The Commonwealth Games (CWG) in Delhi were declared open on the bright night of October 3, 2010. Patriotic fervour cheered and the extravaganza gradually unfolded. There was momentary silence on corruption stories and the country regaled in colonial glory. A week before the event, all signs pointed to myriad questions, of the past, present and future. I seek to redraw attention to one.
A month before the event, Delhi witnessed unprecedented rains, ones that were regarded as unusual for September. The belated monsoon had hit the city and how. The floodplains of the river Yamuna were swollen, with all the grasslands submerged, and only tree crowns visible. Temporary farming shelters were removed, people evacuated and housing colonies next to the river sought ground elsewhere. The more affluent locales were spared with only warnings of a flood looming large.
The discharge of waters from the Hathnikund barrage in Haryana had only added to the river bed's flooded glory. While people unaware of this massive water rise suffered, the river seemed to be in its full form. For those aware of Delhi's coordinates, the water had almost reached the place where the Akshardham temple and the newly-constructed CWG Village are located. It was perhaps the motor vehicle road, cutting through the Yamuna floodplain, that had delayed the further advance of the water, sparing damage to the buildings.
But the irony of this episode harks back to decisions taken by the Supreme Court. The verdict was just over a year before the floodplains of the Yamuna in Delhi had decided to come alive. The Supreme Court, in a judgement in July 2009, had made some very vehement observations, the foremost being that CWG village is not located on the riverbed. The justification included its proximity to the Akshardham temple which was allowed to be built on its location without any threat perception. It was recorded in the verdict that the temple is nearly 1,700 metres away from the river bed.
As I stood on the 22.6 metre-broad Nizamuddin bridge with the CWG village on my right, it was obvious that the flooded Yamuna river on my left was just waiting to cross over. I was once again left wondering. How did the apex court manage to conclude that this was not the floodplain or the Yamuna riverbed? What calculations did reputed institutions like National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and other critical agencies use, that convinced them otherwise? What was I missing in all this?
While relegating the floodplain as not being one, the court's order had also referred to the determination of the land use for CWG village way back in 2003, when India committed itself to organising the Games. By 2009, too much was at stake: pride, money and reputation. In all this, what was lost was the truth of where a river had found its meandering flow.
Three days before the CWG opening, as I crossed the bridge again, I saw ground. The rain had stopped, the discharge controlled and the water receded. All the temporary shelters lined up along the Noida Link Road and the DND Expressway had disappeared. The people were not back to their agricultural land. Evacuation must have led them away, even as the cameras went silent.
Today the tall grasses are visible again, and the sun shines on the Games. Destined intervention seems to have spared the Games and its people. But has the Yamuna lost its river bed forever?
Kanchi Kohli is a member of the Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group. The views expressed by the author are personal.