Remember the Tokas clan of Munirka, swimming champions in the 1980s? “For a decade, we virtually ruled at swimming competitions in the country and abroad,” remembers Khazan Singh, the national champion who competed in the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
“It all started with that dip in the Baba Gangnath Johad (pond). Not just I, but some 50 lads from my clan, who made it to national and international level swimming championships, trained in our Johad. We are natural swimmers,” he says.
Then the DDA flats came up in Munirka. Concrete obstructed the storm water flowing into the pond and Gangnath Johad eventually dried up. The residents of the DDA flats have no idea that a pond that produced more professional swimmers than any Olympic-size pool in India once existed close by.
While sports can still be called an indulgence, the growing demand for water in the capital cannot. It is an issue of both sustenance and survival. “We are fast losing our water catchment. These marshlands, ponds, lakes and the riverbed are large underground water reserves,” says environmentalist Ravi Aggarwal.
Delhi’s demand for water is 900 million gallons per day. The daily short fall is 250 MGD. Environmentalists say about 600 MGD can be sourced from underground aquifers of Yamuna floodplains and surface water bodies, provided we preserve them.
A survey of the revenue map of Delhi has shown how many of these water bodies have been sacrificed for petrol pumps, community centers, housing societies, office complexes, garbage dumps and sewage pits. The capital lost much of its marshland to the DND, ISBT projects.
When Delhi’s only river has not been spared, the city’s water bodies stand little chance to survive the development drive. The water table is sinking and there is no natural source left to augment the city’s water supply. But the government is busy exploiting the Yamuna flood plain for infrastructure and commercial use, acquiring low-lying natural wetlands in Jahangirpuri for housing projects, and filling up a medieval water body in the heart of Mehrauli (Neela Hauz) to construct a flyover.
In the process, the line between destruction and development has been blurred too often. In early 2000, revenue department filled up many johad (ponds) in outer Delhi. Following strong protest by environmentalists, some ponds were reclaimed. But the damage was already done.
Probably our previous generation understood the importance of water bodies better. In old revenue records, our marshlands were described as zere ab (land under water). The new records dismiss them as banjar kadim (wasteland). So much for water security.