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Hope this isn’t the last ride together

Delhi took huge leaps towards urbanisation and development but forgot a crucial aspect that is the very source of life and its sustenance -- lakes and water bodies, Nivedita Khandekar reports.

delhi Updated: Nov 23, 2012 00:55 IST
Nivedita Khandekar

Over the last 100 years, Delhi's population has increased from 2.5 lakh to 170 lakh. In contrast, the number of small and large water bodies decreased from about 1,000 to 700. But one thing that hasn't changed during the period is Delhi's average rainfall: about 670 mm annually.

As the population increased, several water bodies were encroached upon, many shrank due to catchment loss and few actually dried up.

"This is akin to removing the bucket from under the tap. Water is bound to flood the bathroom first and then other rooms next. With Delhi getting as much rainfall as 100 years ago, the lesser number of water bodies means only one thing — flooding," said environmentalist Anupam Mishra.

The city that once hardly drew Yamuna waters was dependent on the de-centralised water system by way of water bodies spread across its length and breadth.

The population explosion resulted in a direct threat to the existence of traditional baolis (step wells), water bodies, johads and tanks/ponds.

In the plans for the 'development' of colonies and the city areas, these water bodies that withstood a millennium were ignored. Not only the catchments were damaged, apartments were raised and roads were cut across them.


For instance, the Sheikh Sarai DDA apartments came up on a water body. The Jehangirpuri lake was reduced to marshes and a national highway was cut across a large lake.

Vinod Jain from NGO Tapas filed a PIL in the High Court in June 2000; the court directed the government and civic bodies to collect information about water bodies in Delhi.

Later, a survey was carried out and a court monitoring committee appointed. The court regularly keeps a tab on developments.

Over a decade after the case was filed, for the past two years the Delhi government is in the process of forming a 'water bodies authority', which is yet to see the light of day.

"Delhi being the political capital, the powers that be would not allow it to die of thirst. But if the water bodies are gone, then how would we save Delhi from flooding?" asks Mishra. Water bodies help in recharge of ground water.

Jain said, "Today, most of the remaining water bodies are in rural areas with less pressure of urbanisation. Population explosion is mostly happening in urbanised, city centric areas."

Mishra, who wrote 'Aaj Bhi Khare Hai Talaab', a famous documentation of traditional water bodies across India, suggested: "We can continue with the central supply and simultaneously revive and increase de-centralised supply.

Later, this can augment the centralised supply. This would be good governance, this would be good politics."

Naini Lake: A favourite tourist hangout
Early 19th century Nainital, at little over 6,000 feet, attracted Europeans. Many of them built their summer residences there, followed by high-profile residential schools.

Post-independence, the place became a huge draw for tourists.

The kidney-shaped Naini lake is 1,432 metres long and 42 metres wide with water spread over 48.76 hectares to a maximum depth of 42 m.

Catering to the tourist inflow, unregulated construction damaged the lake's ecology. Eateries surrounded the lake, open defecation and untreated sewage also did some damage along with horse manure.

In 2007-08, judicial activism and a proactive civil society brought about a change.

Steps included formation of a Lake Development Authority to remove encroachments, relocating horses and the horse stand, improving sanitation condition and aeration programme at the lake with heavy fine for violators.

The lake was revived in less than two years.

Case studies
Centuries old dam a picture of neglect today. Metres away from the posh malls on Press Enclave Road near Saket are the remains of a 14th century wonder called Satpula.

It was a wier (a low dam built across a river to raise the level of water upstream or regulate its flow), about 65 metres high, built by Mohammad bin Tughlaq in 1323.

This was built into the southern wall of Jahanpanah, Tughlaq's city for himself. The wall extended to enclose Qila Raipithora, Siri and Tughlaqabad, the earlier settlements.

It was a solid stone dam with a wooden sluice gate to regulate the flow of water from the reservoir.

The remains of the weir, mainly the seven arched openings and the sturdy surrounding walls, were restored by the Archaeological Survey of India ahead of the Commonwealth Games in 2010.

The area where water was impounded is now Saket District Centre, Push Vihar and Khanpur.

Downstream was — and still is — a lake that is now ruined with haphazard planning, flow of sewage into naturally collected water and encroachment on the catchments.

"I still remember we used to swim in the lake there. The upper portion was reserved for drinking and the lower for all other purposes," said Naresh Chauhan, a Khirkee resident.

The DDA now plans to convert the lake's bed into a waterfront complete with landscaping, etc. The high fortress wall running east-west parallel of today's Press Enclave Road is hidden due to rapid urbanisation and only a few patches can be seen near the dam.

Unauthorised construction a threat to Sanjay Lake
There was a time most Delhiites feared visiting 'Jumna paar', as the area on the other side of Yamuna is colloquially called, after sunset.

There was the pushta bund, floodplains and acres and acres of farmland dotted with several villages with a number of water bodies.

Around 1970s, the DDA to develop residential colonies for the middle-class in trans-Yamuna areas.

What is known as Sanjay Lake was a large natural low-lying area, akin to a depression, collecting rainwater.

When DDA planned Mayur Vihar in the early 1980s and later Indraprastha Extension in the late 1980s, yet another approach road bridge in the form of Nizamuddin bridge came up.

"NH 24 went tearing right into Sanjay lake, which was named so only later," said Jagat Swarup Upadhyay, a resident of Patparganj village.

"It was fed by the excess run-off coming from the Hindon cut," the septuagenarian recalled.

Whatever remained comprised a good 178 acres of park and a water body. The lake stretched over 89 acres.

But over the decades, even this has been threatened by unauthorised construction near the lake's bed, untreated sewage from nearby slums, and dumping of debris and construction on the catchment. This has resulted in further shrinking of the lake.

For quite some years, the DDA had been planning tourism and adventure activities but nothing has materialised.

'We are strict on encroachments, have taken action'
Grill session: SD Singh, CEO, Delhi Parks and Garden Society

What are the reasons for the delay in setting up of the proposed Water Bodies Authority?
We are discussing the technical issues and modalities of various related aspects to avoid repetition or overlapping of works. This will lead us to take a call whether a Water Bodies Authority should be formed or include this in the existing water authority.

What are the efforts made by the government to prevent/remove encroachments from the catchments, in some cases from the bed, of the water bodies?
Wherever there are clear water bodies, we have already started the work for fencing/putting up a wall around them. In case of encroachments, there are two issues depending on what kind of encroachment we come across. Some buildings that have come up on the catchments are part of the master plan. We are studying how to remove them or come up with an alternative. Second, wherever there is encroachment for no reasons, we are strict and have removed these at several places, for instance at Mahipalpur.

For over a decade now a case regarding saving Delhi's water bodies is in the high court. Why isn't there a policy for conservation of water bodies?
Maintenance and conservation is the responsibility of the respective authorities that own it, be it the DDA or any other agency. Our basic policy is to ensure that the catchments should be green as far as possible. Second, in case a water body is dry for whatever reasons, the area should be maintained as green belt.