For Delhi’s sake, let’s leave Yamuna floodplain alone | columns | Hindustan Times
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For Delhi’s sake, let’s leave Yamuna floodplain alone

There is a generation of Delhi residents who has never seen Yamuna flow like a river and they treat it like any other nullah in the city.

columns Updated: May 01, 2017 11:07 IST
Shivani Singh
The bank of the polluted Yamuna River, on the outskirts of New Delhi.
The bank of the polluted Yamuna River, on the outskirts of New Delhi.(AFP Photo)

Last week, an expert committee set up by the National Green Tribunal to assess the damage done to the Yamuna floodplain by the World Culture Festival last year estimated that it would take at least 10 years and Rs 42 crore to rehabilitate 420 acres of wetlands.

The next day, Delhi’s water minister Kapil Mishra, who holds the job of cleaning the Yamuna, wondered if it was indeed the three-day event that caused all the damage to the river.

“Before the World Culture Festival, there were dolphins swimming in river Yamuna. Thousands of birds were chirping around. Tourists from all over the world used to come solely to see the banks of river Yamuna. It is then that Sri Sri came and added many polluting drains to river Yamuna. He drove away all the dolphins and birds. He also prohibited people from coming to the river.” Mishra signed off this Facebook post by extending another invitation to the organisers to hold more such events.

The minister was right.

The Yamuna doesn’t have dolphins. In fact, it has been decades since it has had any aquatic life. It does not feature in any tourist itinerary. The newcomers to the national capital are often shocked when told that the drain they see is the ancient river. If they can, the authorities should prohibit people from approaching the river. The sewage water, the nauseous stench and gases emanating from the Yamuna are a health hazard.

The misfortune of the Yamuna is that no one has treated it like a river for a long time now. There is a generation of Delhi residents who has never seen it flow like a river and they treat it like any other nullah in the city. The sarkari agencies are no different in their approach.

The Delhi Jal Board, the nodal agency to clean the Yamuna, is in charge of maintaining sewerage in Delhi and sees the river as an oversized toxic sewer.

Foam-coated surface of river Yamuna, the longest and second largest tributary of holy Ganges. (HT Photo)

The Delhi Development Authority, the land owning agency, looks at the riverbed as locked-up real estate. Mishra, who is also Delhi’s tourism minister, is happy that the riverbank doubles up as a festival venue and accommodates a large assembly of faith leaders, artists and politicians.

The problem is that most of us want to put the Yamuna riverbed to some use. But this seemingly ‘useless’ floodplain is the only part of the Yamuna river system which is still alive. It is the biggest freshwater reserve the city will ever have. Its vast sand aquifer — two-km wide and nearly 40-metre deep — run along the 48-km stretch through Delhi.

The floodplain is the lung of the river. It is a living organ that collects and releases water seasonally. Even temporary constructions or crowds stomping around can destroy the grass, shrubs and trees, compromising the biological and physical capacities of an ecosystem essential to keep rivers alive and our cities livable.

Fortunately, even after all those encroachments in the form of unauthorised colonies, Metro yards, train stations, bus depot, a temple, residential complexes and power plants, much of Delhi’s floodplain is left unclaimed.

Not many urban centers in the world have such vast expanses along their rivers. But our obsession with the western model of transforming floodplains into swanky riverfronts makes the future uncertain.

Choking a river seldom goes unpunished. Just four years ago, waters of Vltava were threatening to knock down Charles Bridge in Prague. Parts of Budapest, Vienna, Dresden, Passau, and Bratislava were destroyed by the 2013 floods because they are built right on the rivers they flank.

Last year, the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay were shut down temporarily, and their artwork moved to the higher floors after the Seine flooded Paris.

At home, our rivers sought revenge in Mumbai in 2005, in Uttarakhand in 2013 and Chennai in 2015. The lesson: we disregard nature’s life-giving dynamism at our own peril.

This March, the Maori tribe got the legal right to treat its river Whanganui as a human being after 140 years of litigation, the longest in New Zealand’s history.

Five days later, the Uttarakhand high court declared the Ganga and the Yamuna as living entities. If you are wondering who all should now be charged with multiple counts of assault, remember how lynch mobs tend to get away even with murder.