Bela Estate smells of fresh mint and new cow dung. Walking in a line on the thin mud ridges cutting through their fields, the farmers pause often to point at barren swathes on the otherwise green fields. A woman in a yellow sari, head covered, squats at a hand pump. As we walk past, she swiftly pushes down the lever and finishes her shower. “The barren patches are where the bulldozer ran over my pudina,” says one of the farmers, Mahendra Singh. He and other farmers say they lost their crop when Delhi Development Authority cleared encroachments on the banks of the Yamuna last month. “The house was broken and 25 bigha pudina gone. I harvested what was left,” adds Singh. They blocked roads and protested the clearing until it stopped two days later.

The monsoons had the farmers scrambling to stack up broken bricks to make another makeshift home with tarpaulin roof. Anup Singh, in his seventies, was born at the estate and it’s where his family has farmed for as long as he can remember. The intermittent demolitions of homes and crops are part of the collective memory of those farming along the Yamuna in Delhi.

The thousands of farmers and agricultural labourers who grow vegetables and flowers on the 22-km stretch where the Yamuna bisects Delhi are the Capital’s invisibles. Urbanisation is all around them, but is curiously absent from their lives. Loopy flyovers and gleaming metro stations edge their homes; they hop across fields to get onto NH-24; they park their buffaloes under the flyover and sit on the string cot and gupshup. Television and gas stove are luxuries in their homes with no front doors. And every time a development project becomes the new dream, they lose out.

In January this year, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) banned farming along the Yamuna in Delhi, citing the highly polluted water. Twenty-two drains discharge into the river in Delhi, making it amongst the most-polluted rivers of the world. “The vegetables grown in these areas, for which the direct source of irrigation is the groundwater or water flowing in River Yamuna are bound to be contaminated,” the judgement noted. Considering the health risks, the tribunal directed an all-out ban on agricultural activity until the “Yamuna is made pollution-free and is restored to its natural wholesomeness”. The tribunal mentions the ban on farming is only for a period of two-and-a-half years needed to make the Yamuna wholesome.

The farmers/labourers know all too well that the Yamuna is polluted and have tracked its changing colour. BS Chauhan, the 75-year-old general secretary of Delhi Peasants Multipurpose Society (DPMS), whose family has farmed here for over 50 years, remembers that the drinking water in his childhood came from the river. When farmers Rajpal and Rishipal talk of flipping a coin into the river and watching it sink to the bottom, the river in their head is not the tea-coloured Yamuna flowing a few hundred metres away.

A toxic harvest

All recent studies point to the calamity that awaits the Yamuna. The Restoration and Conservation of River Yamuna, submitted to the NGT in 2013 by an expert committee headed by professor CR Babu, says the 22 drains “contribute 80 per cent of the pollution load of the river”. Solid wastes are next in line. Agricultural activity on the flood plain, it recommended, “should be regulated to totally prohibit the use of agrochemicals (fertilisers and pesticides) and should be restricted to areas beyond 100m on either side of the river channel and other wetlands/water bodies”.

Babu, Professor Emeritus at Delhi University, says there was no way his team could recommend farming after surveying the 52-km stretch from Palla to Jaitpur. “High levels of toxic trace elements like lead, zinc and nickel are found in the water, besides pesticide residues,” he says. The team found large wetlands dug up and converted for agriculture. The sight around the Barapullah drain was horrifying. “The land was irrigated with sewage water and eating these vegetables could lead to cysts caused by worms,” he says, recommending ‘limited farming’ upstream of Wazirabad, which would exclude most areas where farming is now done.

This puts the farmers/labourers in a precarious position. They may not have done much to pollute the Yamuna, but are guilty of earning their livelihood by endangering the health of others. They are the collateral damage in the environment vs. health vs. livelihood tangle. The DPMS has appealed against the ban, which threatens the survival of the farmer/labourer in an already shaky environment. They are now encroachers in the 4,500 hectares they have farmed for decades. “The Delhi Improvement Trust, the precursor to the DDA, allotted the land to our society and the Jheel Khurenja Milk Producers’ Multi-Purpose Society in 1949. It was given for agriculture and on a 99-year lease,” says Chauhan. “Whenever it was wanted for a public purpose, we had to give it up,” he adds. The DDA appears to consider the lease redundant. After the Bela Estate clearing, a report in The Hindu quoted a DDA official, “We are following the NGT’s detailed guidelines for restoration of the zone. The lease of the people there has long been over.” The NGT proceedings too mention that “the DDA has now terminated all the leases.” “Our lease has not been renewed since 1977,” informs Chauhan. A few farmers have approached the Delhi High Court against the eviction.

