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Killing Delhi’s Lifeline

Charu Soni
New Delhi

Unmindful of a looming ecological catastrophe and the adverse impact on Delhi’s inhabitants, the government is going ahead with plans to ‘develop’ the Yamuna riverbed
Delhi made space for the 1982 Asian Games complex by cutting the Siri Fort forest; the swimming stadium for the grand sports event was built by ‘reclaiming’ the Talkatora water reservoir. With preparations for the 2010 Commonwealth Games afoot, Delhi is set to witness a repeat performance where ‘world-class’ construction takes precedence over preservation of its fragile, fast dwindling and ecologically vital natural habitat. Delhi government has now its sights set on the Ridge and the Yamuna river.

According to the Delhi government, the city will be given a ‘world-class’ makeover – spanking new stadia, sport villages, malls, multiplexes, techno parks, golf courses and a Thames-like riverfront. Environmental groups have been vociferously objecting to what they see as the colonisation and commercialisation of the Ridge. But no one has sounded the alarm on the thoughtless plans to destroy the Yamuna’s delicate ecology.

The impact of large-scale construction along the Yamuna goes much beyond Delhi. The river is a lifeline to a large swathe of north India, generating hydroelectricity, providing irrigation to large tracts of agricultural land and providing precious potable water to the many towns and cities situated on its banks.

The megapolis of Delhi has traditionally been the biggest consumer of the Yamuna’s resources — and its worst polluter. It is estimated that the 22 km stretch of the Yamuna that runs along Delhi — from Wazirabad in the north to the Okhla barrage in the south — contributes 80-90 percent of the total sewage discharge into the river, reducing it to a stinking drain.

Today, sewage discharge from Delhi and major towns like Mathura, Vrindavan and Agra has irreversibly altered its ecology. Most environmentalists refer to this stretch as a dead river i.e. incapable of supporting any aquatic life whatsoever. There is a longstanding demand from them to create alternate sources of water generation and water-discharge management to ease the pressure on the Yamuna. They have also been highlighting the damage caused to human health by allowing the discharged sewage to re-enter the human food chain via the agricultural produce watered by it in UP and Haryana.

The Yamuna Action Plan (YAP) was launched with great fanfare in April 1993 to solve some of these problems. Instead, it has turned out to be one of the biggest frauds perpetrated in the name of environmental upgradation. The project, aided substantially by funding from Japan, primarily involved building infrastructure to stop and treat the sewage at its source and preempt dumping of sludge directly into the river.

More than a decade after its inception, yap’s achievements have been woefully short of its stated goals. The government has not added to or upgraded the existing infrastructure for sewage treatment effectively. It has also been at a loss to explain how it spent a whopping Rs 1,450 crore without much to show for it.

The 22-km stretch of the Yamuna that runs through Delhi contributes 80 to 90 percent of the total sewage discharge into the river, reducing it to a stinking drain
Serving as Delhi’s mega-drain is not the only burden on the Yamuna. With growing pressure to acquire more land — accelerated by the 2010 Commonwealth Games extravaganza — the city’s civic agencies have been systematically depriving the river of its floodplains. This, despite the fact that the Master Plan of Delhi (MPD 1962 & MPD 2001) states that both the Delhi Ridge and the city’s water bodies — which include lakes, reservoirs and the Yamuna — are its ecologically defining features and hence worth conserving.

The colonisation of Yamuna’s floodplains, says Dunu Roy of the Delhi-based Hazards Centre, started with the British, when for the first time in Delhi’s history, the colonial administration “resettled natives” outside the Ring Road city limits. The new settlements were established in the Old Shahdara area to the east of the Yamuna — the traditional trade entrepot to Delhi. Till then, none of the historical eight cities of Delhi had spilled beyond the western bank. This left the eastern side — geologically referred to as the New Khadar land or the new floodplain, after the river changed course in the 17th century — free for the river when it was in spate.

