Yamuna River Conference Proposal

Yamuna River:
A Confluence of Waters, A Crisis of Need”

Yale - TERI Workshop on the Yamuna River

January 3-5, 2011


Proposal Written By:

Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim
School of Forestry and Environmental Studies
Yale University


George James
Department of Philosophy and Religion Studies
University of North Texas

(Updated October 2010)


Workshop Objectives:

Convening Interdisciplinary Perspectives for Problem Solving

This project will deepen our understanding of the interconnections between and among disciplines concerned with the Yamuna in addressing both scientific and societal challenges.  The natural sciences and engineering are clearly useful at providing knowledge about the physical world.  The social sciences and humanities are helpful in analyzing the social world.  But as the present condition of the Yamuna shows, we must also understand the intersection between the natural environment, science and engineering, cultural values, and societal needs.

We plan to bring together a cross section of stakeholders so as to facilitate a vision of the integrity of the river as an organic whole in which  interdisciplinary approaches to restoration can be heard.  


Proposed Workshop Dates:

January 3,4,5, 2011


Workshop Structure and Locations:

TERI University, Delhi, Vrindaban

January 3rd

We will conduct a workshop at TERI University that will bring together invited scientists  (toxicology, hydrology, ecology), academics in religious studies, and religious leaders from pilgrimage sites in Vrindaban, India. This will be designed to provide a forum for conversation across these various fields. With a deeper understanding of the important role of values and behavior some long term policy plans may be implemented based on the best of current science.

January 4th

If possible, a public event in Delhi that will report the findings and recommendations of the workshop. We would hope to mount an exhibition of photographs of the river.

January 5th

We will travel to Vrindaban to witness the rituals and pilgrimages to the Yamuna that take place there. Shrivasta Goswami has committed to hosting the participants and organizing the schedule.


Suggested Outcomes:

This workshop may be the beginning of a multi-year conference series between Yale's FES and TERI University. There was enthusiasm for this among the TERI faculty who welcomed such collaboration. They were especially keen to involve their students in the workshop but also in long term studies of the river. An on-going conference series may be helpful, as restoring the health of the river will take many years and will require an interdisciplinary approach.

Results from this workshop may include a book length edited volume developed from papers and presentations given at the workshop.  Such a volume could bridge the gap between studies that have focused exclusively on scientific and technical issues pertaining to the river or on societal and ethical issues pertaining to the river.  It could be of use to academics, government administrators, and the public.  It could represent the most recent scientific research pertaining to the health of the river, and pertinent discussions of social and ethical issues related to the river.  It can examine the question of why the Yamuna Action Plan has not been more effective. In addition, it can explore why the cultural traditions of respect for the river have not prevented the present crisis and how obstacles to engagement with these values can be overcome.

Results of the workshop could also include development of interdisciplinary courses within academia as well as an outreach to a broader public. This could include the creation of new partnerships between academia, policy makers, and the public at large. A website could facilitate such a partnership.  Workshop and related materials could also be collected on the web for use by those in the fields of science, engineering, social science, humanities, and public policy so as to further interdisciplinary problem solving.


Background Information:

Geological, Ecological, and Religious Perspectives on the Yamuna

The Yamuna, one of the most significant rivers in the world, is some 853 miles in length.  From its source at Yamunotri in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, it flows in a southeasterly arc to its confluence with the Ganges at Allahabad.  The Ganges empties into the Bay of Bengal near the city of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) in West Bengal.  In terms of economy, and ecology, the Yamuna is one of the most important waterways of India.  Nearly 60 million people depend upon the waters of the Yamuna for their survival.

From the traditional perspective of Hinduism the Yamuna is a mother that nurtures, purifies, and sustains.  She is a goddess, identified as Lord Krishna’s supreme lover. Yet, the Yamuna River as it appears in Delhi today presents a challenging paradox.  A river that is a goddess to millions of people is also the most polluted in India.  It is the irony of a river at once deified and defiled.

