The unfortunate story of the Yamuna keeps getting worse. Last week, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) had put out a public notice in newspapers asking for suggestions and objections to the proposed modification in its zone ‘O’, a highly protected river precinct where no construction whatsoever is allowed.
The DDA’s bid to change the land use is to accommodate the Delhi Transport Corporation’s Millennium Depot that was built as a temporary structure to park buses which ferried athletes during the 2010 Commonwealth Games. While the sporting event was over within a fortnight, the depot stayed put.
Now, armed with a court order, the government wants to change the land use from a river zone to transportation. Just as it wants to exclude illegal colonies that came up on the floodplains so they could be given a legal tag in the run-up to the Assembly elections later this year.
Yamuna features in ‘O’ zone in the Delhi Master Plan 2021 that has to remain untouched by urbanisation. But its sanctity exists only on paper. Akshardham temple, Metro stations and loco-sheds, Delhi secretariat, Ring Road bypass — each time a structure was constructed on the riverbank, the government regularised it as the last exception. Yet, new ones keep coming up.
Other than the wooded Aravali ridge, the Yamuna floodplains are the only spacious open stretch available in Delhi. Unfortunately, it is also the city’s biggest dump. Recently, a committee formed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) inspected the riverbank and found 10,000 truckloads of waste piled up.
According to the Centre for Science and Environment, Delhi produces more than 445 crore litre of waste every day, of which only 147.8 crore litre is treated. The rest flows into the river already choked by highly toxic fly ash dumped by the city’s thermal plants. 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 river every year.
The Yamuna with its vast sand aquifer that runs 2km wide and nearly 40 metres deep along the 48-km stretch of the river along Delhi is also its best insurance against water scarcity. In 2011, the Delhi Jal Board found that the Yamuna flood plains 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 the 97 square kilometres of the river’s flood plains in the Capital, it would be equivalent to an economic loss of R50 crore per square kilometre annually.
But there is a lot more to fear than mere loss of water. In 2009, Istanbul saw one of its worst flash floods that killed 31 people. The high-density concrete construction along the riverbanks and insufficient drainage system of Istanbul prevented the rainwater from reaching the sea through natural channels. The Turkish prime minister called it “the river’s revenge”.
While Istanbul’s tragedy has more in common with what a stifled Mithi did to Mumbai in 2005, Delhi is the seat of the highest level of urbanisation in India and faces a grimmer future. It is located in seismic zone IV, the second-highest earthquake hazard zone in India. The high-density population areas on the Yamuna riverbed — from northeast Delhi to Noida, Okhla and Faridabad in Haryana — are particularly vulnerable because structures, legal and illegal, have been built on weak foundation of soft alluvial soil.
Our soft policies that encourage and regularise illegal riverbed constructions are only invitations to major urban tragedies. Can’t blame the river for manmade natural disasters.