The devastation left in the wake of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s event on the banks of this river has shown why cities need to leave rivers and their floodplains alone if they want to survive themselves
By Meha Mathur
Most civilizations and cultures started along river banks. This was stressed by the Art of Living (AOL) when it organized the World Culture Festival on the floodplains of the Yamuna from March 10 to 12. But in the process, vast swathes of wetland were leveled and destroyed. While the AOL statement is partly true—from London on the Thames to Banaras on the Ganga to Maheshwar on the Narmada, all bear testimony to the close links between rivers and civilization—it is only half the story.
“That statement of AOL is incomplete. Great civilizations flourished as well as vanished when they did not value their rivers, when they over-exploited them,” said activist Manoj Mishra of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan. He has been in the forefront of a movement to rejuvenate the river and a case he filed with the National Green Tribunal (NGT) led to a landmark judgment in 2015.
Unfortunately, even educated people show an appalling lack of understanding about rivers and their eco-systems. This was in evidence when AOL founder Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s followers—well-educated, well-to-do professionals—defended the choice of the cultural fest venue. While some said it was “just barren land”, others said that “just four trees had to be trimmed because they were obstructing the view”. It was obvious that grasslands, wetlands and marshes aren’t seen as environmentally important for many. And in the rush to commercialize property, every inch of available space is used.
CR Babu, professor, Department of Environment Sciences, University of Delhi, and chairman of the committee appointed by the environment ministry to examine the Yamuna Riverfront Development, explained that a river is not limited to the channel through which the water flows. The river bed, the natural embankment on both sides which helps to prevent flooding and the flood plain with a rich riparian system are intrinsic to it. But with the pressing needs of the population, these embankments are destroyed and converted into roads. In their place, man-made bunds have come up. This has restricted the Yamuna floodplain to three to four km on the east side along the 54-km strip of the river in the Delhi region. And on the western bank, in some stretches it’s not even a kilometer.
National Green Tribunal’s order of January 13, 2015 for “Maili se Nirmal Yamuna Revitalization Project 2017” (to be completed by March 31, 2017) had the following points:
-All 23 sewage treatment plants (STPs) be made fully operational and must operate to the fullest capacity. Technology of existing STPs should be upgraded.
-All industrial clusters should be provided with common effluent treatment plants (CETPs).
-Concerned authorities are directed to clean all 157 natural storm water drains.
-Storm water drains must not to carry sewage.
-Natural drains can’t be permitted to be concretized or covered.
-Carrying any construction activity in the demarcated flood plain is prohibited.
-Throwing puja material or food material is prohibited.
-Agriculture is prohibited in the flood plains till such time as the Yamuna gets wholesome water free of contamination.
-Flood plain zoning should be done so that “flood of once in 25 years” is taken into consideration.
-Chief secretaries of Delhi and Haryana should meet and fix the quantity of water that should be released throughout the year to maintain the environmental flow of the river.
-There should be one nodal agency to handle the project. In this regard, NGT has formed a “principal committee” where more or less all concerned departments are represented.
It is important to leave floodplains as they are, Babu said, as a river has tremendous energy. Whatever comes in its way gets washed off and floodplains dissipate this energy by holding excess water. “Floods in a river are a natural phenomenon, not a natural calamity, quite like high temperatures in summer and cold ones in winters,” said Mishra. It’s for humans to exercise their wisdom to leave floodplains outside the ambit of construction. Mishra cited the 1947 flood, where both the Yamuna and its tributary, Hindon, had so much water that the two coalesced and it was difficult to demarcate the two. It’s this excess water that swamps floodplains, fills aquifers and fulfills the water needs of settlements along the river.
Floodplains also have rich riparian eco-systems and harbor rich plant, animal and microbial life. “Take turtles. If there is no floodplain, where will they lay their eggs? The same holds true for crocodiles and many other species,” stressed Mishra. And as climatic change looms large, these floodplains will become all the more important. “In Delhi, the 54-km open strip of the river is important for moderating thermal currents. In summers, it reduces temperatures and in winters, it increases it,” said Mishra.
