Reduced to being a receptacle of household and industrial wastes and victimised by lopsided development, the Yamuna, Delhi's lifeline, is crying out for attention

-- (Credit: Amit Shanker / CSE)THIS appeal of Delhi's department of environment was touching in its concern for the Yamuna - almost. Implying that the government is genuinely interested in cleaning up the river, and would succeed if only the indifferent industrial sector would mend its ways, it urged citizens and industrialists of the capital to install pollution control devices, use environment-friendly technologies and recycle water and waste. Of course, it was a classic example of the administration's hypocrisy.

Delhi discharges more than 2,000 million litres per day (mld) of waste water into the Yamuna. Of this, only 300 mld is contributed by the industrial sector. The bulk of the pollutants comes from untreated sewage, dumped into the river because the city administration lacks sufficient sewage treatment facilities. "The administration has facilities to treat only 1,270 mld," admits J C Kala, joint secretary, Union ministry of forests and environment (MEF).

Even the existing treatment facilities are underutilised. A report published by the Delhi pollution control committee (1993) revealed that a mere 31.8 mld of sewage is treated sufficiently for disposal into the river. The existing sewage plants are capital - and power-intensive. Sewage goes untreated into the river during machinery and power breakdowns; in other cases, badly situated sewage treatment plants (STPS) get flooded during the rains.

As a result, though Delhi covers only two per cent of the length and basin area of the river, it contributes 71 per cent of the waste water discharged into the river everyday! And since most of the Yamuna waters that flow into the city are used up to cater to Delhi's extravagant requirements, what remains of the river after Delhi has finished with it is undiluted sewage sewage. "Even an optimum flow of water is not maintained," points out Sureshwar Sinha, founding member of Pani Morcha, an organisation committed to improving the quantity and quality of Delhi's water supply.

The situation is worse during summer. The average annual flow in the Yamuna is estimated to be about 100 billion kilolitres, of which 80 per cent is during the three monsoon months. With very little water flowing through it through the other months, the assimilation capacity of the river is considerably reduced - the sewage is neither diluted nor dispersed. Unfortunately, with the exception of few NGos and individuals, this strangulation of the Yamuna goes unnoticed by citizens of Delhi. Caught napping on YAP
Asphyxiation of Yamuna begins the moment it enters Delhi at Wazirabad in the north. About 1,800 mId of untreated sewage finds its way through 18 notorious nullahs (drains) and ends up in the river at various points along its 22-km stretch through Delhi.

Industrial waste from Delhi's 20 large, 25 medium and about 93,000 smallscale industrial units also flows into the river through these drains. By the time it leaves south Delhi at 0khIa and for 490 km thereafter (until it is joined by the river Chambal), the Yamuna is a dead river. The water which the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) categorises as fit for drinking at Wazirabad is deemed unfit for even bathing at Okhla. The dissolved oxygen (DO) and biological oxygen demand (BOD) levels at Wazirabad and Okhla differ dramatically: while DO level at Wazirabad was 12.5 mg / 1 in 1987, it decreased to 4.5 mg / 1 at 0khIa. The BOD levels, meanwhile, were at a low of about four m g/ I at Wazirabad in the same year, and shot up to 70 mg / 1 in Okhla.

In 1991, Phase n of the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) was launched for cleaning up tributaries like Yamuna, Gomti and Damodar; Rs 340 crore was pledged for the Yamuna in 1993, 50 per cent of which was to be borne by state governments. The Yamuna Action Plan (YAP) covered six towns of Haryana (Yamuna Nagar, Karnal, Panipat, Sonepat, Gurgaon and Faridabad), 11 towns of Uttar Pradesh (Saharanpur, Muzaffar nagar, Ghaziabad, NOIDA, Mathura, Sultanpur, and Jaunpur) and Delhi. "YAP aims at intercepting, diverting and treating municipal waste water," says Kala.

Among other schemes, the project included the construction of community toilets, electric and improved wood-based crematoria, afforestation and development of the ghats within a period of five years. But two years later, much of this is yet to begin. Though 12 more STPs are needed to deal with the additional 1,000 mld of untreated sewage in Delhi, the YAP' s contribution will only be two STPS (at Sen Nursing Home and Delhi Gate drains), effectively taking care of only 20 mld of sewage. The rest are to be set up by the Delhi administration. But little has been done despite an outlay of Rs 282 crore for sewage disposal in the city's Eighth Five Year Plan.

A March 2, 1995 directive from the Supreme Court to the MEF - to sanction the STPS within one week - following a public interest petition filed by lawyer M C Mehta in 1985 and then again in 1994, may hurry things up. The STPS have been sanctioned, and Kala expects them to be ready in a year's time.

Another public interest petition was filed by Sinha in 1993 demanding a stay order on YAP until it was reviewed on the basis of successes and failures of the GAP. "Several reports on GAP have branded it a failure," says Sinha. "There is no reason to expect that the Yamuna plan, modelled on GAP, Would succeed. What is likely is that huge amounts of public funds and precious time are going to be wasted."

To support his allegations, Sinha quotes from several reports. A study conducted by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, Nagpur, in 1991, when a major part of GAP had been completed, showed no improvement in the amount of fecal coliform in Ganga waters. Another report by S K Mishra and S N Upadhyay from the Institute of Technology, Benares Hindu University, showed that the installation of sewage pumps near the bathing ghats in Varanasi had made little difference to the pollution levels. Under YAP, a similar plan to install sewage pumps near the ghats in Mathura awaits implementation.

Sinha complains that YAP accepts a low flow of water during lean season as normal. The Yamuna's low flow leaves no scope for the river to clean itself. "The minimum flow requirement for any river should be at least 285 cu in / sec," says CPCB's R C Trivedi. "But the flow in Delhi goes down to 5 cu m / sec during summer. Aquatic life, needing a minimum flow of 10 cu rn / sec, dies. So, even if we could somehow divert pollution from the river, it would not help unless the flow is maintained."

