Eighteen years ago, the Supreme Court took note of a news report published in Hindustan Times on the dirty Yamuna. Two weeks back, a bench headed by the Chief Justice of India spoke of its intention to pass orders to stop discharge of untreated sewage into the river. But before that, the court wanted an update on the case and asked the agencies involved to file status reports.
One cannot fault the court if it has struggled to keep pace with the developments in this 18-year-long fiasco. Much of Delhi’s population was born after the death of the river. I probably belong to the last of the generations that saw Yamuna flowing. In the early ’80s, when my family stayed in east Delhi for a year, I used to take the ITO Bridge to school and watch the river ripple.
I moved to Indirapuram five years ago. My car windows are usually rolled up as I cross two kilometres of Nizamuddin Bridge on my daily commute to work and back. You can barely see the river but it stinks. In fact, most new residents of Delhi have known Yamuna as a large toxic sewer. Thanks to hyperventilating TV reports, they also fear a deluge of the Waterworld variety every monsoon when the riverbed fills up with rainwater.
The Yamuna fiasco tells a damning story of inept administration and blinkered policies. In the last 20 years, the government has spent more than Rs1,300 crore to clean the river. There was little accountability since there was no real deadline. The last time irregularities were pointed out was in 2004 when a CAG report found that Rs800 crore spent on the Yamuna project has gone down the drain.
Hundreds of crores of taxpayers’ money was spent on setting up 17 sewage treatment plants that remained underutilised for years in the absence of pipelines to carry effluents to these centres. The latest solution — an Interceptor Sewer Network, worth another Rs1,900 crore, to tap and transport the sewage generated in Delhi to the STPs — has been questioned by experts on many counts.
They claim that the entire exercise and expense incurred will be futile since the network will transport not more than 65 per cent of the waste generated in Delhi. Presence of the 35 per cent untreated waste in the water means it will be fit only for horticulture and, contrary to the government’s promise before the apex court in 2001, not for bathing.
Experts say that the river cannot be restored to bathing quality without releasing fresh water in it. Yamuna is already dead when it reaches Delhi, drained of all its fresh water stored upstream. In Delhi, the river receives only sewage except the excess water released from dams upstream during the monsoon.
To channel more fresh water in the river, the water-sharing agreement between Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh will need a renegotiation. It would also require Delhi residents to ration their water use and leave some for the river. All of this requires political will. But poll promises have not gone beyond setting up of tourist spots on the riverfront.
The lessons from the Thames clean-up project seem lost on our bureaucrats who frequently visit London to “study” the model.
While we missed one deadline after another, the UK authorities dredged a 3.5-km stretch of the river Lea, a Thames tributary, in 2009 in just three months. To tackle sewer overflow, London has started boring a four-mile-long underground tunnel this January. The deadline it set? 2013.
In Delhi, Commonwealth Games 2010 was set as a working deadline for cleaning up the Yamuna. All we got was still more construction on the riverbed.