Sadly, the Delhi stretch of the Yamuna is impacted the most and is virtually dead. The quality of water before Wazirabad reservoir, the main source of water for Delhi, is reasonably good. “However, when the river goes downstream from Wazirabad, a 28-km stretch, it is nothing but an open sewer,” said Babu, “as it receives untreated and treated sewage from 22 major drains.”
While the other tributaries of the Yamuna (Hindon, Chambal, Tons, Ken and Betwa) are also under stress, with dams being built on them, the impact of rural settlements and small towns on them is not as big as that of Delhi. The river gets revived by the time it reaches Agra. In fact, due to the vast catchment area of the tributaries of the Yamuna in the Indo-Gangetic plains, it has more water than the Ganga when the two rivers meet in Allahabad.
If one goes back to historical times, the importance of the Yamuna and water conservation cannot be over-emphasized. And there is constant correlation between the river and human settlements. Environmentalist Anupam Mishra has done detailed studies of traditional water management systems, the approach of people to water conservation in water-scarce Rajasthan and how they preserved every drop of water. In his two books—Rajasthan ki Rajat Boonde (Silver Drops of Rajasthan) and Aaj Bhi Khare Hai Talaab (Ponds are Relevant Even Today)—he has documented the entire system of rainwater harvesting in homes, streets, and bigger reservoirs over the last few centuries. There was regular maintenance of all water bodies, including lakes and 800 ponds in Delhi then.
It’s interesting to note that historically, while the western bank of the Yamuna was invaded by human settlements, the eastern floodplains, barring Shahdara (which was the route for those coming from Meerut to Red Fort), was pristine till much after Independence.
It’s a well-known fact that the Yamuna touched the walls of Red Fort in what is now Ring Road. There is a vivid description by William Dalrymple in The Last Mughal of Bahadur Shah Zafar watching from the Fort as soldiers who had revolted came from Me-erut, crossed the bridge from the eastern bank and took over the Fort on the day of the Mutiny. He describes how the emperor es-caped via a boat when the mutiny failed and reached Humayun’s Tomb, which too was on the banks of the river.
In Shahjahanabad/Old Delhi, a book edited by Eckart Ehlers and Thomas Krafft, there is a description of canals being built on the Yamuna since the Sultanate period to ensure a steady supply of water. One such canal was built during the reign of Feroz Shah Tughlaq. When Shah Jahan chose Delhi as the site for his capital and the western bank as the spot for Shahjahanabad, he had that canal repaired. This not only provided water for human consumption, but was used for extensive gardens in the city, which the Mughals greatly loved.
Even East India Company officials took up residences along the Yamuna—Thomas Metcalfe in the Metcalfe House (now the DRDO office) and William Fraser in Fraser’s Bungalow (now a railway office).
Ascetics like Majnun too had their homes on the banks; that’s how Majnu ka Tilla gets its name. Devotees who came to seek his blessings also used the spot for recreation and there are historical references of boating here. Temples, akharas and goshalas existed along the river and one can still spot some of them on the banks.
Nothing for Yamuna!
Despite all the brouhaha over pollution in Yamuna and using its floodplains for construction activities, the Delhi government did not allocate any funds for cleaning up the river in its current budget. While speaking to The Times of India, Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia said that previous projects are still stuck and the ball is in the central government’s court. Also, many bodies are involved with it.
SETBACK FOR YAMUNA
However, in the beginning of the 20th century, there was a more detached approach to the river when the British established their capital in Delhi in 1911. Diplomat-author Pavan Varma, in his book Becoming Indian, questions the British arrogance in choosing to build their new imperial capital at Raisina Hill, away from the river, when their predecessors had chosen to rule from river banks.