Today, most of the extended floodplain of east Delhi, collectively called the Trans-Yamuna Area, falls 3-4 metres below the 1978 flood level. With an estimated population of 22.58 lakh (according to 2001 census), it has been at the receiving end of the river’s fury about once every 10 years (1978, 1988, 1999). This area is also geologically known as the Yamuna-Ganga floodplain, where flooding and groundwater recharge is at its highest every monsoon and hence crucial for Delhi’s water needs.

The first post-Independence settlement of Yamuna’s floodplains occurred during the Emergency (1975-77), when the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) forcibly relocated nearly one lakh squatter families in ‘resettlement colonies’ on the New Khadar land, which used to be a green belt till then. By 1982, when Delhi hosted the Asian Games, Trilokpuri, Himmalputi, Khichripur and Kalyanpuri came up further to the east, while the new Indraprastha Indoor Stadium was built on the western bank. By 1990, the east Delhi localities of Laxmi Nagar, Patparganj and Mayur Vihar, and the Noida township had come up in the Yamuna floodplains.

1 Police Training Camp
2 Sonia Vihar
3 Rajiv Nagar
4 Shree Ram Colony
5 Bal Nirikshan Grih
6 Tibetan School
7 Baba Gopaldas Darwesh
8 Majnu Ka Tila
9 Chandgi Ram Akhada
10 Ladakh Budh Vihar
11 Metro Headquarter
12 Shastri Park
13 Rajghat Power Plant
14 Delhi Stock Exchange
15 Delhi Secretariat
16 Commonwealth Games Village
17 Akshardham Temple
18 Fly Ashes
19 Rajiv Smriti Van
20 Abul Fazal Enclave
21 Indian Oil Bottling Plant
22 Suresh Vihar
23 Hari Nagar
24 Om Nagar
25 Meethapur

“The colonisation of the Yamuna’s Khadar tracts has been an error of urban planning in Delhi,” says the 1995 Delhi Environmental Status Report: An Information Handbook for Citizen Action, which was brought out by Delhi government’s Department of Environment. The report says that the floodplain is an important groundwater reserve for the city and an integral part of the natural river system and, as such, should not be tampered with except to allow for seasonal cultivation and bathing.

Having thus used up most of the far-flung lands of the Yamuna-Ganga floodplains to the east, the Delhi government, in its 1998 draft plan prepared by DDA Zonal Development department, trained its eyes nearer the city centre — the actual riverbed (Zone O and part of Zone P of the MPD). It proposed a change in land-use pattern by sanctioning the public and semi-public use of the once inviolable land (under MPD 1962) — even though, according to same draft plan, “The area… bears a special character in terms of being a flood-prone natural feature… and may not be usable for any kind of development.”

After spending Rs 1,450 crore on cleaning the Yamuna, the government has virtually nothing to show for it
In the same vein, MPD 2001 states that: “Conservation of major natural features in a settlement is of utmost importance to sustain the natural eco-system. Two major natural features in Delhi are the Ridge and the Yamuna River.” According to Solly Benjamin, environmental activist and writer, DDA now plans to do a U-turn on MPD 1962. “Under the new plan, DDA hopes to develop 8,055 hectares of this land on the riverbed,” he says.

The total cost of the Yamuna riverbed development project is estimated to be Rs 1,000 crore. Nearly 500 hectares have been reserved for “commercial” purposes and approximately 645 hectares for government, institutional, public and semi-public use. Already existing under the latter category are the Delhi Secretariat, the Delhi Stock Exchange, three thermal power stations — Badarpur, Rajghat and Indraprastha, and the Indian (LPG) Bottling Plant. Proposed buildings include Delhi Government Assembly building, a convention centre and a financial district on the pattern of “Manhattan in New York and Raffle Square in Singapore”. Also proposed are a theme park, a golf course, the Commonwealth Games complex and other recreation centres.

The sprawling Swaminarayan Akshardham Cultural Complex has already come up on the eastern bank of the Yamuna, occupying over 24 hectares. Another 65 hectares have been taken up by the Metro Rapid Transport System (MRTS) control centre. The Akshardham complex was at the centre of controversy when in September 2004, DDA ‘regularised’ the complex after construction was completed. Around this time, some 63 hectares were given to the Yamuna Bio-Diversity Park, situated between Wazirabad and Jharoda Majra village in north Delhi.

