Delhi has the highest cluster of small-scale industries (SSI) in India. There are generally less stringent rules for the treatment of waste in SSI due to less waste generation within each individual industry. This results in SSI disposing of their wastewater untreated into drains and subsequently into the river Yamuna, which is a major source of potable water in Delhi, thus posing a potential health and environmental risk to the people living in Delhi and downstream. To study the quantity, quality and distribution of heavy metals in liquid waste from industrial areas, wastewater, suspended materials and bed sediments were collected from industrial areas and from the river Yamuna in Delhi. This study has also focused on the efficiency of production processes in small-scale industries in India. Heavy metals such as Fe, Mn, Cu, Zn, Ni, Cr, Cd, Co and Pb were detected using a GBC 902 atomic absorption spectrometer. The concentration of heavy metals observed was as follows: Fe 2–212, Mn 0.3–39, Cu 0.2–20, Zn 0.2–5, Ni 0.6–6, Cr 0.2–53, Cd 0.08–0.2, Co 0.013–0.55, Pb 0.3–0.7 mg L−1 in wastewater; Fe 5842–78 000, Mn 585–10 889, Cu 206–7201, Zn 406–9000, Ni 22–3621, Cr 178–10 533, Co 17–114, Cd 13–141, Pb 67–50 171 mg kg−1 in suspended material; and Fe 30 000–84 000, Mn 479–1230, Cu 378–8127, Zn 647–4010, Ni 164–1582, Cr 139–3281, Co 20–54, Cd 37–65, Pb 228–293 mg kg−1 in bed residues. This indicates that SSI could be one of the point sources of metals pollution in the river system.