First Saraswati, now Yamuna?

I pass the Yamuna en-route to my office everyday. For the past few years it has had the look of an affluent drain, or, perhaps, I should say effluent. It snakes timidly past the grandeur of the Akshardham Temple, slithers away from the frenetic bustle of the Commonwealth Games Village and slips under the vast spans of the DND flyover.

Its oxygen-deficient waters harbour little life and the few birds that descend on its waters best serve as indicators of pollution. I look, at times, nostalgically at the antique 1858 map of Delhi in my office, a time when the river was in its full-blown youth and had several tributaries coursing past Delhi. I say past Delhi and not through Delhi as the capital has for centuries lain in the triangular nestle of the Mewat range of the Aravallis and the river Yamuna. Those were the days when Saket was still a jheel and the Defence Colony nallah one of the tributaries that drained into it. Those were days before Dwarka and Pitampura took over the Najafgarh branch of the Yamuna and turned it into a storm-water drain. Slowly, inexorably, the tributaries shrank, the lakes were drained and the Ridge, sylvan companion of the Yamuna, was blasted and cleared to make way for Delhi. In the last 150 years we have reached across the Ridge and spanned the Yamuna, turning, in the last few cycles of this decimation, the mighty river into a shrivelled shadow of its former self.
It was with some amusement, therefore, that I watched an anchor of a prominent TV channel standing ankle-deep in the river the other day, warning citizenry of impending flood. “The waters are rising”, she said dramatically, waving her microphone for good effect. “Look, it has crossed the hemline of my salwar” or something equally banal. The newspapers were full of photos of displaced citizenry as well, as waters swished through their illegal and ecologically-disastrous tenements. Concerned relatives called to check on my safety. Thousands of two-wheelers, sheltering under every flyover in incessant rain, blocked off traffic for hours and added to the chaos. Stories of the disaster that is the Commonwealth Games flooded the city even more than the river itself. Meanwhile, it seemed on my morning route that a rejuvenated and freshly charged-up river chortled past a gaping populace, unused as they have become to living on the banks of a mighty river.
This minor upwelling of riverine emotions may well be the call to arms that the ministry needs to consider the state of the Yamuna. If Mithi is important to Mumbai and its breaching by the proposed Navi Mumbai airport an ecological disaster in the making, the unabashed reclamation of the floodplains of the “national capital river” is criminal. The 7,777 hectares of the Ridge and the 9,700 hectares of the Yamuna floodplain are not just real estate opportunities for all and sundry, but the lungs and kidneys of the National Capital Region (NCR). The embankments and dams that we build as structural controls to floodwaters are nothing but temporary palliatives. It used to be common sense not to build on floodplains as the river is a living entity and needs to ebb and rise with monsoonal waters and clean itself of its silt load onto the alluvial plains. In fact, the term alluvium itself refers (in its Latin root of alluvius from alleure or wash against) to the loose sand and silt, clay and gravel that freshwater systems deposit as they meander from the hills to the sea. The term alluvial plains that we still teach in geography classes to our children might as well be replaced as the embankments prevent waters from spilling over their banks. Perhaps in a future generation, we will refer to the Gangetic embankments of Uttar Pradesh rather than the floodplains. Other than depriving the country of a fertile belt of land, the structures built around the Yamuna are only contributing to the accumulation of silt on the riverbed, raising the waters, inch by inch, metre by metre to a potential disaster. This would then be tailor-made for TV anchors.
There is an urgent need to revive Yamuna’s fortunes and not just by initiating a Yamuna Action Plan. When urban developers and municipal corporations plan the water needs of the city, will it be possible to include the needs of the Yamuna in the maths? The water needs of Delhi is not equal only to the drinking water needs of its citizens and the water needs of the industry around it or the irrigation needs of the small farmer, if any exist still, around the NCR. It must also include the needs for the river to flow unfettered and clean, with enough volume of water to sustain life in its myriad forms.
Don’t choke the river, as has been suggested by several water experts, by clearing some more structural devices, euphemistically called water storage devices, upstream in Himachal and Haryana. These are dams. They should be looked at as dams and the ecological impact studied should be of dams. It is particularly tempting, with the TV grabs of rising waters, to sanction structures that can “hold the water off Delhi” and produce electricity to boot. The release of waters from the dam is once again governed not by ecological or earth wisdom but by the felt needs of humanity. And the river, dammed upstream, sullied downstream and wearing the chastity belt of embankments as it passes Delhi, will have no ecological function left.
When what is Sadar Bazaar today was blasted out of the forested areas of the Ridge by the British, the saving grace was the declaration of the remaining parts as a Reserve Forest. It still stands, providing us with the quality of air that we breathe. With the Commonwealth Village and Akshardham grabbing prime flood-estate from the river, can the ministry think of regulating what is left of the floodplains of the Yamuna before, like the vedic river Saraswati, the Yamuna too leaves us, quite literally, high and dry?

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