The trials of being an urban farmer in Delhi’s Yamuna floodplains

Agriculture around the Yamuna is strictly prohibited due to river pollution concerns, but where does that leave the farmers?

The river Yamuna enters Delhi from a village called Palla and travels for about 48 km. There is a part of the river, approximately 22 km long, between Wazirabad and Okhla, which is severely polluted, but for the remaining 26 km of its course, the river is still fairly clean. The surroundings serve as a habitat for a large number of trees, flowers, farms, birds, and people who have been living here for as long as they can remember. They are the urban farmers of Delhi-NCR, and they provide grains and vegetables for people living in the city.

Although farming has been practised in regions in and around Delhi for years, it mostly takes place in some villages that have now become part of the city. Often referred to as “urban villages”, these places, like Chilla Khadar, Nangli Khadar and Palla Village, are home to some of the most productive urban farms in Delhi. Farmers here grow crops like wheat and rice throughout the year, especially in areas near the Yamuna River, where the land is much more fertile. 

Read more: How urban and peri-urban farming can play a small role in reducing carbon footprint

Take the example of 72-year-old Karunesh. He and his family have owned land in Bela Estate (an area near Akshardham) since 1947, and been through many ups and downs. They have survived the devastation caused by the 1964 floods that wiped out their crops and floods in subsequent years. But now, another existential crisis threatens their lives and livelihoods.

Karunesh has dedicated five decades of his life to the cultivation of his land. He talks about days spent entirely on the farm, working tirelessly till sunset and sometimes even sleeping amidst the crops. However, those days are now a distant memory. 

Today, he visits his farm once around 9 am and returns home by noon. “I don’t enjoy being there anymore because my friends are no longer farming. The DDA destroyed their land, and now they’ve lost interest in farming altogether,” he says, clearly dejected. However, he himself remains resilient, ready to defend his land and way of life against any adversity.

“Our ancestors owned the entire area behind Akshardham,” he says, “We even won a legal case related to it, yet the DDA is trying to throw us out, but we’re prepared to fight them.”

DDA vs farmers

The Draft Delhi Master Plan 2041, launched in June 2021, includes provisions for urban farming, but disregards the existing agricultural practices thriving in various parts of the Yamuna floodplains. Despite proposing the establishment of a ‘Green Belt’ where agricultural and afforestation activities are sanctioned, it refuses to recognise the numerous farming sites along the Yamuna floodplains where cultivation is already underway.

Many of the urban villages mentioned above (where farms have come up over the years) are situated in Zone O, one of 15 zones marked by the DDA. The draft plan 2041 delineates Zone O into two distinct sections: Zone O-I and Zone O-II, both situated within the floodplain. While Zone O-I, also known as the ‘river zone,’ prohibits any kind of construction activity, Zone O-II allows for regulated development. 

Agricultural activities are also prohibited in these zones according to the plan. Consequently, farmers in these regions face a precarious situation, staring at possible eviction at any moment. This has already led many to move away from the villages.

For many however, the emotional attachment is too strong for them to abandon the place altogether, even when the daunting spectre of eviction and destruction looms large. Dinesh Kumar Patel is one such. Dinesh’s family were tenant farmers who cultivated crops on leased farmland in the Yamuna floodplains. 

In the Delhi-NCR region, a significant portion of farmers are in a similar situation, lacking ownership of the land they cultivate. These tenant farmers come from various states, such as Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Bihar, continuing the agricultural practices they learnt and practised in their villages. Many of these migrant farmers have established makeshift homes, known as “kachha” houses or jhopdis, near the farmland they cultivate. The families live in these humble abodes, close to the soil they till and the crops they nurture. Additionally, some farmers also raise livestock as part of their livelihood.

28-year-old Dinesh remembers his childhood in Chilla Khadar very well. “This area has always been in danger,” he says, pointing towards the fields where his family has been farming for many years. Because villages like Chilla Khadar are not officially approved by the authorities, the DDA often comes to check and act against alleged encroachment. This leads to damage to their crops. There are arguments and conflict between the authorities and residents, leading to rise in tension in the area. 

Even in January, when the DDA came, people were very worried because they put up notices everywhere and harmed their crops.”The fear of being forced out by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) worries us a lot. It disrupts our lives and puts our crops at risk,” says Dinesh. He also recalls the damage caused by floods last year in the area, making their situation worse. 

