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Once a river, now a drain

Delhiites would go to the banks of Yamuna for leisure activities. Today, the river's definition has changed - it's just a black stretch brimming with filth, Nivedita Khandekar reports.

delhi Updated: Nov 21, 2012 01:38 IST
Nivedita Khandekar

"There were lots of winter birds. There was this private, cordoned-off area with a number of donkeys carrying sand. They were called gadhewale," recalled Rakshanda Jalil, author and heritage lover, as she got nostalgic about her annual childhood family picnics to the Yamuna bank in the early 1970s.

From Nizamuddin (East), her family would drive up to Okhla. "It used to be a day-long adventure. It was a clean, open area with mostly farming activity. On this huge mound of sand, we would go up and come rolling down," she said.

Most Delhiites born after 1970s, or migrants who came later, will find it hard to believe but the Yamuna waterfront was once a place to visit. Swimming, fishing and farming were regular activities.

Dangals (traditional wrestling), kite flying and even boating activities were also prevalent till the 1970s. Sailing and yachting happened too. But as the population grew exponentially, the pressure on the river and its resources increased.

The river was already bearing the load of untreated sewage. And over the years, the authorities completely stopped the flow of fresh water beyond Wazirabad; all the water is diverted from here for drinking purposes. What remains downstream of Wazirabad now is a channel of untreated sewage.


As if that was not enough, the flood plains, which are vital for the recharge of ground water, have been encroached upon. One of the culprits is government agencies. (See graphic).

"A river is called so when it has aviral (continuous flow) and nirmal (clean water) flow. Aviral is sine qua non for nirmal," said Manoj Misra of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan.

The Yamuna today is neither 'continuous' because there is no water left after being diverted for potable use -the city's own quota of water as per the inter- state water sharing act - nor it is 'clean' what with more than a dozen nullahs releasing untreated sewage into it.

Rishi Dev, an architect and an ekistician (holistic planner), said, "While pollution is one of prime factors for Yamuna's death, the other factors are ignorance towards a larger river system network, water carriage system of sewage disposal and improper planning of barrages and drains."

"A biodiversity zone can be created along the major drains so most of the waste is self-cleaned. Revenue too can be generated from these biodiversity zones to maintain the river systems. The hydrology of the Yamuna, which extends up to these drains, should be preserved under the same programme," he says.

Dev also suggested, "Delhi should follow a mixed system of sewage disposal - a combination of the conventional water carriage system where water is used to carry sewage quickly for disposal and the conservancy system of sanitation where sewage or garbage is collected and disposed of separately. Up to the neighbourhood, it should follow the water carriage system, after which it should be converted to the conservancy system."

Misra said, "Time is ripe for change. The existing agreement of 1994 is immoral. It should be revisited and renegotiated. In that process, first allotment should be for the river."

How others have managed - Singapore's hotspot
After Singapore emerged as a British trading outpost after 1819, Singapore river went on to become the main commercial lifeline for more than a century. But the transformation brought in congestion and pollution.

The city's heart lacked piped water and sewerage and water went directly to the river.

In the 1960s, the Singapore government embarked on a massive urban renewal and reform process but by the 1970s, the river was unable to bear increased shipping traffic.

A new Master Plan for the island's development took steps to mitigate the environmental damage.

The programme started in 1977 and by 1983, dredging the river, rebuilding the river walls along the entire stretch and construction of a 6-km promenade on both banks were completed with over 200 species.

The riverfront is now a happening recreational hotspot.