Cry me a river

The latest in the official concern for the state of the Yamuna in Delhi

Trina Joshi Delhi

Delhi draws 53 per cent of its daily water supply from the murky waters of the Yamuna. It receives about 1,800 million litres of untreated domestic waste and 300 million litres of industrial waste. One lakh people reside in slums on its banks in the city.

The first major intervention did not work. The Yamuna Action Plan (YAP) I and II launched by the centre in tandem with the governments of Delhi, Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Haryana, since its creation in 1993 has reportedly not satisfied the Comptroller and Auditor General. The YAP is a Rs 872 crore waste.

The Delhi Development Authority’s (DDA) Master Plan for Delhi 2021 calls for "a strategy for the conservation/ development of the Yamuna River Bed area in a systematic manner". The Delhi high court has also empowered the DDA to commercially develop a 25km-stretch along the river bank. "More than 85 per cent of the entire stretch will be developed as a recreational zone. The rest 15 per cent is the commercial zone," informs CM Parathe, Director, River Yamuna Project, DDA. The authority has come up with a 6 lakh housing scheme to relocate the slum population.

The Akshardham ruling permits acquisition and commercial development on the river banks and beautification of Delhi that plays host to the 2010 Commonwealth games. In this background, Sandeep Dixit, member of parliament from east Delhi, is attempting to dovetail existing scattered efforts in a grand plan proposed by the Housing and Urban Development Corporation Ltd (HUDCO).

The corporation proposes a three-pronged programme to use up six to seven km of land that is vacant and 10 to 12km length of the meandering river. In the first part it proposes bunging on the Wazirabad barrage and creating a 200 to 220sq km water reservoir. By storing the water that flows down into Yamuna during the monsoon, the proposal attempts to target the shortage of drinking water in Delhi. Further, due to certain outflows that are required for flood control, a link canal to Hindon (Ghaziabad, UP) is proposed, which it is claimed, will benefit Sonipat, Panipat, Ghaziabad, Sahibabad and Delhi.

Canalisation of the river is seen as the best option. An embanked river, it is believed, will contain the spread of water, besides "this bunching would mean greater depth of water," according to Dixit.

The third part highlights a phased development. This arrangement would offer enough room for recreational activities, parks, walkways, cycling tracks or amphitheatres.

This Rs 30,000 crore plan, which is still in a nascent state, proposes to cover the land from ISBT bridge till Noida. There is about 700 acres of land that would be released through this process. HUDCO has proposed commercial development on the six to seven acres of this released land. In the plan, this commercial place would help in recovering the cost and would also pay back for the large parts of the development of the reservoir.

"The consciousness to clean the river would rise once the commercial activities like shops, small eateries, water rides, and tourist complex are offered," believes Dixit.

The proposal awaits the nod from the prime minister. It would be fine-tuned after the feedback from the Centre for Science and Environment and the ministry of urban development.

Environmentalists remain sceptical. "All these announcements are basically real estate concerns. It is a 'use river front' campaign and not 'save water'. Yamuna is completely absent here," rues Vimalendu Jha of "We for Yamuna". Embanking the river will tamper with the natural flow of the river. Embankments have proved disastrous for people because while they prevent water from spilling out of the embankment area, they also prevent water from joining the river, thereby creating potentially permanent flood conditions. Such constructions favour the contractors, not the people, argue environmentalists.  The plan does not view the Yamuna as part of a hydrological system. 

"We for Yamuna" believes that human beings should respect the flow of river and not interfere unduly with it.  "YAP failed due to bad planning on part of the government," states Jha. The state, he believes, is ultimately responsible for the state of the river. Delhi's residents have to understand the significance of their river. Industrial houses have to be responsible and install Common Effluent Treatment Plants.

There are ways and ways of beautifying the Yamuna.