Green tax welcome, Delhi must do more to revive Yamuna | columns | Hindustan Times
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Green tax welcome, Delhi must do more to revive Yamuna

Like that proverbial woman behind every successful man, there is a river flowing by every great city. And quite like her, she seldom gets her due. One hopes this tax will make us notice the plight of the river and demand accountability from the government that promised to work on deadlines.

columns Updated: May 11, 2015 13:15 IST
Shivani Singh

Like that proverbial woman behind every successful man, there is a river flowing by every great city. And quite like her, she seldom gets her due. More than two decades ago when Delhi stooped to trash its lifeline, taking note of a news report published in Hindustan Times, the Supreme Court began hearing the ‘Maili Yamuna’ case in July 1994.

Last week — 21 years later and after crores of rupees had gone down the drain — the National Green Tribunal ordered that every Delhiite pay environment compensation to be used to revive the dead river under the “Maili se Nirmal Yamuna Revitalisation Project 2017”.

This compensation — anything between Rs. 100 and Rs. 500 a month — will be proportional to a household’s property tax or water bill, whichever is higher, and will be added to the monthly utility bills. The money thus collected will fund Delhi Jal Board’s Yamuna clean-up project and the cess will be withdrawn once the estimated cost of the project, Rs. 3,700 crore, is met.

The tax based on the ‘polluter-pay principle’ - whoever causes pollution pays to clean it up - is a fair deal considering most of the raw sewage flushed out of our homes goes directly into the river. The Yamuna in Delhi is barely 2% of the river’s length but contributes to 76% of the pollution load.

One hopes this tax will make us notice the plight of the river and demand accountability from the government that promised to work on deadlines. In the last two decades, more than Rs. 1,500 crore have been spent on setting up 17 sewage treatment plants that remained under-utilised in the absence of pipelines to carry effluents to these facilities.

Of the 3,800 million litre sewage generated in Delhi per day, 2,800 MLD is thrown untreated into the river. Now, an interceptor sewer network, worth another Rs. 4,000 crore, to tap and transport the sewage to the STPs, is in the works. The Yamuna tax will fund this project. But cleaning the Yamuna is more than just a sewage treatment project. Highly toxic fly ash dumped by the city’s thermal power plants is also choking the river. A study by the geological department of Delhi University found that Rajghat and Indraprastha power plants were releasing 7.5 tonnes of arsenic into the Yamuna every year. Covering the floodplains with impermeable concrete structures and construction debris has proved to be another killer.

Most importantly, the Yamuna is already dead when it reaches Delhi, drained of all its water stored upstream. Experts say that the river cannot be restored to bathing quality without releasing freshwater in it. For that to happen, the water-sharing agreement between Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh will need a renegotiation. Governments have to go beyond thinking of setting up of tourist spots on the riverfront. It will also require Delhi residents to ration their water use.

But why should an average Delhi citizen care about the river? Because for a city that survives on borrowed water, it is our best insurance against water scarcity. The Yamuna — with its vast sand aquifer that runs 2-km wide and nearly 40 metres deep along the 48-km stretch of the river along Delhi — is the biggest reserve for freshwater the city will ever get.

In 2011, the Delhi Jal Board found that the 97 square kilometres of Yamuna floodplains — Delhi’s largest groundwater recharge zone — were capable of providing as much as 250 million gallons of water per day (MGD), almost one-third of the city’s demand. The study also concluded that if the government fails to check the blatant encroachment on these floodplains, it would be equivalent to an economic loss of Rs. 50 crore per square kilometre annually.

Back in 1913, Delhi municipality fined a hefty Rs. 50 if anyone fouled wells, tanks or the Yamuna by washing, throwing garbage or sewage.

Factoring in a century’s inflation, a monthly compensation of Rs. 100-500 is a small price for turning the Yamuna into the city’s master gutter.

It is time to give back to the river that made Delhi possible.