         It is perhaps at her source that the confluence of the love, purity, and sanctity of the Goddess is most explicit and most enchanting.  The source of the Yamuna is actually two-fold.  One, at an elevation of 20,000 feet is a glacial lake called Saptarishi Kund, located at the base of the melting snout of the Yamunotri Glacier.  In the hottest part of the year water flows from the end of this lake and tumbles down the southern slope of Mount Kalinda to form a magnificent succession of waterfalls that join its second source at an altitude of 11,000 feet.  This second source is a marvelous hot spring that gushes from a crevice in a massive rock face.  This hot spring lies at the juncture of the Indian plate that collided with the Eurasian plate some 70 million years ago.  The force of the Indian plate slipping beneath the Eurasian plate raised the Himalayas, the youngest and highest range of mountains in the world, generating the largest accumulation of ice and snow in the world outside the polar ice-caps.  This tectonic collision also generated heat from contact with Earth’s mantle.  As water trapped in reservoirs deep in the crust of Earth is heated, it ascends through vertical channels to Earth’s surface to generate hot springs, the signature of geothermal activity from shifting tectonic plates.

         For the priests at the temple complex at Yamunotri there is another explanation for this thermal activity, a more poetic one that expresses the meaning of this source for the devout.  The Yamuna is a living goddess, who descended to Earth in answer to the prayers, austerities, and penance of seven great rishis or sages.  For many years the rishis resided at that pond and underwent austerities entreating her to come down to Earth to instill loving devotion among the people.  Moved by their austerities and touched by their prayers, she descended to the summit of Mount Kalinda at 20,000 feet but finding the place too cold for devotees to visit her, she prayed to her father, Surya, the Sun, to make the place more pleasant.  With this request, the Sun gave his daughter a single fiery ray that struck the rock face at the base of the waterfall giving birth to a hot spring.

         Pilgrims worship at this hot spring bathing in its waters to commune with the goddess.  The temple complex at Yamunotri next to the hot spring is dedicated to the worship of the goddess Yamuna in her image, as depicted in an ancient document called the Agni Purana, (300-700 CE).  But her devotees consider the natural form of the river to be a more important manifestation of the goddess than her image.  The goddess is embodied in the natural river.  The divinity is the river herself.  Therein lies the irony.  Some argue that it is only in the mountains where the river is free and clear that the goddess is truly alive, for as the goddess descends to the plains her evident purity and holiness seem hugely compromised.

         Today, this living goddess of love and her rich and complex cultural narrative is mired in growing environmental degradation that has transformed her appellation as giver of life to a river of death.  At Dakpathar, one hundred miles from her source, the Yamuna River departs from the mountains and enters the plains.  The place marks the transition from the natural, with a preponderance of river worship, to the industrial with an emphasis upon river management.  Here the Asan barrage blocks the natural flow of the river to generate electricity.  Twenty miles downstream, the Hathnikund barrage diverts the Yamuna into the Western and Eastern Yamuna Canals for irrigation, leaving only 10 percent of the volume of her water in the bed of the river.  Sunderlal Bahuguna, a pioneer of the famous Chipko movement, states that at Dakpathar the river is killed.  While some residents of Dakpathar agree that the river dies there, a great many others argue that she surely meets her death in the megalopolis of Delhi.


The Yamuna in Delhi

         In Delhi, the Yamuna undergoes further segmentation and harnessing for domestic, industrial and irrigation purposes at three points within a 14 mile stretch through the city.  While the extraction of water leaves the river with no fresh water flow, the discharge of domestic and industrial sewage transforms the flowing river into what the Delhi based Centre for Science and Environment has called a sewage canal.  As of 2009, the segment of the river passing through Delhi, a section that covers only 2 per cent of the river’s length, contributes to over 80 per cent of the total organic pollution load of the river.  Here Dissolved Oxygen (DO), the quantity of oxygen in the water required to sustain aquatic life, is zero.  Here the Yamuna is biologically dead.  The measure of organic pollution in rivers is expressed as Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD), the oxygen required to oxidize and therefore purify organic waste.  A higher BOD indicates a low level of oxygen and a higher level of pathogen content. As of 2008, the measure of BOD in Delhi is thirteen (midstream at Nizamuddin) to nineteen (downstream at Okhla) times the limit that the Bureau of Indian Standards has set for bathing let alone for drinking!  Downstream from Delhi, as it flows past the historic cities of Agra and Mathura the river is described as asphyxiated or suffocated from lack of oxygen and eutrophicated, meaning that it is overburdened with organic waste such as human feces which depletes oxygen and eliminates aquatic life.


