Millennium Post

Lost Yamuna Floodplains: Yearning & Survival

Victim to the whims of lopsided commercial prosperity, the farmers of Delhi's Yamuna floodplains have been isolated, bereft of livelihood, homes and ultimately, happiness – as usual, authorities are yet to bat an eyelid, explores Sayantan Ghosh.

A broken narrow lane from the Delhi-Noida expressway near Mayur Vihar connects shabbily to Reshma Singh's residence. Standing under the scorching 45-degree celsius sun, Singh supervises her one-acre land every day. Rubbing off the sweat from her face with the yellow pallu of her casually worn over-stitched saree, Singh sighs saying, "Saab kuch khatam ho gaya hai."

Few kilometres away from the Akshardham Temple of New Delhi, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi often brings high profile delegates, rest the Yamuna floodplains, adjacent to the River Yamuna. Though not always submerged in water, it is prone to flooding. According to reports, the area surrounding the Yamuna in Delhi is likely to be submerged at least once in a 25-year period. The floodplains are not separate from the river. They are an integral part of any river-system and an ecologically sensitive area.

Goodbye Floodplains

Sri Sri Ravishankar's Art of Living Foundation (AOL), in March 2016, held the "biggest ever festival of music and dance" here with around 3.5 million people. A huge seven-acre stage (about 1,200 feet long, 200 feet wide and 40 feet high), apparently the world's largest ever, was erected. Several tents were set up, pontoon bridges were built, dirt tracks were laid out and heavy equipment was deployed. Vegetation was cut to make way for the temporary constructions. The entire area was flattened.

Thereafter, the place which was home to more than thousand farmers, died a sudden death. Most of the farmlands were destroyed and, today, a numbered 40 to 50 families reside here.

NGT Verdict

The NGT-appointed expert committee had noted that the rehabilitation of the floodplains would cost over Rs 42.02 crore and may take up to 10 years. The tribunal said that AOL was responsible for "restoration and restitution of the floodplain limited to the portion that was allotted" to it for the festival "in the original condition in which it was allotted to it prior to the event".

"We hold and declare that Respondent No 3 (AOL) is responsible for causing damage and environmental degradation of the floodplain of River Yamuna limited to the area that was awarded to it by Delhi Development Authority (DDA) and the state of Uttar Pradesh, in terms of the report of the High Powered Committee," the order read.

The NGT allowed the program by levying Rs five crore as environment compensation and ordered AOL to restore the place – but that did not happen.

Environmental Impact

Environmentalists noted that the event caused permanent and irreparable damage to the river ecosystem in the affected area. One of the important functions of the floodplains is groundwater recharge. In the process of flattening, the surface has been hardened and this has severely impacted its groundwater recharge capability. The work at the site also changed the natural gradient of the floodplains, which can diminish its flood-carrying capacity. Small water bodies and wetlands have been filled up.

The Aftermath

After the program, it took nearly six months to clean the place. The families of these farmers toiled in the sun to clean the land and set up their broken houses.

"It took a long time for us to start farming again. The roads were broken, the lands were bulldozed and rubbish was scattered everywhere," said Rajpal Sharma, a farmer. He also said that, after the program, many farmers left the place and found other jobs. "But some of us had nothing to do and we wanted to continue our work," he said.

The families started the work again from November 2016. But they found that the production had dropped by nearly 90 per cent. "The water is extremely polluted and there is also no groundwater at all, all this is deeply impacting our production," said Reshma Singh.

In an article explaining the problem of the Yamuna floodplains, Sunita Narain, Director of Centre for Science and Environment noted, "Over the years, a number of planned and unplanned developments have been undertaken in this zone, including massive residential areas with hundreds of thousands of inhabitants. It has, therefore, been agreed in principle that the zone should be planned and an acceptable land-use plan put in place. But this process is not complete and given the disagreements over what needs to be done on floodplains, it will probably remain in a grey area. This suits many people. It allows for illegal takeover by land mafia till nothing is left."

Production Backfires

NGT, in 2015, had prohibited the cultivation of edible crop on the floodplains of the Yamuna in New Delhi, emphasising that the vegetables grown there were "highly contaminated" and their consumption could lead to lethal diseases. A bench headed by NGT chairperson Justice Swatanter Kumar, in a judgment, said that the vegetables and crops grown on the floodplains were highly contaminated and their consumption might lead to serious ailments like cancer.

"It is an established fact that presently, the vegetables and fodder grown and the allied projects at the floodplains of River Yamuna are highly contaminated. Besides containing ingredients of high pollutants, such produce has even been found to contain metallic pollutants...Therefore, we direct that no authority shall permit and no person shall carry out, any edible crops/fodder cultivation on the floodplains. This direction shall strictly be adhered to till the Yamuna is made pollution free and is restored to its natural wholesomeness," the Bench said.

The Tribunal, however, has allowed restricted activities of floriculture and silviculture subject to specific permissions and restrictions. A 2012 study carried out by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), had indicated the presence of heavy metals in the vegetables that were grown with water from the Yamuna.

Survival of the Fittest

"They destroyed the vegetables which were ready to be harvested for building access roads to the event venue. Per bigha, the produce would have fetched me at least Rs 50,000. But, I have been paid just Rs 10,000. Nobody discussed or spoke to us. They threatened us with police action when we tried to protest," said Jyoti Yadav, a farmer.

Remembering the old days of AOL's event, Yadav said, "I stood in front of the JCB machine, I told them to stop but my land was bulldozed. This is not justice. On one side you talk about spreading happiness and peace but you forget about that in our lives and snatch away our livelihood,"

The families mostly work on nurseries now. They grow various flowers and sell it to the nearby mandis. Some of the families, however, continued the farming of vegetables but they understand that the quality of the products is largely of a poor standard.

Authorities & Disputes

The activists fighting for the rights of these residents have observed that it is not only that the AOL has damaged the farmlands but there are also authorities who are equally responsible.

"After repeated requests, the DMRC has continued their metro construction work which has deeply affected the land. We have filed various petitions and asked for compensations but nothing transpired. In the same way, the Central government has taken the lands for the expansion of the highways without giving any compensation," said an activist.

The activists also noted that DDA has an important part to play in damaging these lands. "The AOL also took permission from the DDA before the program and received it. The DDA now does not allow many farmers to work claiming that it is their area and no farming is allowed. We have fought against the DDA but there is no clarification regarding why they are not allowing farmers to work on various parts of the floodplain," said the activist.

Dead-End

Two years have passed since AOL's program but the situation of the farmland has only worsened. The farmers cannot mitigate a solution as no authority in the Capital has been empathetic to their plight. "Every day there is a new problem and people ask us to give up our land. Nobody tells us to stay and survive. I don't think they want us to live," said Reshma Singh.

With the sun setting behind the Akshardham Temple, Reshma finishes her prayer and lights the lamp beneath a tree. She chants some mantras urging her God to save the land. But, this urge has not yet been fulfilled for the farmers of the Yamuna floodplains. There has been no initiative by the authorities of the Capital to stand by them and there are no special schemes focusing on the survival of this massive land, once a beacon of fertility. Each day, for these urban farmers, is a step towards a dead-end – or, perhaps, a tragic revisal of the same doom, day-in and day-out.

Sayantan Ghosh

Sayantan Ghosh

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