Of late, every time I drive along the Hindon, I am filled with a deep sense of happiness, maybe even contentment. It is no longer what it was – an apology of a river. A dirty canal that smelt foul, and looked grim! It flows like a river once again – a sight that makes my heart leap with gratefulness. But is the happiness to last?
Inquisitive about the transformation, I ask around, hoping to find answers. And soon I find myself conversing with the members of Hindon Jal Biradari, a volunteer group formed to save the river. I have always believed people are the greatest source of change, and the revival of Hindon proved me right. Eventually, I met Vikrant Hindon, the force behind the mission.
Vikrant had dropped his title, Sharma, and adopted Hindon to forge a more intimate connect with the river. Impressed, I hurry to congratulate him on the work he has done. But his lack of enthusiasm on my exuberance stuns me.
“The Hindon river is dead," he says. "The Akhilesh Yadav-led government’s claim of cleaning the Hindon is nothing but talk. Everything is eyewash. Cleaning up the river and helping it flow anew is a cock-and-bull story that the government cooked up to show it is committed to saving the river. Its groundwater levels have sunk to 150-200 ft below the normal level. Forty-fifty feet water is required for it to flow normally again. The water that we see flowing on the Hindon river bed is actually upper Ganga canal water that’s flowed into it from various barrages.”
The river, which starts from Saharanpur district of Upper Shivalik in the lower Himalayan range, flows through Meerut, Muzaffarnagar, Shamli, Baghpat, Ghaziabad, Noida and Greater Noida before it empties into the Yamuna near Momnathanpur village, just outside Delhi. It receives untreated industrial and municipal waste from these towns. Hence, it’s no surprise that the dissolved oxygen level of the river is almost zero throughout its length. And, of course, biodiversity along its course has been long lost.
An advocate at the district court, Vikrant was always drawn to the river. Born in Ghaziabad, his connect with the river runs deep. As a child, he would play on its banks, catch fish, take a bath in its fresh waters. So he was always closely aware of its failing health. “I knew the river was losing its original colour — it was shrinking and converting into a drain. That's when I decided to try and revive it. I went at it alone for a while, but gradually other like-minded individuals — doctors, engineers, lawyers, artists, teachers and students — joined me. I got in touch with the Magsaysay Award-winning Rajendra Singh, also known as India’s ‘Jal Purush’, and named our initiative Hindon Jal Biradari,” he recalls.
Vikrant began travelling to villages and towns on foot, connecting with locals and raising awareness. They had to be told that their source of life — the river — was dying. “I knew awareness had to be raised at the grass-roots level. So I started my crusade in small towns and villages first. Gradually, I moved my fight to towns and cities such as Noida and Ghaziabad,” explains Vikrant.
Every river reflects years and years of history — stories of civilisations that thrived and perished along its banks, says Vikrant. “If we lose these rivers, we lose our stories too,” he says softly, almost as if to himself.
The fate of a small river is even more fragile, he explains. “A small river will almost always go unnoticed, unlike rivers such as the Yamuna and the Ganga. But these small rain-fed rivers are just as important. Unfortunately, we dump tonnes of industrial effluence and municipal waste into these, choking them bit by bit,” he says.
And just like that, he falls silent, signalling the end of our conversation. I get up to go but my head is reeling. The river, its beauty, is nothing but a mirage, made brighter by a government ploy. But go closer and you see it for what it is — an apparition, a ghost of a living past.
A handful of urban citizens, along with inhabitants of villages and towns on banks of the river, have marched for it, held sit-ins and discussions, written articles, made documentaries and educated fellow citizens to revive the dying lifeline. But to what end?
I can't help but wonder as I look back at the grim man: Will our stories survive? Or will the dry river bed of the Hindon become a grim reminder of our follies?