Yamuna Action Plan

          In the year 1993 the government of India launched the Yamuna Action Plan (YAP) to clean the river mainly through the construction of wastewater treatment plants located around the urban centers. Ironically indeed, in spite of huge investments of $308 million USD between 1993 and 2005, pollution levels have increased dramatically.  The pollution load from this and other cities is so great that even after her confluence with the Chambal, the most important tributary of the Yamuna on the plains, the 290 mile ‘diluted segment’ of the river remains unfit for bathing.  Alarming levels of fecal coli form (FC) at all stretches of the river presents a hazard to health.  Between Agra and Allahabad, fishing villages that flourished in the 1970s have all but disappeared. Unprecedented pollution is threatening local bird population, as well as wildlife habitats. What is perhaps most remarkable is that downstream from the megalopolis of Delhi the Yamuna continues to be worshipped sometimes in her most polluted condition.  With the huge expenditure of funds spent on the river and the lack of concrete results, the question arises why the approaches that have been taken have not proved effective.


Studies of the Yamuna

         Government agencies, scientific groups, non-governmental organizations (NGO’s), and people’s movements have all produced significant scientific and other relevant information concerning the river.  Scientific organizations have carried out prodigious studies concerning the hydrology, toxicology, and ecology of different regions of the river.  Government agencies and NGO’s have created important information about the public health hazards of the pollution of the river in various regions.  Peoples’ organizations have published studies focusing on social justice issues.

Research into the Yamuna might be described as fragmented at many levels.  In the first place studies of conditions of the river in different regions are generally unrelated to studies in other regions of the river.  Studies of river issues in the mountain regions are often unrelated to studies concerning river issues on the plains.  Studies of urban issues, for instance, of waste water management are unrelated to rural issues of irrigation and fishing.  Scientists studying the hydrology of the river tend to dismiss the initiatives of peoples’ organizations for local watershed management.  Secondly, writing and research is fragmented in terms of the disciplines that exam it.  Not only does hydrology seem to speak a different language from that of ecology but the scientific disciplines seem to speak a different language from that of social scientific studies such as sociology, anthropology, and policy studies that also pertain to the river.  Thirdly studies from most of the disciplines that pertain to various regions of the river seem to be divorced from the values concerning the river that are embedded in the religious and cultural traditions of the country.


This proposal was written by John Grim and Mary Evelyn Tucker of Yale University, and George James of the University of North Texas. It draws on material primarily from the book by David Haberman, River of Love in an Age of Pollution, published by University of California Press in 2006 and on the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment’s publications on river pollution in 2007 and 2009.


 Organizing Committee:

1)   Prateek Sharma is presently working with TERI University as Dean, Faculty of Applied Sciences.  He has more than 14 years of research/teaching experience. He received his Ph. D. degree in environmental engineering from Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. He has Master’s degree in hydraulics and flood control and Bachelor’s in civil engineering from Delhi College of Engineering, Delhi.

Prior to joining TERI University, Prateek has worked for School of Environment Management, GGS Indraprastha University for nine years. He was involved in developing the course curriculum of Master’s programme in Environmental Management and Disaster Management. Prateek also worked for a brief period with TERI before joining IP University.

His general research interests’ focus on environmental systems modelling, statistical applications in environmental and water resources engineering, and environmental risk assessment. He has more than 20 research publications to his credit. He has also authored a book entitled Modelling Urban Vehicle Emissions, WIT Press, UK. Presently he is writing a book titled Environmental Data Analysis, likely to be published next year. He is a member of several professional societies. He has been admitted as a Fellow of Wessex Institute of Great Britain in 2004, in recognition of outstanding scholarly work.