Dinesh’s family had always lived near the fields, but a few years ago, when the DDA started pressuring them, they shifted to Mayur Vihar Phase-1. “My father said it’s better to live somewhere else than to incur such losses. Now, he has leased our land to someone else. However, I still make it a point to visit the place at least once every day.”

Copy of notice served by DDA to farmers in the floodplains.
Eviction notice served on farmers . Pic: Apoorva Singh

Hemant, 27, has also spent his entire childhood in Bela Estate near Mayur Vihar. Although living here isn’t a necessity, nostalgia and emotional bonds stop him from moving away. “My childhood was spent here. The city suffocates me,” he says, “It feels good to be here amidst nature. Until a few years ago, I used to spend my entire day here while milking the cows, tending to the fields, and then sleeping peacefully under a tree.”

Hemant, who owns his fields, says that this area was leased for 99 years and taxes had been paid for many years. A few years ago, however, the Patwari collected money from many people which did not reach the government. Even though the cases are in court now, the residents don’t have any documents to stake claim to the land. Their Aadhaar cards declare them as natives of some other place. 

Since the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) started checking the area frequently, about a year ago, and also damaging the fields in the process, people have started leaving.

Informal settlements near the farmlands
Many migrant farmers have been living, for generations, in makeshift homes or jhopdis, near the farmland they cultivate. Pic: Apoorva Singh

Impact on agriculture and production

In the diverse agricultural landscape of Delhi, farming activities have traditionally extended across regions such as Chilla Khadar, Nangli Khadar, Badarpur Khadar, Madanpur Khadar, Najafgarh and Bela Estate. According to the Delhi Financial Survey of 2018-19, major crops cultivated in Delhi include rice, sorghum, millet, kharif wheat and mustard. Vegetable cultivation occurs all year round, alongside the presence of flower nurseries in areas like Nangli Khadar and Chilla Khadar.

Across Delhi-NCR, various traditional farming methods coexist, ranging from farm-house and polyhouse farming to mushroom cultivation, even extending to urban settings such as terraces, rooftops and balconies. 

Beyond traditional home-based practices, numerous commercial ventures are also thriving. For instance, a startup named Edible Routes leases small portions of their farms, allowing individuals to grow vegetables in leased areas, providing them with the produce grown. Additionally, they facilitate the creation of kitchen gardens in households.

Regardless of social class, individuals are actively engaged in cultivating food, whether on large farms or in small household pots and containers. This collective effort reflects the shared demand for, and commitment towards, nutritious and locally sourced produce.

According to the Economic Survey of Delhi 2021-22, however, agricultural activity is continuously declining in Delhi due to rapid urbanisation and growth in other economic activities. The number of rural villages are also on the decline and their strength came down from 214 in 1981 to 112 in the 2011 Census. 

The percentage distribution of Gross State Value Added (GSVA) of Delhi at 2011-12 prices showed a declining trend of agriculture and the allied sector. More clearly, the percentage contribution of the agricultural sector to GSVA of Delhi at current prices has reduced from 0.94% in 2011-12 to 0.31% in 2022-23.

The ban on agricultural activity in the floodplains and the continual disruptions caused by the DDA have also contributed to this. The once-thriving nursery trade here has suffered too, with farmers avoiding investing in crops that could be destroyed any moment by authorities. Anita, another resident farmer here, recalls how she used to earn up to ₹30,000 to ₹40,000 a month, but now struggles to make ends meet.

Anita's nursery in the floodplains
Nursery belonging to Anita. Pic: Apoorva Singh

Why is the state opposed to farming here?

The exclusion of certain areas in the Yamuna floodplains from the draft Delhi Master Plan 2041’s green belt and curbs on urban farming stem from several factors. Notably, bodies like the NGT have issued directives against farming due to water pollution concerns, redirecting vision towards other forms of land use. Unfortunately, this shift sidelines the interests and livelihoods of the farmers who have been practising agriculture in these regions.

According to Paras Tyagi, co-founder of the Centre for Youth Culture Law and Environment (CYCLE), the ongoing conflict of land ownership between farmers and authorities is not a straightforward clash between what is right and what is wrong. It is more the outcome of a complex web of historical legacies, urban development pressures and governance failures. 

