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Reimagining the Yamuna can help transform it

What if the river floodplain is re-imagined as an urban nucleus, communicating a value system that situates the capital city within its original riparian ecology? In a sense, we seek to create a sanctuary within the megacity, with the people as integral to the rejuvenation design

analysis Updated: Jul 01, 2019 15:22 IST
Pankaj Vir Gupta
Pankaj Vir Gupta
Cleaning Yamuna,Polluted Yamuna,Water Pollution
The Najafgarh drain brings 60% of the Yamun’s total pollution load. While it may seem ambitious to restore it to its previous avatar as a perennial river, there are spatial paradigms that could help commence the ecological and urban remediation(Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO)

Throughout the long Delhi summer, a trickle of the city’s sewage and waste run-off feeds the river Yamuna. To re-envision the river, a team of international experts comprising urban ecologists, architects from the University of Virginia and government experts have worked for six years to devise a workable solution. The result — the Yamuna River Project (YRP) — proposes a synergy between India’s capital city and the river. To understand the problem, an analogy with the thermometer seems apt: if the mercury reads 103 degrees Celsius fever on your thermometer, does it mean the thermometer is sick or it’s your body? The Yamuna is the barometer of the city’s cleanliness; it is simply recording what the city is doing to it. That’s why the Yamuna question needs to be reframed.

As one of the most rapidly urbanising megacities, Delhi confronts serious challenges, reveals inadequacies in planning, urban design and social equity. The Yamuna has been reduced to a sewage drain, absent both from the urban landscape and from the public imagination.

Over the past decade, it has become increasingly evident that no single entity — the elected or appointed — has the experience to resolve rapid urban degradation. A plethora of municipal agencies, often working at crosspurposes, and with little accountability, fail to address the synthetic nature of the city. Thus the agencies tasked with water supply and sewage treatment have little to do with entities that manage solid waste. The development authorities entrusted with planning the housing and work spaces consistently fail to estimate the city’s growth.

The YRP aims to help the city and its citizen re-imagine and transform the sacred river. For centuries, the river constituted not just the defining axis but also the ecological and agricultural lifeline of the settlements preceding present day Delhi. Over the years, multiple agencies have made some progress in cleaning the river. The Delhi Jal Board has for the first time started integrating in its designs the urban design and planning strategies. The Delhi government has taken a critical first step in consolidating the agencies dealing with water, flood control and irrigation under a single-point leadership structure. .

The YRP has sought to engage with this dilemma with a multifaceted approach. What if the river floodplain is re-imagined as an urban nucleus, communicating a value system that situates the capital city within its original riparian ecology? In a sense, we seek to create a sanctuary within the megacity. Unlike other river restoration projects, the YRP design proposition sees people as integral to the rejuvenation.

The Najafgarh drain brings 60% of the river’s total pollution load. While it may seem ambitious to restore it to its previous avatar as a perennial river — which was known as Sahibi — there are spatial paradigms that could help commence the ecological and urban remediation. Some of the key recommendations of YRP are the development of a holistic new urban design master plan for Delhi which proposes solutions for low-income housing, mixed-use neighborhoods, proper sanitation and solid waste management infrastructure, and integrates pedestrian mobility with public transport. All this would be centred on an ecological commons — the Yamuna floodplain riparian zone — as the green spine of the city.

Complementing the work of municipal agencies in establishing new sewerage treatment plants, we imagine a simultaneous deployment of urban catalysts, which will result in a dramatic improvement of lives in some of the city’s most impoverished areas along the drain. Affordable housing projects with water and sewerage connections linked by a network of pedestrian paths would enable an upgrade of the slum clusters already existing on these sites. These would be supplemented by community amenities, thoughtfully designed to provide local residents with a range of permanent infrastructure, such as bazaars, schools, playgrounds, clinics, libraries. They would enhance the value and the spatial experience of life along the Najafgarh drain. With the elimination of contamination in the drain, 70% of the pollution entering the Yamuna River can be eliminated. And the citizens will enjoy life along a parkin the heart of their city. Thus, the urban and ecological remediation would occur in tandem. The world’s fastest growing 10 cities (in the period between 2019 and 2035) have one thing in common: all of them are in India, and average an annual growth between 7% to 10%. Collectively, we hope to facilitate a development strategy in which urbanisation becomes a restorative platform for citizens to once again walk along the river Yamuna.

Pankaj Vir Gupta is an urban architect and professor at University of Virgina. He is co-author of the book The Yamuna River Project

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Jun 26, 2019 19:36 IST