AS A CHILD in the early 2000s, Surender Solanki used to travel from his home in a slum in west Delhi to visit his relatives in the city’s east, crossing over the Yamuna River by bus. He remembers seeing flower nurseries and lots of vegetation under the ITO Bridge along Vikas Marg, one of the main motorways spanning the river. Some of that greenery still exists, and vendors on the bridge still sell seasonal flowers from the nurseries, but according to Solanki, “the Yamuna is not what it once was.”
Solanki began documenting the river in April 2013, when he was a student of creative photography at the Sri Aurobindo Center for Arts and Communications in south Delhi. The son of a scrap dealer, he first developed an interest in photography when, at the age of 13, he was handed a second-hand 35mm point-and-shoot camera to take pictures at an uncle’s wedding. Before he began this project, Solanki made it a point to read the ‘Nadistuti sukta’ (“hymn in praise of rivers”) of the Rig Veda, which was the oldest text about the Yamuna that he could find. “It spoke of a flourishing human settlement that resided peacefully on the river bank, but I suppose all that has faded away now,” he said.
The Yamuna, which originates 375 kilometres north of the capital at the Yamunotri Glacier in Uttarakhand, is relatively unpolluted until it enters the national capital. According to a 2009 report by the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment, 80 percent of all the pollution in the river is dumped into it along only two percent of its total length—the 22-kilometre segment between the Wazirabad Barrage in the north of Delhi and the Okhla Barrage in the south. In response to similar earlier reports, some dating back to the 1950s, the central government initiated the first phase of the Yamuna Action Plan (YAP) in 1993, earmarking Rs 705 crore to clean up the river. When the project didn’t meet its targets, a second phase was launched in 2004 at a cost of Rs 648 crore. Phase III of the YAP was launched in December 2013 to fix damaged sewers and modernise waste treatment facilities in the areas of Okhla, Kondli and Rithala. But despite such efforts, massive amounts of waste continue to be dumped into the Yamuna every day.
Solanki gives us glimpses of the relationship between the river and the people living along its banks. He was inspired to embark upon this project when he saw people queuing patiently for potable water at Sarai Kale Khan, an urban village in south Delhi. “They were barely 300 metres away from the river, but were forced to rely on a hand-pump,” he said. Solanki roamed along the Yamuna for six days every week over eight months, holding long conversations with the people he met and shooting about 15,000 photographs on a borrowed camera (Solanki still does not own one of his own). His patient engagement shows in these photographs, some of which recall the stunning clarity of the celebrated images of Raghu Rai.