A Lake Disappears…

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Concrete buildings choking the green lungs of towns and cities. Photo Courtesy: INTACH
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The Haryana and Delhi government deny the existence of the Najafgarh Jheel, claiming it is merely a depression in the ground where water collects. Both maintain that there is no lake although the water body finds mention in several official records

By Nayantara Roy

Can a seven-sq-km lake be made to disappear? Apathy and real estate pressures are doing exactly this. But why should anybody want to sound the death knell of a water body capable of producing a hundred million liters of valuable potable water a day, recharging the receding water table? Perhaps the seven sq km represents a financial potential in realty that a stretch of water cannot match.

Heavy urbanization has taken a toll on Gurgaon’s infrastructure, with traffic snarl-ups becoming a common phenomenon
Heavy urbanization has taken a toll on Gurgaon’s infrastructure, with traffic snarl-ups becoming a common phenomenon

The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) has filed a petition before the National Green Tribunal seeking the revival of the Najafgarh Jheel (lake), a seven-km water body straddling the Delhi Haryana border in almost equal area. Planned revival of the lake will provide about 100 million liters of water per day to the particularly water scarce part of the National Capital Region (NCR)—Gurgaon and south west Delhi.

Although the revival of the lake is an integral part of DDA’s zonal plan 2021, the Delhi government has taken the stand that the jheel does not exist. The reason given by it is that “as on date neither there is jheel nor there is land available for creating the same as being cultivated on Delhi side”. The stand of the government of Haryana is “that since no water body/so called Najafgarh Jheel exists in the revenue record and in the Development Plan of Gurgaon the question of its revival does not arise”.

DIFFERING POSITIONS

Various governments and official agencies impleaded in the case are not in agreement on the existence of the lake. While Delhi and Haryana deny it exists, the central government submitted that the “Najafgarh Jheel is located in the south-western part of the NCT-Delhi covering Najafgarh block and the north western block of the Gurgaon District, Haryana covering Gurgaon block” and that “the removal of encroachments from the conservation zone, protection of water body, revival and restoration” of the jheel “are responsibilities of the civic bodies and the state governments.”

Why should anybody want to sound the death knell of a water body capable of generating a hundred million liters of valuable potable water a day? 

The National Capital Regional Planning Board (NCRPB) refers to it in its Functional Plan: “The Najafgarh Jheel is located in the south western part of the NCT-Delhi located adjacent to the Najafgarh drain….The major issues of concern for the lake are mainly severe reduction in environment assets due to the loss of 50 percent of water spread in the last 5 decades. The groundwater depletion in and around the lake has also taken place resulting in water scarcity….Records state that during 1958 floods, the spread of the lake was about 14500 ha. In due course of time, developmental activities and urbanization in the catchment of the lake has reduced the catchment to larger extent and now it is 700 ha”.

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According to INTACH’s Principal Director, Natural Heritage Division, Manu Bhatnagar: “The recent disasters in Chennai and Srinagar were greatly aggravated as a result of loss of flood moderation capacity of the lakes.” He went on to say that buildings that shouldn’t have been built in the lowlands were extensively damaged due to flooding and “a similar fate awaits Gurgaon”. The Millennium City, he says, has come up rapidly with urban areas being concretized, with the loss of several lakes and depressions as a result. Drainage lines have been narrowed through encroachment as well as concretization of their beds. Town planners have not taken topography into consideration, allowing buildings in under-drained areas. In stark contrast, he says there is a complete absence of waterlogging in the organic core of old towns or in the colonial sectors such as Shahjahananbad, Civil Lines, the Cantonment and the NDMC area in Delhi. The lack of flooding in these areas is due to their positioning on high ground.

WHERE DID THE JHEEL GO?

So is there or isn’t there a Najafgarh Jheel? INTACH bases its evidence mostly on factual and historical records maintained by the state governments. Some of the evidence includes extracts from the Delhi Master Plan 2021, Delhi State Gazetteer, Delhi Government Irrigation and Flood Department records, Google satellite imagery 2010, Haryana State Gazetteer, 2001 and an extract from the National Wetland Atlas, Haryana, prepared by ISRO for the Ministry of Environment and Forests.

According to Bhatnagar, the water body has been on official maps since 1807. The jheel and its connecting Najafgarh drain are the only outlets for floodwaters to exit Gurgaon, he says. However, if the Yamuna is in spate, the drain cannot empty into the river and “its mouth has to be closed to prevent the backflow of river water up the drain”. In such a situation, the jheel depression serves to retain the flood waters till such time that the Yamuna has subsided.

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Gurgaon’s Deputy Commissioner Satyaprakash contends that the recent problem of congestion on the roads in Gurgaon was not so much a waterlogging problem as a traffic problem. He says in recent years there has been a lot of work done in de-silting as a measure to prevent waterlogging.