2)   Acharya Shrivatsa Goswami comes from a family of scholars and spiritual leaders in Vrindavan, India. He is head of the 16th century Sri Radharaman Temple and is dedicated to interreligious dialogue and connected to peace initiatives. He has toured extensively to participate in conferences on philosophy and religion and lecture in major universities around the world, and was a visiting scholar at Harvard University.  His writings have been published by the University presses of Princeton, Berkeley and others

3)   John Grim and Mary Evelyn Tucker are Senior Lectures and Senior Scholars at Yale University where they have appointments in the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies as well as the Divinity School and the Department of Religious Studies.  They are co-founders and co-directors of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale. Together they organized a series of ten conferences on World Religions and Ecology at the Harvard Center for the Study of World Religions.  They are series editors for the ten volumes from the conferences distributed by Harvard University Press.  They co-edited Worldviews and Ecology (Orbis, 1994) and also a Daedalus volume titled “Religion and Ecology: Can the Climate Change?” (2001). Mary Evelyn edited Buddhism and Ecology (Harvard, 1997), Confucianism and Ecology (Harvard, 1998), and Hinduism and Ecology (Harvard, 2000).  She also wrote Worldly Wonder: Religions Enter Their Ecological Phase (Open Court, 2004).  She is a member of the Interfaith Partnership for the Environment at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), served on the International Earth Charter drafting committee and is a member of the Earth Charter International Council.  John edited Indigenous Traditions and Ecology (Harvard 2001) and authored The Shaman (University of Oklahoma, 1983).  He is also president of the American Teilhard Association.

4)   Christopher Key Chapple is Doshi Professor of Indic and Comparative Theology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where he has taught since 1985.  As a specialist in the religions of India, he has explored the intersection of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism with Environmental Ethics as well as animal and human rights.  He has published a dozen books and over one hundred articles, including the book Nonviolence to Animals, Earth, and Self in Asian Traditions.  He edited two volumes in the Harvard University Religion and Ecology Series: Hinduism and Ecology and Jainism and Ecology.  He serves on numerous advisory boards and as editor of the journal Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture, and Ecology, published and distributed by Brill. He is currently on the Advisory Board of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale. 

5)   David Haberman is professor at Indiana University in the Department of Religious Studies.  He is a specialist in medieval and modern religious movements of northern India and an authority of the relationship between Hinduism and Ecology.  His approach combines textual research and anthropological field work.  From his extensive research he has published several books of interest to this workshop including one called Journey Through the Twelve Forests: an encounter with Krishna (Oxford, 1994), for which he received the American Academy of Religion award for Excellence. His most recent book called River of Love in an Age of Pollution (University of California Press, 2006) examines the worship of the Yamuna in the light of its present ecological degradation.  He is interested in how a changing Yamuna theology is being employed by Indian environmental activists to resist environmental degradation.  Very much involved in the field of religion and ecology he is currently on the Advisory Board of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale.

6)   George James is an associate professor of philosophy in the Department of Philosophy and Religion Studies at the University of North Texas. He received his PhD in the philosophy of religion from Columbia University in 1983. His research interests are focused on comparative and Asian environmental philosophy. He has especially focused on the relationship of Indian spirituality and environmental consciousness. He has published in the International Philosophical Quarterly, in Worldviews, and in Zygon. He has contributed to the Encyclopedia of Religion, the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, and the Encyclopedia of Environmental Ethics and Philosophy. He is the author of Interpreting Religion (1995) and editor of Ethical Perspectives on Environmental Issues in India (1998). He has recently completed a monograph concerning the activism and environmental philosophy of the Indian environmentalist, Sunderlal Bahuguna.

7)   Bidisha Kumar is a doctoral student in the Department of Philosophy and Religion Studies at the University of North Texas (Denton Texas) where she is recipient of a Doctoral Fellowship from the Toulouse School of Graduate Studies. She received her M.A. from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London in 2001 and her undergraduate degree in Geography from University of Calcutta, India in 1996. She has worked as a research assistant for the Centre for Development and Environment Policy, at the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta, Kolkata, and as research associate for the Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi. She has over 23 publications that include book chapters, articles and reports in newspapers, journals, magazines and encyclopedia concerning social and environmental issues. She has undertaken extensive field work in the hill regions of the Indian State of Uttarakhand where she has been observing the significance of Gandhi’s philosophy of Sarvodaya (or universal uplift) by means of Satyagraha (or truth power) upon the lives of rural women. Her doctoral research interest is in Gandhian initiatives for the empowerment of women in modern India.