Last week, as we watched on television the apocalyptic scenes of concrete structures collapsing like a pack of cards and falling into the swollen river in Uttarakhand, our resident Yamuna was trying to make a point herself.
The rainwater overflowing from the upstream Hathnikund barrage was thrown into the Yamuna’s Delhi stretch that otherwise gets nothing but the city’s sewage.
The vast toxic sewer finally became a river, reclaiming the floodplains and forcing thousands of squatters to evacuate and seek shelter on the higher ground.
The damage was nowhere close to what happened in the hills, which is still counting its dead. Fortunately, the rain stopped in time. After sounding the alarm bell, the Yamuna has receded for now. But one is not sure if the warning was loud enough for Delhi.
On Friday, the Delhi Development Authority heard objections and suggestions on its plan to change the land use of a section of the floodplain where a bus depot was built for the 2010 Commonwealth Games.
While the sporting event was over within a fortnight, the depot stayed put. Now, armed with a court order, DDA wants to change the land use from ‘river zone’ to ‘transportation’.
Environmentalists who turned up at the public hearing warned the authority of the menacing effects of this regularisation process.
Yamuna was already stifled by concrete on the one side by the Commonwealth Games Village and Akshardham temple. Legalising the bus depot on the other side would simply throttle the river.
But our authorities could not care less. Each time a structure was constructed on the riverbank, the government regularised it as the last exception.
Yet, new ones keep coming up. Our soft policies that encourage illegal riverbed constructions are only invitations to major urban tragedies.
It is not just the residents of a high-end township or visitors to a temple who are at risk. Delhi’s floodplains are home to almost one-fifth of its population.
Delhi 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, Badarpur and Faridabad in Haryana — are particularly vulnerable because structures, legal and illegal, have been built on weak foundation of soft alluvial soil.
These buildings virtually float on a high groundwater table that keeps weakening the foundations. And with the bad quality of construction as we have in most unauthorised colonies that litter the floodplain, the risk increases manifold.
Remember the Lalita Park building collapse in 2010 that killed 71 people? The foundation of the wafer-thin structure had simply dissolved in the river water that had accumulated in the basement.
In a knee-jerk reaction, the civic corporation announced it would ban construction of basement in structures built on the floodplains. That was the last we heard from them on this.
A number of unauthorised colonies that earned the legal tag in the run-up to the Assembly elections later this year are on the floodplains.
No structural audits were ever done in these colonies. Little has been done to improve their sewerage system.
Cities that have messed with their rivers have paid heavily. In 2009, Istanbul saw one of its worst flash floods that killed 30 people.
The high-density concrete jungle 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 grimmer threats.
By choking the Yamuna with constructions, we are only setting ourselves up for a disaster. It is a matter of time before the river strikes back.