Why does our water ministry want a boat ride on Delhi’s largest sewer drain?

Union Minister Nitin Gadkari has proposed a Rs 12000-cr project for a water route from Delhi to Agra to Prayagraj, along the river Yamuna. But what will it do for the river, which has been reduced to a dumping ground for untreated sewage and industrial waste?

For 700 years, the Yamuna river was a thriving entity around which Delhi grew. This historic connect has been severed in just a few decades. Today, Delhi’s citizens are so detached from the river, and have polluted it to such an extent, that the Yamuna has become incapable of supporting any form of life.

The subject of several orders from the National Green Tribunal (NGT) on efforts to clean it, the river flows through the heart of the capital dark, murky and giving off the most horrible of smells. Despite an expenditure of Rs 2000 crore in recent years on various schemes to clean it up, the river has only got dirtier.

Now, Nitin Gadkari and his water resources and river development ministry is talking about spending Rs 12000 crore to enable a leisurely boat ride along the river to Agra and Prayagraj. The minister was even optimistic that a port could be built near the banks near Taj In March. Gadkari also laid the foundation stones for 11 Yamuna projects that have been taken up under the Namami Gange Programme by the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) at a cost of Rs 1,656 crore. The focus is on improving sewerage infrastructure and waste water treatment. The projects are located in three drainage zones of Kondli, Rithala and Okhla and are part of the Yamuna Action Plan III.

A long and slow killing

Gadkari is perhaps not unaware of what the river has become—-a drain or “naala” into which untreated sewage, garbage and industrial waste is dumped. The Yamuna, relatively clean during its journey from Yamunotri to Delhi, becomes seriously polluted by the time it leaves Delhi. The discharge of untreated sewage and industrial effluents from 22 drains between Wazirabad barrage and Okhla barrage makes it a stinking drain. Those 22 kilometres through Delhi is just three per cent of the river’s course of 1376 kilometres, but it gets 70 percent of its pollution load.

“A staggering 3.6 billion tons of untreated sewage flows daily into the Yamuna. The situation is dire. We need to act now. No one single organization or entity can do this.  Only collectively can this clean-up be possible:” That was Sri Sri Ravi Shankar of the Art of Living Foundation at the inauguration of the Meri Dilli Meri Yamuna (MDMY) campaign on March 16, 2010. For the next 15 days, a large number of Art of Living volunteers descended on the ITO ghat in Delhi and went upriver daily in a boat, fishing out plastic, clothes, rotting debris, and images of worship from the waters.

Ironically, it was the same Sri Sri who organized the three-day World Culture Festival on the Yamuna floodplains in Delhi in March 2016 which “completely destroyed” the riverbed, an expert committee set up by the government said in its report. The seven-member committee, headed by water resources ministry secretary Shashi Shekhar, said in its 47-page report that the ecological rehabilitation of Yamuna’s floodplains will cost Rs.13.29 crore and take almost 10 years.

Delhi depends on the Yamuna river for more than 60 percent of its water-related needs. The river’s importance to the economic and ecological needs of the region cannot be overstated. But the vast amounts of chemicals, plastic, and other non-biodegradable garbage dumped in the river have severely disturbed its ecological balance. More than half of the estimated 3.6 billion tons of sewage produced daily in Delhi flow into the Yamuna untreated.

One reason for this is the absence of sewer networks in 85 per cent of the 1797 unauthorised colonies and slums in Delhi housing some 40 lakh people, some of them situated on the river floodplains, according to the monitoring committee overseeing the cleaning of the river. There is no regulated system in these unauthorised colonies for emptying the septic tanks and faecal sludge that contain very high levels of coliform and get deposited in drains and water bodies which ultimately pollute the river, the monitoring committee added. But with the countdown to elections having begun, the AAP-led Delhi Government has put on hold any decision regarding the fate of these colonies.

Delhi’s disappearing water bodies

It was not so long ago that there were more than 600 big or small lakes, reservoirs, ponds and barrages in and around Delhi. A majority of them have been encroached upon or deliberately filled with construction waste.

Lakes that have disappeared include the massive one that existed between Tughlaqabad and Adilabad fed by a stream running through it till 1825 and later. The lake formed by the barrage built by Muhammad bin Tughlaq had water till the early decades of the 20th century. The part that was the lake now houses the Saket District Court and the DMRC housing colony.

Not even a trace remains of the huge reservoir built by Feroze Tughlaq near his hunting lodge at Mahipalpur. The Surajkund lake, built according to tradition by Surajpal, is now dry. Jahangirpuri lake, the Talkatora lake and the hundreds of baolis scattered around the area that is now the megapolis of Delhi are all gone.

These and hundreds of other water bodies, lakes, ponds, stepwells and kunds provided potable water, helped irrigation, and were nesting sites for water birds, deer, chinkaras, blue bulls. They were a source of livelihood for fishermen and cultivators and were aquifers that fed the sub-soil water. They bulk of them were destroyed in the last few decades.

Saving the river

The prevailing ignorance of the importance of the Yamuna floodplains in Delhi and its blatant encroachment was perhaps one of the most dominant factors that led to the death of the river. This brought seven leading environmental organizations of Delhi—-the Toxics Link, LIFE (Lawyers Initiative for Forest and Environment), CMS (Centre for Media Studies), Paani Morcha, Ridge Bachao Andolan, Maatu Jan Sangathan and PEACE Institute Charitable Trust—-together to form the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan (YJA) on February 7, 2007, with Manoj Misra a retired Indian Forest Service officer as its convener.

Since then, the YJA, has been functioning as an advocacy group determined to revive the river, especially protecting its floodplains from encroachment in a land scarce capital, as its core objective. Its studies have shown that unrestricted construction of bridges and embankments has sliced the Yamuna floodplains into pieces and affected the flood dynamics of the river.

“Though the Delhi government’s Rejuvenation Project, 2015 has a well thought out drain restoration strategy, it is weak on details,” said Manoj Misra. “The question of how to get the flow back into the river remains unaddressed. So does the question of how to prevent industrial effluents from entering the drains and reaching the river. Zero discharge from the industrial areas is the biggest need. It is an emergency situation.”

YJA has pursued its objectives by conducting research, studies, litigation, holding awareness seminars and training workshops besides regular monitoring and voluminous data compilation. It has conducted several studies on the correlation between the deteriorating health of the river to the increasing incidence of water borne diseases in the capital.

It is also working closely with the monitoring committee set up by the NGT to oversee the Yamuna clean up work. The committee has launched a website, www.yamuna-revival.nic.in to receive complains and suggestions on cleaning up the polluted river. Besides having information on the action plan reports on different aspects of the river, the website will give the public a platform to register suggestions and give information about pollution at specific locations.

But all efforts of the YJA and the monitoring committee, will probably slow down as campaigning for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls picks up in Delhi. As it is, agencies tasked with clearing unauthorised settlements on the flood plains, for instance, are citing the model code of conduct for their inaction. And cleaning up the Yamuna is hardly a priority to the candidate’s for East Delhi’s Lok Sabha seat, which contains the bulk of the unauthorised colonies and whose residents constitute a formidable vote bank.

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