There is no attempt in the plan, or otherwise, to assess the actual pollution level and how much load all these structures would add to the river basin, or how this would affect the river’s ecology. Dissenting voices or reports have been quickly suppressed or just ignored.

Following are some instances of how the government, by its inaction and mismanagement, has turned the river into a smelly drain and its riverbed — Delhi’s natural aquifer — into a concrete jungle.

Delhi’s thermal power stations contribute 5,600 metric ton of fly-ash daily, most of which is dumped directly on the riverbed, causing toxic contamination of groundwater.

In August 2004, the Supreme Court admitted a pil against the Akshardham complex, filed by UP Irrigation Department, the original owner of the riverbed and its floodplains. According to it, “The construction of the huge temple and ashram covering an area of 50 acres of the river bed and surrounding areas would prevent the recharge of underground water and, in addition, pollute the river by discharge of huge quantity of waste water.”

At that time, the DDA defended the allotment of land on the grounds that it had built “a bund” along the river to prevent flooding. DDA’s move came despite opposition from Delhi Urban Arts Commission (DUAC) that warned that change in land use would adversely affect the ecology of the watershed and seriously endanger the sustainability of the structures constructed on the riverbed. The area is also vulnerable because it falls on a seismic fault-line according to KT Ravindran, Dean of School of Planning and Architecture and former DUAC chairman. The Apex court dismissed the pil, leaving a lot of unanswered questions. Meanwhile, the beneficiaries of the largesse, in this case, the swamis of Akshardham Culture Complex, are keeping quiet about one small detail — the entire 24-hectare complex does not have a sewage treatment plant and is flushing its waste directly into the river. When asked, the Akshardham spokesperson denied polluting the river. “We have septic tanks which are regularly serviced by private and Delhi Jal Board (DJB) disposal vans,” he said.

It is estimated that 13 lakh ton of fly-ash layered with sand was used to level the land for the MRTS control centre, without any heed to the contamination of the riverbed groundwater reserves. The wastewater from serving and cleaning bays for trains is directly channelled into the river.

Predictably, the government has sought to deflect public attention from its failures by floating another flawed project — the channelisation or riverfront plan. This move comes contrary to the advice of many assessment reports. “Channelling the river is against the principles voiced in the 1962 Master Plan for Delhi,” says Gita Dewan Verma, an independent town planner, and a vociferous proponent of the MPD 1962.

Experts have pointed out that the plan disregards all principles of environment and ecology and that it would lead to a serious flood risk, not only in Delhi but also in upper and lower regions of the Yamuna outside Delhi. The impact of the Yamuna if her waters break can be gauged by the flashfloods in Sutlej — one of the most dammed rivers in west Himachal Pradesh — during 2004 monsoons, which threw life out of gear in north India, including Delhi.

Earlier, in 1978, the heavy rains in the upper catchments of the Yamuna led to a tremendous pile-up of water at Wazirabad threatening the railroad bridge near the Red Fort. To prevent the water from overflowing, the Delhi administration made cuts in the western bund — taking Yamuna to Model Town drawing rooms in Delhi. The alternative was to make cuts in the Shahdara bund, which would have added to the misery of lakhs of people in the Trans-Yamuna area.

“To visualise the proposed development of the Yamuna riverbed,” says Solly Benjamin, “one needs to imagine a huge commercial centre... concrete towers, congestion, garbage, ill maintained and smoked out trees… the DDA plans to gift a nightmare to the city.”

There was a time when the Yamuna flowed by the Red Fort. Then she changed course. Then, when the British came they tampered with her tributary, the Sahibi river (known to us today as Najafgarh nala) and dried up the Najafgarh lake to reclaim land. Today, there are 19 drains flowing into the Yamuna. Instead of concentrating on ways to augment water scarcity and wastewater disposal at a local level by creating community-based solutions, the government is selling a mirage to the capital’s inhabitants.

Aug 19 , 2006

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