But Bhatnagar points out that “it is a canon of urban planning that areas falling within the 100-year flood level are not to be built upon”. He says the Department of Irrigation and Flood Control NCT recorded the High Flood Level (HFL) at 212.5 m above sea level in the jheel. This line should have been taken into account to create a “no construction zone” within the HFL. If the HFL line is overlaid in the 2031 Master Plan of Gurgaon, it cuts across Sectors 101,102, 103, 104, 105, 106, 107, 108, 109, 110, 112, 113, 114, 115. In 1977, says Bhatnagar, the HFL was reached. Such floods may well occur again.

Moreover, he says that the State Environmental Impact Assessment Authority of Haryana has given environmental clearance to building projects in the jheel area with the injunction that the “plinth must be kept above 100 year HFL of the Najafgarh Jheel”. Bhatnagar asks: “What will happen when these buildings are marooned, when their triple basements full of expensive cars and electrical equipment are destroyed and when the foundations of these buildings are loosened with prolonged waterlogging?”

An article in the August 4 issue of The Times of India by Shresth Tayal and Swati Singh, researchers at TERI University, advocates the “watershed approach” to prevent flooding in cities. In Gurgaon, they say: “The focus has been to lay down pipelines, import water from outside city limits and supply it to residents….it increases dependence on natural resources outside the city or state jurisdiction and increases vulnerability by limiting the scope of management only to supply and not availability of water. Moreover, the approach of laying sewage lines to expand coverage only, disturbs the natural drainage patterns of a city and increases the incidence of waterlogging. Lack of a regional planning approach has led to haphazard proliferation of slums and other urban problems. A watershed is a geo hydrological unit comprising all land and water within the confines of a drainage divide…….adopting a watershed approach to micro level planning in a city reduces its dependence on natural resources like water from outside the city limits, and also mitigates the risks of extreme weather events.”

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The counter affidavit filed by the Ministry of Water Resources and the Central Ground Water Board, Faridabad, in the case filed by INTACH sets out that as on March 31, 2011, the stage of ground water development in Gurgaon block was 308 percent and in Najafgarh block 125.93 percent. What this means essentially is that ground water is being extracted at 308 percent and 125.93 percent, respectively. In other words, the ground water is being used much faster than it can be recharged. It has been reported that the fresh ground water of Haryana would get exhausted by 2018.

For Delhi, Dr SD Singh, the CEO of Delhi Parks and Gardens Society and Nodal Officer, Water bodies, Government of NCT-Delhi, says that the jheel is dry on the Delhi side for the most part. Occasionally, water collects and flows underground. Most of this land is privately owned, he says. This is something that is reiterated by the Gurgaon deputy collector who says that around 14 months ago, a survey was done in the area and about 95 percent of the land is privately owned.

CHENNAI, NOV 17 (UNI):- People being evacuated at flood affected CTO Nagar, Tambaram on the outskirts of Chennai on Tuesday. UNI PHOTO-52U

Buildings that shouldn’t have been built in the lowlands were extensively damaged due to flooding in Chennai

Maps and photographs with INTACH show most of that land as farmland, not as built-up area. Singh agrees that a water surface such as the jheel is always good for the ecosystem and the micro climate. All around, the unsaid words imply that it would be good to revive the jheel, but there are people farming on it!

Interestingly, INTACH’s petition mentions a bundh built in the Delhi portion of the jheel as recently as 1976. A common sense appraisal of the area might credit the bundh for the lack of water on the Delhi side. Why else was it built but to stop water flow? Bhatnagar says there are punctures in the bundh which should be opened to allow the water to flow into the Delhi side.

NATURAL CONSERVATION ZONE

The DC Gurgaon suggests that if the NGT were to declare the area a Natural Conservation Zone, then land acquisition can be thought of, although he is of the opinion that there is no water body. INTACH’s lawyer states that the total yield from agricultural activities on the Najafgarh Jheel land is insignificant, and suggests giving farmers in that area either monetary compensation [as per existing policy for waterlogged lands] or exchange depression area land with gram sabha land on higher ground [Delhi side].

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Bhatnagar has written to the Member Secretary, NCR Planning Board, suggesting that the area be declared a Natural Conservation Zone. It remains to be seen what action will be taken. On field visits by INTACH officials, they found that only about 10 percent of the land is being farmed and they were accosted by property dealers trying to sell them land on the jheel bed, saying that the land is going to be urbanized soon. The land adjacent to the bundh has no construction at the moment. Land in the lake area that is stated to be in private hands appears, at the moment, to be agricultural although mostly uncultivated, as it is vulnerable to waterlogging..

Acquiring farmland is an unpleasant task. But can it not be done sensitively for a greater long-term benefit for all? And should haphazard town planning and contradictory environmental clearances be permitted to continue? It would make sense to revive the jheel. The Land Acquisition Act has been invoked often enough for roads and bridges. Why not for a larger purpose of renewing a water resource in an area where water sources are fast depleting. This can also act as a wetland ecosystem, improving the micro-climate.

Lead picture: Concrete buildings choking the green lungs of towns and cities. Photo Courtesy: INTACH

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