By Suchita S. 

At 16, I thought I could change the world; my friends and I thought we could make the Yamuna blue. We started ‘Save the Yamuna’ campaigns, and would frequent its filthy banks, armed with gloves and plastic bags, to do our bit to clean it up. Somewhere along the way, I forgot to give a shit. All the jargon about poor waste management, penetration of slums, and ‘the incompetence of the government’ wore out my patience. I hadn’t thought about the Yamuna in really long; until I was introduced to photographer Surender Solanki’s project on the Yamuna.

The Karol Bagh native grew up in a slum colony in the area. He was never interested in studies, but managed to make it through a private school education, and a bachelors through correspondence from Delhi University. “I was always inclined towards the arts,” he told us, “but society thinks artists are always starving.” He may have failed 7th grade, but at the time, he won an international art contest. When he was about 13, he was introduced to what would become his preferred medium – the camera; it had been left in lieu of an “udhaar” by someone who had borrowed money from his father. As a young teenager, he made his way  jamuna paar, and was intrigued by the role the Yamuna played in the thriving civilisation that surrounds it.

What started as a project in 2013 is today an extension of Surender’s fight and frustration, vis a vis the plight of the Yamuna. The Yamuna hasn’t been what it was in Surender’s younger years for the longest time. The civilisation that’s grown on the banks of the Yamuna today curses it, destroys it, and empties its garbage in it. Perhaps for Surender, this is reflective of the inequality and injustice he saw as a kid growing up in a slum. “There was corruption, cops never helped us, and I was bullied as a child. I’ve always put up a fight though, and social issues have always interested me.” From my conversation with him, I picked up on a deep sense of exasperation when it comes to all that’s wrong with status quo- consumerism, the mismanagement of funds allocated to cleaning the Yamuna {an apparent expense of INR 705 crore}, and the growing disconnect between Delhiwaalas and nature. He cites studies by Germany based research companies, which detail the inefficacies of the Yamuna Action Plan {YAP} initiated by the government in 1993. One look at the holy river is enough to know that there’s not enough being done to save it.

How will his photography change things? “I can shoot the Yamuna my whole life, but I still won’t be able to save it. Streets are hardly cleaned in our city; I think the Yamuna has a long way to go.” He sounds incensed, and disappointed, but he isn’t giving up.

This particular series is especially riveting; a documentation of life along a river that’s been long forgotten. Until now.

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A fisherman tries to catch fish in the dirty, black waters of the river Yamuna at the Okhla Barrage, New Delhi on September 14, 2013. Waste Water, poisonous chemicals, and toxic metals from 26 major sewers and industries are discharged into the river everyday, due to which a holy river has become the biggest drain of India. After the failure of Yamuna Action Plan 1 and 2, the government has invested approximately 1600 crores in Yamuna Action Plan 3 to clean the river.

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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.

Two friends practise gymnastics on the banks of Yamuna in Soniya Vihar, New Delhi, on October 4, 2013. Both men and animals come to the river-side everyday to enjoy the cool sands and the refreshing breeze. For many people, especially gymnasts and athletes from adjoining residential areas, there is no place more suitable than the open grounds on the banks of Yamuna to practise their sport.

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A washerman works on the Ghats of the Yamuna in Shastri Park, New Delhi on April 30, 2013. Around two hundred and fifty families from the slums and other sub-urban areas near the Yamuna run most of the Dhobi Ghats established here. Dirty clothes and sheets from the city's small hotels, hospitals and catering companies are laundered here. Due to the rising prices in the city and lack of help by the government, the washerman community cannot establish a permanent residence inside the city. That is why, despite knowing that such activities pollute the river, they have no choice but to run their business in the open areas next to Yamuna. These families are also completely dependent on Yamuna for their survival.

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A man performs Hindu rituals for his dead father under the guidance of the Brahmans, at Soniya Vihar Ghat, New Delhi on October 4, 2013. According to Hindu religious texts, the tradition of performing these rituals for one's relatives, is followed scruplously in the month of October every year. It is believed that only the body dies, while the soul is immortal, and that the behaviour and needs of the soul remain the same in, and after life.That is why the son of the dead parent, feeds cows and birds living next to the holy Yamuna, to satiate the soul's thirst and hunger. This ritual is accompanied by prayers chanted by the son, with the help of Brahmans while sitting in the cleansing atmosphere in Yamuna, for the soul to achieve Nirvana.

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A bridge under construction on the river Yamuna in Majnu ka Tilla, New Delhi on June 17, 2013. Due to the rapid  construction of bridges on the river, the very identity of Yamuna is threatened. New bridges are built, completely ignoring the dismal condition of the river and its ecosystem.

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All images by Surender Solanki. He is an alumni of the Sri Aurobindo Centre for Arts & Communication; a student of photography.