And from then on, it has been a slow and steady takeover for habitation, with the influx of people from across the country.
The deterioration of the river has been in many forms: the setting up of the Indraprastha Power Plant and dumping of its fly ash on the bank; the construction of Ring Road, Indraprastha Stadium (for the 1982 Asian Games), a hotel complex (which ultimately be-came Delhi Secretariat); the Akshardham complex and the residential complex adjoining it, the Commonwealth Games Village, metro stations and the debris thrown by the DMRC; massive encroachment in the Batla House area and the razing of a dense wood adjoining Okhla Bird Sanctuary to pave way for Ambedkar memorial in adjoining Noida. All these led to concretization of the floodplain, obstructing its recharging and flood control functions severely.
The supply of water in the Yamuna too has been severely affected. Mishra said that the 1994 agreement between Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh spelt the death knell of the Yamuna. The completion of the Hathini Kund in Haryana in 2002 choked the river (though thankfully, the 2015 NGT judgment provided for a certain basic minimum water to be released). But the problem persists downstream from Wazirabad.
Another major problem was the high coliform (bacteria that thrives in excreta) content from 22 major drains spewing sewage into the Yamuna. The 2015 NGT judgment recorded that the total coliform permitted was 5,000 MPN/100 ml, whereas in the Yamuna it was 17,000,000,000 MPN/ 100ml. The judgment quoted reports by the Central Pollution Control Board from 18 drains which released their contents into the Yamuna from November 19, 2013 to October 18, 2015. It was found that as against the permissible limit of 250 mg/1 chemical oxygen demand, it was as high as 810 mg/l in one drain and upwards of 500 mg/l in most others. As for the permissible limit of suspended solids of 100 mg/1, it was as high as 953 mg/l in one drain and upwards of 400 mg/l in most others. There was also the presence of chromium, copper, iron, nickel, lead and zinc, which, if they enter the food chain, can be very harmful.
The Najafgarh drain alone accounts for 67 percent of the total sewage content in the Yamuna, most of it untreated. Jhuggi settlements, open defecation and factories releasing their effluents worsen the problem. Se-wage treatment plants are in dire need of upgradation but lack of funds chokes such plans. The Najafgarh drain requires Rs 3,600 crore, but the project is in a limbo.
What is the solution—do we cover these drains? In recent times, this has proved catastrophic, with several posh localities in south Delhi getting inundated during the monsoon in July 2013. Artist Aparna Caur’s art works were even destroyed in her basement in the rains of that year.
So, should we focus on beautifying Yamuna or rejuvenating it? This has been a major point of dispute between scientists and environmentalists on the one hand and the development lobby on the other.
At the core of the dispute is the Sabarmati model. Ever since the Modi government ca-me to power, it has been pitching for the riverfront development of the Yamuna on the lines of the Sabarmati in Gujarat, with recreation hubs all along the banks.
The Yamuna River Development Authority, chaired by the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi, and the DDA are all for it and they even sent a large team to study the Sabarmati model. However, the team, of which CR Babu was the chairman, vehemently opposed the idea of caging the river between two walls.
Babu explained: “All the land along the Sabarmati has been given to developers for riverfront water complexes and buildings. The entire river has been caged into RCC walls. That water is not the Sabarmati water. It’s a spillover from the Narmada canal, which is meant for irrigation. I opposed that model for the Yamuna because Sabarmati is a desert river, whereas the Yamuna is a Himalayan river with a massive catchment. We have suggested that wetlands, grasslands and forest areas should be left alone. If need be, create green trails for nature enthusiasts.”
Mishra said the imagery of architecture along the river is beautiful. But to keep it that way, billions have to be invested quite like London does for the Thames. “All over Europe, cities located on rivers are getting flooded. And governments are purchasing land and properties along the banks to give it back to the river. And if we want to adopt the river model, we should spend crores on flood control,” he said.
That’s what it takes to have a river run through a city.