NEW DELHI // In Hinduism, the Yamuna River is a goddess.
The waterway serves as the backdrop to one of the country's most popular attractions, the Taj Mahal.
It is the largest tributary of the Ganges, India's longest river. But in the capital, the Yamuna has become known for its islands of rubbish.
The government has dithered for decades over cleaning up the Yamuna, but the river may finally receive a badly needed clean-up after a supreme court commission ordered local municipalities to remove an estimated 90,000 cubic metres of debris by the end of next month.
Once a vital source of drinking and bathing water, as well as a main source for irrigation, in seven northern states, the 1,400km river, in some parts, has come to resemble an open sewer. Factories dump industrial waste into the river, which mixes with untreated sewage from cities with treatment plants unable to keep up with the waste produced by their booming populations.
"The pathetic condition of Yamuna, which has virtually turned into a 'nala' [sewer] to carry sewage falling into it from various drains, is deplorable," said the parliamentary committee on environment and forests in a report last year.
An estimated 10,000 lorry loads of waste will need to be hauled from the river for the clean-up to be successful, at a cost of about 25 million rupees (Dh1.67m), according to the national green tribunal, the supreme court committee responsible for environmental issues.
The clean-up will focus on two of the most polluted areas of the river: the portion that runs through Delhi and a 200km stretch in Uttar Pradesh. The Delhi Development Authority, the Delhi Metro Railway Corporation and the government of Uttar Pradesh were ordered to pay for the clean-up. The authorities face fines if they miss the deadline.
The country's national water-policy law is vague, say critics. It calls for a river to be 50 per cent pollution free to allow for natural water flow, but does not elaborate on how this can be achieved. There is no regulation of river beds and flood plains, where waste matter is often dumped and which then finds its way into the river.
The Yamuna originates from the Yamunotri glacier in the Himalayas and meets the Ganges in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, the site of the world's largest religious festival, the Kumbh Mela.
For the past seven years, Manoj Misra, a former official with the forest service, has fought, largely unsuccessfully, to mobilise the government to clean up the river. Mr Misra, who heads the Yamuna river restoration campaign, a non-profit group established in 2007, said the body of water that runs through the eastern edge of Delhi is no longer the Yamuna river, but a pool of raw sewage.
"What you see in Delhi is 100 per cent waste water. There is no river. Flow has been robbed 250 kilometres upstream of Delhi and for 800 kilometres, there is no river," he said, referring to a dam built on the river in 2002.
The reduced current has created islands of rubbish in the river.
For now, the clean-up will focus on solid waste, but there are other pollutants in the river, including industrial waste and untreated sewage.
The biggest polluters, according to Mr Misra, are companiesthat find it easier to dump into the river than invest in finding ways to properly dispose of waste. As a result, every tributary of the Yamuna is also polluted, either because of mining, leakage of sewage or direct dumping.
"There is no specific law that protects the river banks or flood plains of the country," Mr Misra said. "If the courts are strict this time, they will actually punish those who are responsible for not cleaning up the mess, because they are ones who created this problem in the first place."
Experts say simply removing the waste from the Yamuna may not be enough to save one of India's most important rivers.
Bharat Lal Sethi, the deputy programme manager for the water management unit at the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi, a think tank, said that the bigger problem is India's lack of treatment facilities.
Last year, when he was working on the book Excreta Matters, he examined the water-treatment infrastructure in 71 cities. "There is not a single municipality in India that has the infrastructure to deal with untreated waste," he said.
About 4.5 billion litres of sewage finds its way into the Yamuna every day in Delhi alone, Mr Sethi said. The capital has the sewage treatment capacity to process only half that.
A lack of pipes means that sewage flows into storm-water drains designed to carry rain water during the monsoons. That sewage flows not to the treatment plants, but directly into the river, Mr Sethi said.
"Even after this clean-up, will we ever be able to catch up with the demands of a city? That is the question to ask about river pollution."