In many cases, farmers in urban areas such as these do not own the land; instead, they hold land on lease or acquire the farm through ancestral arrangements. The policy and processes of the state around encroachment and eviction lack transparency and accountability. Pollution and city planning concerns are used to justify actions that disproportionately affect farmers. Corruption and fraudulent practices further exacerbate the situation, which unfortunately remains largely obscured from public view, says Paras.

Read more: Unplanned growth, flawed notification endanger Delhi wetlands

In these floodplains of Delhi, for example, there has always been a common belief that farming is polluting the Yamuna River, leading to arguments against the continuation of agricultural practices here. Several reports also corroborate that farming practices around the Yamuna River are contributing to its pollution.

In 2015, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) thus imposed a ban on any form of farming in the Yamuna floodplains. They cited water pollution in the Yamuna as the reason. The NGT warned that vegetables grown in the surrounding fields could potentially become toxic. The Delhi Development Authority (DDA) thus acquired the land with the intention of developing it as a biodiversity zone.

In February 2019, an NGT committee instructed the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) to conduct separate studies on Yamuna floodplain farming. NEERI’s report, submitted in July, found high levels of lead in vegetables and corresponding soil samples from the floodplains, exceeding the FSSAI recommended safety level of 2.5mg/kg. In August of the same year, the CPCB report revealed that excessive use of fertilisers and pesticides in farming on the floodplains was leading to pollution of Yamuna’s water and floodplains.

However, the committee recommended that farming may be allowed in the floodplains with regular checks on the metal and pesticide levels in the produce. 

Farmers living near the Yamuna deny these findings of toxicity. A group of farmers, who have been farming since 1974, argues, “Wouldn’t we have fallen sick if these vegetables were toxic? We eat what we grow.” 

Hemant pointed out that their farms were situated relatively far from the river, and they don’t utilise river water for cultivation. He said , “In Delhi, most farms are at least 1-2 kilometres away from the river. How would we access river water?” He says that they mostly use groundwater for farming and use manure as fertiliser.

Responding to concerns about pesticide and fertiliser use, Hemant just cites what his grandfather believed: agricultural chemicals weren’t the primary cause of river pollution; instead, it was the waste generated by urban dwellers and industries. 

He, therefore, sees the NGT ban as a reflection of broader socio-economic bias, suggesting that it allows the affluent to shift blame for pollution onto the less privileged. The pollution from cars and urban waste directly flowing into the river is what dirties it, but it’s farming practices that are blamed.

Nevertheless, Hemant agrees in principle with the need to switch to organic farming, or other methods that don’t use chemicals in the floodplains. But he wants the government to help and make it easier for farmers to adopt such methods. 

Abhishek Dhama, farmer and resident of Palla village, endorses Hemant’s demand. “Farmers in Delhi receive no assistance from the government. For organic certification, we have to go to centres in Uttar Pradesh. In Haryana, if you practise organic farming, the government sends someone to inspect. They themselves provide information about subsidies and visit certification farms. But such a process does not exist in Delhi,” he says.

Read more: Climate impact on agriculture: Urban farmer in Delhi shares his experience

Ground realities

Late Manoj Mishra, environmentalist and convenor of the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan, had offered a different perspective in an interview. “There are various types of farming practised around rivers,” he had pointed out, “For instance, growing watermelons or muskmelons is permissible as long as synthetic chemical fertilisers are not used. However, once farmers start using chemicals, problems arise. But to say that farming is solely responsible for the condition of the Yamuna is entirely incorrect.” 

Manoj had pointed out that the NGT too, in its judgement dated January 13 2015, had permitted farming in the surrounding areas as long as consumable items were grown. Also importantly, the NGT never instructed eviction of farmers, but rather advised against the prevalent farming practices.

“If we don’t produce vegetables, how will the residents of Delhi have local vegetables on their plates? What will even the politicians eat?” asks Hemant, “The government needs to consider this and take steps … they can’t just throw us out and stop all farming. We have no subsidy, no schemes around agriculture. How are they gonna survive without farmers?”

As it happens, in March 2022, the Delhi government announced the launch of a campaign to promote urban farming and encourage people to grow vegetables and fruits in their houses. But experts and observers say there has been no news about it since then. According to Paras, it was merely a promotional announcement; he has not come across anybody who has availed opportunities that the Delhi government had given press statements about.

Note: The author is one of six selected Fellows for the Citizen Matters – Urban Environmental Reporting Fellowship 2023 focusing on the Delhi-NCR region. This piece was produced as part of her work under the Fellowship.

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