Caught between litigations and bans, branded encroachers and pollutants, the farmers/labourers still try to keep a semblance of normality. But their lives are nothing but nebulous. At Yamuna Khader, an ‘owner’ is an undefined entity. Along the banks, ownership works differently. Farming is done either by a society member or a family with the original lease; or by migrants, largely from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, who have taken land on rent; or under a sharing arrangement with the ‘owner.’

Loss of perennial income

On a muggy July morning, sitting under a tree in neighbour Dharampal’s field, Chouhan says, “We are just watchmen looking after the land. This is our livelihood.” Dharampal’s family got the land on lease from the society. His three sons help farm the 40 bighas, which includes some land taken on a yearly rent of ₹5,000 a bigha. Their kachcha home sits in a sea of okra flowers. Two buffaloes slouch in the yard. “My parents stay the night, while the rest go home to Samastipur village,” says Vinod Kumar, the eldest son. “Now we have okra, bottle gourd, ridge gourd and corn. In August, we grow radish, cauliflower and cucumber.” Vendors arrive daily from Gazipur to take the vegetables to market. After an intense discussion with Chouhan, Kumar estimates that the farmers along the bank produce nearly 100 tonnes of vegetables daily. News of the DDA action has spread and Kumar is a worried man.

Barely two months ago, however, those working on rented fields were clueless about the ban. Manoj’s family came from Budaun 20 years ago and has been farming on seven bighas rented for ₹10,000 each. Outside his mud-cased house, half of his family watches as Mayaram, a wholesale dealer, picks up freshly plucked bottle gourds from a plastic basket and dunks them into a bucket of water collected from the tube well a few feet away. Tube wells are the main water source here, and the farmer/labourer believes water from 25-60m underground is insulated from pollutants. Cleaned of mud, the vegetables are wiped dry. Mayaram and his friend Rambaksh will take the sacks of bottle gourd to the wholesale markets in Gazipur and Azadpur. “I am selling them for ₹10 a kg, not a great price,” says Manoj. However, Mayaram is an old customer and this is business-as-usual for Manoj.

Are Mayaram’s customers wary of vegetables from the Yamuna? “I tell them to come with me and see for themselves. Probably one in 100 would walk away on hearing they are Yamuna vegetables,” he replies. Manoj had heard nothing about the ban when we met him in May. “Nobody told us anything. Our house, though, has been broken before,” he says. This comes as no surprise to Harpreet Kaur, a researcher with Jawaharlal Nehru University, who had together with Jessica Cook, a researcher from University of Colorado Denver, and three others studied the urban farming practices along the Yamuna. Farmers working on rented land are often not given the full story, she says. “Owners often do not tell them, fearing they may lose the rent.”

Manorama’s family has lived in Khader ever since they moved from Shahjahanpur 10 years ago to escape the meagre returns from annual crops back home. Vegetable farming in Delhi meant multiple crops, more income. They farm on a sharing basis with the owner. The news of the ban has reached her too. “My sister farms on the other side and her crops and home have been mowed down. I don’t know her plan, as I haven’t talked to her since,” she adds.

Chouhan concedes that farmers/labourers have been guilty of using pesticides and fertilisers indiscriminately. “But we are trying to reduce it. The society tells them to use jaivik khaad (bio-fertiliser), which is now available in local stores,” he says.

The NGT had suggested that the farmer/labourer turn to floriculture or silviculture while the Yamuna is allowed to rejuvenate itself. “They have my sympathy, but sympathy has no meaning when public health is in danger,” says Prof Babu. “They have to look at alternatives. When the wetlands are restored they are perfect for aquatic plants. Of course, they will have to be trained and educated to do it,” he adds. Chouhan is not averse to the idea of floriculture, but has his doubts. “We should be taught how to do it and, importantly, market it. Vegetables are an everyday necessity. Is it the same with flowers?” he asks.

The battle between environment and livelihood can be a difficult one. Sanjay Parikh, an environmental lawyer engaged with the Narmada Bachao Andolan, knows it firsthand. “Harsh reality is on one side and the environment on the other. It is always going to be a tough stand,” he says. Nevertheless the farmers, even if they are encroachers, ‘cannot be thrown out.’ “Before removing them, the state should rehabilitate them in an alternative place that is not worse than where they are now. If they should grow flowers, teach them to do it organically,” he adds. Parikh admits the NGT’s concerns are genuine. “But if the river is to be rejuvenated, it has to be cleared of all encroachments. Permanent structures like the Akshardham and the Commonwealth Games Village, even if legal, should not be allowed. Whenever the question is of the environment, the poor take the toll,” he points out.