Millennium Post

Taming the filthy Yamuna

In the early sixties, accompanied by school friends, during summer holidays we would pedal our way to watch steam locomotives chugging along on the old bridge, or Bridge No. 249, constructed in 1866 by the East India Company.  While gazing at this vintage steel bridge, an engineering marvel, our eyes would turn to admire the grandeur of the Yamuna flowing below – clear, calm and serene down the horizon. Not anymore.

The river has been reduced to a sewage-carrying ‘drain’ as nearly 46 percent of the National Capital Region (NCR) is not connected to sewerage networks. Sewage from these areas flows into storm water drains that empty directly into the river, according to the National Green Tribunal (NGT). The filthy Yamuna remains stagnant; ingesting more garbage.

Plans for development and beautification of the riverfront have also hit a road block. It seems likely that the Capital’s Yamuna riverfront development project may be scrapped following a recent NGT report that the project threatens the river’s ‘already endangered health’. The second master plan of the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) had, in 1999, proposed channelisation to beautify the riverfront and develop recreational facilities on the river – raising concrete beds and walls along the embankments similar to the Thames in London and the Seine in Paris. The DDA had planned to develop a financial district, convention centres, stadia and theme parks on the river bed. The plan envisages a biodiversity park on the west bank of Wazirabad barrage in 63.6 hectare, sur ghat for devotees immediately south of the west bank, Golden Jubilee Park (154 hectares) near the Old Railway Bridge opposite the Red Fort.  

While everyone wants embellishment of the riverfront, Alexander Follmann, a researcher pursuing a doctorate at the University of Cologne, staunchly opposes channelisation (concrete bed) and beautification for the sake of boat sailing, butterfly parks, gardens, etc. The river is definitely the dominant force, not landscape architects or planners. The riverbed/floodplain should be untouched. ‘The river (and its tributaries) should be restored to its natural character, as far as possible. Walkways and cycle tracks are fine as long as the built structures are reduced to a minimum. Fencing of the river is definitely not advisable.’

He says a monsoonal river like the Yamuna is much too often compared with rivers in the west like the Seine or the Thames. The nature of these rivers as well as the cities by these rivers is completely different from those in India. Sabarmati-like channelisation in Ahmedabad would be the worst that could happen to the Yamuna in Delhi, Follmann says. Already, the riverbeds and floodplains have been repeatedly exploited, assaulted and encroached upon, massively by government and private bodies – with the setting up of the CWG games village, the Akshardham Temple, Delhi Transport Corporation bus depot across 61 acres, Delhi Metro Railway Corporation’s station and its residential complex, and the Delhi Secretariat. But ironically, the NGT’s three-member committee now recommends treating them as ‘a special zone with a separate regulatory regime’. Incredibly, the same crime carries different judgements.

Offering a solution to clean up the Yamuna, an environmental engineer advocates creation of a barrier between the city and the river. This could be done either through a parallel covered canal to carry all the city’s wastewater to nearly five km downstream for treatment and/or disposal, or by constructing a bandha’ (a kind of retaining wall or dam extending from a few metres below the river bed to the river’s flood level) on either side or both sides of the river, says the engineer, D S Bhargava, a former professor at IIT, Roorkee. On the city side(s) of such bandhas, a trunk-sewer/canal could carry all the city wastewaters to the city’s downstream for treatment before it gets disposed into the river, he suggests. But it appears that cleaning the river has taken a back seat to plans for beautification. 

Experts say the Yamuna Riverfront Development Scheme is untenable and has the potential to destroy fragile floodplains as Delhi seems vulnerable to flooding – the grim reminders are the occurrences in 1924, 1947, 1955, 1956 and 1978.  Has any government devised preventive measures? Natural disasters are bound to happen and cannot become the reasons for arresting development.

It is really eccentric that governments allow encroachments and then, following public hue and cry, the same governments set up tribunals and committees to ban further constructions and find solutions to the problems created. On the other side, quietly, the sand mafia rummages the riverbeds mining sand to amass wealth. Across the border in UP, along the Yamuna expressway, the builders’ mafia continues to build homes and mansions for the well-to-do – on the extended riverbed, within a mile from the river.

Billions of rupees have flown down the drain. Planners, experts, engineers, academics, NGOs, theoreticians and others meet in closed rooms and hold protests and prolonged debates but to no avail. Successive governments’ ambition to make the riverfront a ‘new frontier for urban development’ notwithstanding, the reality is that it remains a ‘neglected backyard of the city’. Governments and unscrupulous mafia make hay while the river perishes. Ironically, city dwellers keep polluting the ‘holy river’ and crave for recreational facilities on its banks. What a strange paradox and paradigm!

The author is an independent journalist
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