The river Yamuna, which was Delhi’s lifeline during the ancient times, is gasping for breath. The mythologically pious river had always nourished the commerce of the city and delighted its emperors and commoners. The river which stretches over 1,370-km gets 3,684 million litres of sewage discharged through 18 drains between the Wazirabad barrage and Okhla barrage making the water poisonous. After various governments and state agencies spending over Rs 8,136 crore since over a long period of time, Yamuna’s 22-km stretch in Delhi, which is just around 2 per cent of river’s length, contributes over 70 per cent of its pollution. Successive Delhi governments have so far spent around Rs 5,500 crore to rejuvenate the river.
The task of cleaning and beautifying of Yamuna has got imminent place in agenda of the newly-formed Narendra Modi government. Union water resources minister Uma Bharti, union road transport, highways and shipping minister Nitin Gadkari and Delhi’s lieutenant governor Najeeb Jung have already set up committees to kick-start plans to make the river clean, navigable and a pride of the capital.
Mughal emperor Shah Jahan was so enthralled by the river’s beauty that he built the Red Fort along its banks. Today, however, Delhi dumps about 57 per cent of its waste into it. The Supreme Court called it not even a ‘maili Yamuna but a ganda naalah’. Modi, who has intentions to replicate the Sabarmati Riverfront Project on the Yamuna for which he had several meetings with Jung, is determined to succeed where others have failed.
Previous government officials such as Delhi Jal Board CEO, Delhi urban ministry’s secretaries, including former Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit had made around 50 trips to Austria, USA, UK, Malaysia, and Australia over the last 15 years to study the pattern of revival of various rivers. Former environment minister and activist Jairam Ramesh shot down the construction of Renuka Dam in Sirmaur, Himachal Pradesh, which was to replenish the Yamuna with fresh, clean water. The Delhi government has now allotted Rs 218 crore for the project and Modi-led government announced Rs 50 crore for revival of Renuka Dam in the general budget for the current fiscal.
The quality of Yamuna water has not improved as revealed by Centre Pollution Control Board while Delhi Jal Board claims that 68 per cent of the work of laying the interceptor sewer – large sewer lines that control flow of sewage to a treatment plant is already done. The project is divided into packages, out of which two will be completed by the end of 2014 and the rest by 2015. DJB also claims that of 2,574 urban and rural villages, unauthorised colonies and other unsewered colonies, sewerage was provided in 842.
On Modi’s direction, Jung had sent a three-member team to Ahmedabad to study the revival of Sabarmati and its river front project. He has formed a panel of the civic and water agencies.
Jung has instituted an advisory group of experts. It will guide Delhi government on issues related to water management and developing the Yamuna.
Almost 22 drains open into the Yamuna of which 18 major drains fall directly into the river.
Sewages from 1,640 unauthorised colonies flows into the Yamuna. Human waste from most of East Delhi’s unplanned colonies flows into the river, around 40 per cent of the river bank in Delhi has been encroached by land mafias.
There is a multiplicity of agencies in implementing Yamuna action plan.
DDA was reluctant to provide land for various projects carried out by city administration and Delhi Jal Board related to making sewage treatment plants. It showed lack of planning and will to coordinate with ministries and city agencies like MCD, NDMC, and DDA.
A recent study conducted by the Energy Resources Institute warns that vegetables grown along the banks of Yamuna are full of heavy metals. Ammonia gas released into the air causes breathing problems and permanent lung damage, while hydrogen sulphide, which smells like rotten eggs, causes bronchitis, asthma, and headaches. All life forms have nearly been obliterated, except ironically toxic bacteria. Arsenic levels increased 20 times in the last 20 years, causing cancer and skin problems. This has also polluted the groundwater. Mercury poisoning is the latest threat emanating from the Yamuna; doctors say that mercury poisoning is one of the causes of stillbirths, kidney failure, cancer and low immune responses. Along with the river, Delhi is also being poisoned. High incidence of respiratory diseases and skin cancers are directly attributed to Yamuna pollution. The Delhi Metro is a recent victim; officials claim that toxic gases that destroy the coating on the condenser joints damage the air conditioning system of trains that cross the river daily. Meanwhile, residents of big colonies, slums and rural Delhi also discharge untreated effluents. DJB blames 143 unauthorised colonies, 1,080 slums and villages – 45 per cent of Delhi has no sewers.
According to an official environmental report, the main causes of pollution are also situation and collapsing of sewerage system, unauthorised human settlement, encroachment near Yamuna river bank, cattle-wading and dairy waste, open defecation, over exploitation of fresh water from the river and other non-points sources such as slaughter houses and laundries.
Court and CAG fury
In 1998, the court observed that government did no major work on improving the river and appointed a high powered committee on Yamuna cleaning. Around Rs 3,000 crore was used by various agencies to construct treatment plants for domestic and industrial waste. CAG found that fifteen of the 32 STP’s are working below capacity and can collect only 367 million gallons per day. Only 21 treatment plants are operational, but can only treat up to 40 per cent of sewage. CAG noted that four of the 15 common effluent treatment plants, which were to be completed in 1998, remained unattended till 2013. Of the 11 operational, many are partially blocked. The report attributed various project cost escalation to official delays.
STPs built under YAP-1 were designed keeping the 1997 population in mind, when Delhi’s population grew by 47 per cent per decade. Government sources noted that a majority of the plan funds was
spent on salaries instead of cleaning the river.
Former chief secretary of Delhi, Rakesh Mehta, admits, ‘There were intense disputes between all the municipal corporations, DDA, DJB, DSIDC, and city administration on managing common effluent treatment plants for three years.’ Despite two failed projects, the UPA launched the YAP- III in 2013 with Rs 1,656 crore and Japanese assistance to construct state-of-art STPs at Okhla. DJB envisaged laying interceptors along the three drains to trap sewage from 119 sub-drains that open directly into Yamuna at a cost of Rs 2,454 crore: now projected to rise to Rs 6,000 crore. However, environmentalists question the Delhi government’s intentions. ‘What makes the government think that the third plan will work when the previous two have failed? After all these years and spending so much money, Delhi has the capacity to treat only half of 719 million gallon per day sewage that it produces,’ says Manoj Mishra of NGO Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan.