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'Jamna Maiyya': Comodified
In A World Class City

By Sarandha

31 August, 2008

Where is the river in Riverfront Development? A case for ecological democracy and respectful relationships with the environment.

What associations do we uphold with our rivers today? What do rivers mean to us, as a society? 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?

Rivers have, in history, belonged to the people, to communities, and not to the state authority. The people, having a sense of belonging and association with the river, took care of it and expressed concern for it. Under this decentralised, self-governed system, people did not require a CPCB to protect their environment.

Indians have shared deep-rooted and multi-faceted links with their natural environment. Rivers have been a perennial source of inspiration for creativity, symbols of enlightenment and sights for a plethora of cultural activities. An intrinsic part of all rites of passage, from birth to death, Indian rivers seem to invoke both celebration and sorrow. So much a part of both the mundane and the sublime, they are almost taken for granted, and yet revered deeply.

With 'advancement', a rupture of well-established and yet vulnerable links between nature and culture has emerged, as the evil twin of development. As India is opening up new avenues for investment (which seem to have become the corner-stone of 'development') rapid construction of 'World Class Cities' has become the order of the day. From Special Economic Zones to malls and highways, every part of the country speaks the same story of 'development'. This has inevitably stirred a massive hunger for natural resources, which now dictates the way we perceive our relationship with our environment – no longer an association of love and respect, but that of control and command, where nature turns from a source of inspiration to a commodity…a resource to be exploited, before anyone else does. The world is now a reservoir of raw material, waiting to be utilised. There seems to be a hurry to get somewhere…to win a race…

So what happens to that poetry, that painting, that thought in an artist's mind who sat by the Yamuna? Where do those yogis go who once had ashrams on the river banks? Those swimming competitions and wrestling matches…do they still happen by the Yamuna? Do we still think of those evening boat rides? What happened to those boat men, that dhobi, that fisherman, those monkeys there, and the birds, the farmers' children…where are they now? Now the river banks are up for sale because it is too much land lying 'empty', devoid of 'development', waiting to be constructed upon. Now the river itself is as dirty as a sewer. Now the government plans to 'reclaim' this lost, forgotten land, and show-case it to the world as a specimen of 'A Site of Recreation'.

With development, Yamuna became a depositary of all things unwanted and marginal – waste, sewage and the poor. River-use has thus changed. Development brought in consumerism; its by-product being waste, finding its way into the river. This drastically reduced the visits of people from the city who found other means of recreation, like malls, television and the computer. Fishermen either took to other marginal occupations or migrated out, as no longer could the polluted Yamuna offer them any fish. Finding the filthy river harmful, dhobis too moved out. Besides, who needs traditional dhobis in the world of machine washed clothes? Development also brought in a spate of infrastructural reforms like bridges to cross the river, along with cars to boost the pace of life. Boats and boatmen were now useless and slow! As for ashrams…these don't match the stature of a globalised World Class City! Small-time temples need to be replaced with architectural wonders and grand, in-your-face structures like the Akshardham complex. Indian systems of education are unnecessary with the city having a range of private-modern schools to offer. Akhadas are simply passé for a population that swears by gyms and morning walks in nicely manicured parks. And slums are a big no-no and must be demolished at the first instance. The sight of poverty does not suit the idea of a city-beautiful. The riverside is meant for upper-class housing anyway! And cultivation…a laughable occupation for an economy that's anxious to move away from the primary sector, from the rural, to a service-based economy locussed in a few urban centres. Farming and cattle herding just doesn't fit the image of World Class City. Alas, the river has also failed to evoke artists or stir the creative minds of poets.

Not only is there a cultural disconnect with the river, but also a visual disconnect, as most access points to the river have been closed, walls have been built, high railings on the sides of the bridges, embankment after embankment. In order to 'preserve' the river, the government has managed to remove the river from the imagination of people's minds. Moreover, the new culture that the government hopes to situate by the Yamuna, after uprooting the old, has nothing to do with the river. Malls, theatres, apartments and clubs follow a globalised mono-culture, ignoring local nuances and having no interface with the indigenous environment that already exists.

The little Riverfront Culture that can be found by the Yamuna in Delhi today is also fragmented. Most people's lands and livelihoods have been snatched away and many have been rendered homeless. An old family residing at Qudsia Ghat, who owned much of what stands demolished today, helplessly alleged – "In the name of modernity the government is killing its own people. The integrity and quintessence of this place is lost now. History has got to be preserved, not destroyed. But today's generation has no engagement with their own history." Angry and frustrated, they exclaimed "India gives no rights to the poor and innocent to live, only those with money can survive, and the courts do more injustice than justice!"

"There is place for foreigners in this land but not for the indigenous poor. They can't bear our sight as we appear dirty, but they will get all their work done by us!" Passionate to the core about their fight with the government, the slum dwellers who are being removed state "we will die here but we will not move".

The Yamuna that invited plural ways of interaction with it, in a pluralistic society was to now submit itself to only one reality – the one that the state/market decides. The state/market will decide who the Yamuna will be reserved for. In this top-down approach, which is a complete breach of environmental concern and participatory governance, wither ecological democracy is the question. The usage that has taken the state's fancy is without doubt an anti-people and anti-environment one, given the name of Riverfront Development. In this usage, literally a 'usage' and nothing more, the river is reduced from being an awe-inspiring entity to an added feature to attract consumers (like Chinese lights, Italian marble, Spanish tiles, home theatre etc.) in a gated colony. River quality and health will be improved only to facilitate this. But where is the river in this Riverfront Development?

The liquid embodiment of Shakti has been tamed and reduced to a land developer's fantasy. The state committed blunders by appropriating common property resources of the people, under centralised control and disconnecting people from them. It is committing a second blunder by now transferring this control to the market, instead of giving it back to the people. The essence of this argument is not to preserve any kind of culture for its own sake, but to re-establish people's relationships with their habitat for a more democratic and sustainable life.

Sarandha is an independent writer, and working on a book about Yamuna's riverfront culture in delhi and explores the dynamics of enviornment, culture, development and governance in a globalising city. Sarandha just finished post graduation from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai in search of a job in delhi.

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