanted to reach the water’s edge to watch the sunrise before the rush of things.

Gupta said, “Whoever comes first, he will get a little more than the sun god.” “A little blessing, and maybe a little wealth.”

As soon as the sunrise came, the fasting women entered the water and knelt down in their final meditation. But there would be no dramatic climax – the sun was not visible through the haze of Delhi.

“We can’t shine extra light on the sun, we’ve ruined that too,” said driver Jha. “But I checked online. Sunrise is between 6.30 to 6.40. When we see the first glimpse of redness there, the sun has risen.

This article originally appeared in the new York Times,


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