The Decay of a River Culture

 
A human skull on the banks of river Yamuna in Wazirabad, New Delhi on May 5, 2013. According to some older sects of Hinduism, the human body is immersed in the river instead of burning it, and these toxic remains pollute the river for many years afterwards. All photographs by Surender Solanki

A human skull on the banks of river Yamuna in Wazirabad, New Delhi on May 5, 2013. According to some older sects of Hinduism, the human body is immersed in the river instead of burning it, and these toxic remains pollute the river for many years afterwards. All photographs by Surender Solanki

Surender Solanki looks at the changing relationship between the river and the civilisation around it. He is struck by the fact that one is being destroyed in order for the other to thrive.

This article was originally published in March 2014.

For nearly 400km, the Yamuna flows relatively unpolluted until it enters our capital. From there on, most of the pollutants enter the river. Out of the total 1400km the river travels, nearly 600km is dead, according to official claims.

The man was taking a holy bath in the river. Despite the religious importance of the river, it is being turned into the biggest drain of India.

The man was taking a holy bath in the river. Despite the religious importance of the river, it is being turned into the biggest drain of India.

The inspiration for the project was in the form of a hand pump. At Sarai Kale Khan, a village in South Delhi, I saw people queuing up to use the hand pump for potable water, even though the river was barely 300m away.

A fisherman tries to catch fish in the dirty, black waters of the river Yamuna at the Okhla Barrage, New Delhi. Waste water, poisonous chemicals and toxic metals from 26 major sewers and industries are discharged into the river every day, polluting it.

A fisherman tries to catch fish in the dirty, black waters of the river Yamuna at the Okhla Barrage, New Delhi. Waste water, poisonous chemicals and toxic metals from 26 major sewers and industries are discharged into the river every day, polluting it.

I have shot for this series for almost two years now. However, the fight to save the Yamuna is much longer one. The dissolved oxygen in the river’s water is zero*, making it unfit for humans and vegetation. The ecology that once thrived here has almost completely vanished.

The image is a sneak peek at an illegal sand mining operation along the Yamuna, near Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh. You can find connections between the owners of these sites and politicians in the UP government. Some owners are even direct blood relatives.

The image is a sneak peek at an illegal sand mining operation along the Yamuna, near Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh. You can find connections between the owners of these sites and politicians in the UP government. Some owners are even direct blood relatives.

Tips for Inconspicuously Photographing Illegal Activities

  • Do a recce of the location without a camera. I spent many days roaming around, hiding out and observing what was happening.
  • If someone stops you, don’t identify yourself as a photojournalist. Have a backstory and lie with complete confidence. I told people I was shooting wildlife around the river. I even kept a memory card of wildlife images to show anyone who stopped me.
  • Endearments like ‘Chacha’, ‘Mama’ go a long way. Talk to the person with respect and courtesy. Ultimately, they are the kind of people who will not only give you access but also treat you to chai.
I posed the child holding the sunflower against the dead tree and the smoke-spewing factory as a way of suggesting that while the river is dying and we are responsible, there is still hope. Photograph/Surender Solanki

I posed the child holding the sunflower against the dead tree and the smoke-spewing factory as a way of suggesting that while the river is dying and we are responsible, there is still hope.

— As told to Aditya Nair

About Surender Solanki
 Surender’s fascination for the Yamuna river started when he was 13 years old. However, upon going back a few years later, he noticed a stark contrast between what he remembered and what lay there now. Once a beautiful river that nurtured humans, wildlife and vegetation, the Yamuna was now polluted and even barren. Funded by the National Media Fellowship by National Foundation for India, a nonprofit organisation that offers grants to promote social change, this series attempts to document the extent of the damage with a hope of bringing back the Yamuna of Surender’smemories.

Tags: Aditya Nair, civilisation, climate change, feb 2014, Photo Essay, Photofeature, photographing illegal activities, pollution, river yamuna, surender solanki