On October 21, five-year-old Ravi thought a great smoke was going to steal his goats. “He was afraid it was a monster that had come to take them away,” his 14-year-old sister Gauri said, referring to the heavy blanket of smog hanging over the farmlands on the banks of the Yamuna river in East Delhi where the siblings live with their family.
The farms lie on one side of the busy Noida Link Road. Like the rest of the National Capital Region, pollution levels here peaked in the post-Diwali period. But through most of the year too, the area is shrouded in a haze of construction dust and emissions from passing vehicles.
Work on the Barapullah flyover connecting East Delhi and South Delhi and a new Metro line has been underway for several years now. “Three years ago, they started building a big bridge on our land,” said Gauri, referring to the Barapullah flyover. “We were not given any notice, no one told us what was going to happen. They just started building and destroyed our lands.”
She added, “We had more than 10 farms earlier, and now we have just two or three.”
The pollution has taken a toll on her family’s health and livelihood. Gauri’s mother has been in bed with a wracking cough for a week. And the spinach and methi (fenugreek) they had grown on their farm turned black because of the foul air and had to be thrown away. “The leaves we grow have become increasingly stained and dirty, but this year they just went black and burned,” Gauri said, adding that two month’s worth of work had gone to waste.
She said, “My father says he never saw anything like this when he was young.”
There are many families like Gauri’s who farm on the banks of the Yamuna. Because of the pollution, almost all of them have experienced burning eyes, respiratory ailments and destroyed crops.
They also know it is not just the air around them that is toxic. The frothing waters of the Yamuna, filled with dirt and chemical effluent from nearby industries, has caused considerable damage to their crops for years. But in the absence of irrigation facilities, they have no other source of water for their crops.
While Gauri’s father and other older members of the farming community still hold the river sacred, the younger generation sees it as nothing but a dirty drain. They also see no future in farming.
“Everyone says the river is supposed to protect us, but instead it makes our life difficult,” said Gauri. “I will change my profession when I am older. Farming here is a waste of labour, time and money.”
This is also the place where Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living Foundation organised its extravagant World Culture Festival last year. A committee set up by the National Green Tribunal said the three-day event had levelled the ground and made it almost devoid of vegetation. They assessed the damage to the floodplains would take at least 10 years and Rs 42 crores to fix.
‘People forget we live here’
The farming families say no one has come forward to help them fight the pollution that deeply affects their lives. According to Gauri, there were rumours earlier that state-run water tanks would come to clean the plants, but none have arrived so far.
“My father said they sprayed the trees somewhere inside the city where the rich live,” she said. “But it is us who need it more than them.”
These lands were once considered an investment by farmers from neighbouring Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. Gauri’s family, too, invested a chunk of their savings when they moved here from their village in Uttar Pradesh. But they have made little profit in the past decade.
“I keep telling my father we should go back, or at least switch to doing something else, but he does not listen,” she said.
Last week, government agencies declared an air pollution emergency and instructed people to stay indoors. But the farmers say such instructions mean little to them as their lives and livelihoods exist outside closed walls.
Gauri said, “It is like people forget that we live here. They think because Delhi is a big city, farmers probably do not exist. They do not think about the food they eat, where it comes from, who is behind it, and what they must do to help them.”
All photographs by Sharanya Deepak.