Strangely enough, reducing industrial waste is not on YAP's agenda. "Industrial pollution will be left to better implementation of pollution control laws," says Kala. But T Venugopal, CPCB'S pollution assessment department head, admits that preventing industrial pollution from entering the river is a difficult job. Besides, he adds, the overall impact of pollution reduction through these laws is never felt because new industries are always coming up.

Water: a capital crisis
"The water system of Delhi has been one of the major casualties of the last 40 years of the city's 'planned' development," says K T Ravindran from the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi. The Ridge in north Delhi, the hills in the west and the Tilpat range in the south once formed an excellent drainage system for Delhi. Till early this century, perennial streams from these slopes fed the Yamuna, filling up storage tanks along the way. Reservoirs like Dhaula Kuan and Hauz Khas were used to store water from monsoon rains.

Of the several streams which brought in water to the Yamuna from the north-west, one was called Shahibi Nadi (Regal River). Known as Najafgarh drain today, it carries sewage instead of water. The other streams have either met with a similar fate, or have been diverted and cut off by shortsighted development plans.

The Ring Road is One example of such development. it landlocked the Yamuna, causing swamps to form in areas like Sarai Kale Khan. The administration has dumped garbage to reclaim the swamp and developed a bus terminal on it. "Where do they suppose the water will go now?" asks Ravindran. Thanks to similar planning, while traditional water reservoirs like Hauz Khas cater to fashionable tourist requirements, the Yamuna must provide all the water this city needs. Delhi presently draws about 2,584 mId of water from the Yamuna, which allows for a respectable consumption of 257 litres per capita daily (Ipcd). In this respect, the capital is the most privileged city in the country (most cities around Delhi have a consumption lower than 125 Ipcd).

But this contradicts the water crisis that afflicts the city every summer. Wastage during supply and uneven distribution ensure that while parts of the city get more than their share, the crisis wors ,ens every year for the other half (Down To Earth, Vol 2, No 21)).

The reason behind the water problem is mismanagement. The only planning that has gone into solving the problem is the decision to continue to rely on the Yamuna after building 'three dams - Renuka, Kishau and Tehri. None of these dams, if ever completed, will provide water to Delhi before the next century. Until such time, Delhi must beg for water from Haryana and Uttar Pradesh (up) every year.

Several NGOs have spoken up for the revival of traditional water harvesting systems for improving Delhi's water supply. They have pointed out that while steps should be taken to ensure that Yamuna gets recharged during its course through Delhi, reservoirs should be built to store water. Since the streams which flow down from the hills surrounding Delhi are unpolluted before they reach the city, check dams could be built to trap as much water as possible wherever the gradient permits. But the administration is sceptical of such plans, claiming that the city's mammoth water requirements cannot be dealt with in this manner. Development designs
The Delhi Development Authority (DDA) has come up with a harebrained scheme to "plan the river Yamuna and its bed". The ostensible purpose of this scheme is to channel and clean the river, and also to reclaim and develop land along its banks. But, in fact, the DDA report on the project does not provide any specific clean-up proposal. Its main objective is to make more land available for development.

Understandably, the project has come up against stiff opposition from several quarters. "For the DDA, the city is a commodity and the land around the Yamuna real estate," says Ravindran. "After the new economic policy, cost recovery is a big bug with everybody." And the DDA can see megabucks in the canalisation project, which will make 8,055 ha of land available for development.

"The canalisation of the river bed will only open up opportunities for extensive corruption, will be damaging to the environment, create a serious flood risk and will accentuate the present urban problems of congestion and pollution," says architect Solly Benjamin. "As a land development institution, DDA has to depend upon the availability of land for survival as an autonomous institution. With no other land being available, the DDA, like other development agencies around India, has started eyeing water bodies," Benjamin adds.

In the absence of any specific law to protect water bodies, there is nothing to stop the DDA. Any land reclaimed from the river is bound to be flood prone, and development will interfere with the drainage patterns of the city and also affect the how of the river in Haryana and up. Though no study has been carried out so far, R G Gupta, DDA'S former director (planning) is quick to counter this argument. "The river has already been jacketed by the seven bridges and barrages-built across it in Delhi," he says. "The canalisation will help by increasing the velocity and depth of the river, and reducing the silting."

A number of mega projects are being planned in this area. The stretch between ITO and Ashram, particularly, is being targeted by the DDA, the railways, the Delhi Electric Supply Undertaking and the ministry of surface transport. The proposals include flyovers, a 5,000-capacity convention centre, hotels and inter-state bus terminals. "The area -around the river bed is already being used by unauthorised jhuggies (slums), so why should anybody object to doing it in a planned way?" says Gupta.

But Ravindran points out that the nature of the soil and hydrological conditions of reclaimed land make it necessary to build on pile foundations. To recover the high cost of pile foundations, it becomes imperative to construct high-rise buildings. This implies high rentals and sale value, denying access to a large number of people.

The total cost of the canalisation project is estimated to be about Rs 20 billion. Benjamin is sceptical of what the DDA terms 'public-private partnership'. "Such arrangements imply the lack of strong regulatory mechanisms, and the powerful real estate lobby will only accentuate under-the-table profits," he says. A revision of the master plan of Delhi is in progress, and Ravindran warns that unless moves are made to stop the canalisation, the master plan will legalise the scheme.

If the project comes through, it is likely to spell death not only for the Yamuna, but the entire capital. The National Capital Region plans, aimed at decongesting the city, are bound to be trashed. And the fate of the Yamuna as a sewer will be sealed forever.

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