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   Wednesday, January 17, 2018
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Yamuna may remain a sewer?
By Sudhirendar Sharma



In little over a century, the Yamuna has lost its 18 tributaries that used to carry surface flow from Aravalli slopes to enrich freshwater discharge into the river. To make matters worse, Delhi alone discharges 4,456 million litres of untreated and treated wastewater each day into Yamuna.

After patient monitoring of the situation for nearly two decades, the Supreme Court realized that enough was enough and sought explanation from the governments of Haryana, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh as to why sewage continues to flow in the Yamuna. Shocked by the casualness with which the concerned states had spent around Rs 5,000 crore towards cleaning the river, the court constituted a two-member expert committee on Oct 30, 2012 to review and report the status.

Rather than indicting the two agencies for their abject failure in controlling pollution in the river, the court instead chose the executive heads of Central Pollution Control Board and Delhi Jal Board to be the committee for examining the situation. While the former is the national agency to control water bodies from getting polluted, the latter is the state agency responsible for sewage treatment and disposal in the capital. Where will such a committee lead us to?

It will surely lead us to a Ďreportí that will point out towards legal loopholes and institutional inadequacies for the continuing malaise, but without offering tangible steps to fix the problem. How can a city that pumps out the river to its last trickle to meet its growing drinking water demand help restore flow in it? It does, however, contribute to restoring flow in the river by discharging as much as 4,456 million litres of untreated and treated wastewater each day.

For the Yamuna to flow respectfully on its 22 km stretch through the city, every 100 litres of wastewater poured into it should get diluted with 75 litres of freshwater to ensure that the organic matter gets oxidized. But the city canít spare a drop of freshwater for the river because its daily drinking water demand-supply gap is 2,149 million litres. Instead, it not only begs water from neighboring states but unscrupulously pumps as much groundwater to meet its demand.

No wonder, the city could not even comply with the recommendations of the High Powered Committee, set up by the Supreme Court in Jan 1998, on the basis of which the apex court had issued orders that a minimum of 10 cumecs of freshwater (approx.10, 000 litres per second) must flow through the stretch of the river in the city. This was assumed to be the minimum flow in the river to facilitate restoration of the desired river water quality.

For the Yamuna to flow respectfully on its 22 km stretch through the city, every 100 litres of wastewater poured into it should get diluted with 75 litres of freshwater to ensure that the organic matter gets oxidized.

Contempt of the court notwithstanding, the problem has only magnified as most freshwater recharging points in the river basin have been plugged. Urban wetlands have been encroached upon and critical flood plains converted to real estate. The 700-acre of Jahangirpuri marshes was one of the last wetlands to be encroached upon whereas the Commonwealth Games Village had already accounted for the critical recharging point in the flood plain.

Encroaching riverís catchment has continued unabated since the early 1900s. In little over a century, the Yamuna has lost its 18 tributaries that used to carry surface flow from Aravalli slopes to enrich freshwater discharge into the river. It seems the city was planned along its water courses and water bodies - 18 tributaries and some 800 big or small ponds dotted Delhi from one end to the other. Wells and step-wells were prime sources of drinking water.

Such town planning ensured that city was never short of water, never had a famine, and was never ravaged by floods. Before building New Delhi, Edwin Lutyens had reportedly surveyed the land, mounted on an elephant. There is an account of a beautiful river flowing through where India International Centre and the Lodhi Gardens stand today. A stone bridge in the Lodhi Gardens stands testimony to the presence of a river at one time.

Without doubt, the city expanded at the cost of its water courses and water bodies, converting tributaries into sewage drains and wetlands into garbage dumps. It wonít be erroneous to conclude that Delhi chose to become a water-deficit city. With water being the prime need for a growing metropolis, the river has been viewed as a source of water only. No surprise therefore that a polluted river passing through the city has never been cause for a public outrage.

Unlike Sabarmati river in Ahmedabad that was brought to life by diverting waters from the Narmada, the option for Yamuna rests on making long-term investments in reviving and rejuvenating its freshwater courses and water bodies.

Whether judicial activism can convert sewage-laden drain into a wholesome river is a matter of conjecture. Capturing entire waste water generated by the city and treating it to permissible levels before discharge into the river is a technical glitch that resource availability and institutional efficiency can combine to fix. Critical issue relates to augmenting fresh water supply, both for the city to thrive and the river to stay healthy, for which there are no easy solutions.

Unlike Sabarmati river in Ahmedabad that was brought to life by diverting waters from the Narmada, the option for Yamuna rests on making long-term investments in reviving and rejuvenating its freshwater courses and water bodies. Significant in this regard is Oct 28, 2012 Delhi High Court order that has directed Delhi Jal Board and Delhi Pollution Control Committee to ensure that water bodies in the capital are not fed with untreated sewage.

Read in conjunction with the apex court anguish on the state of Yamuna, it augers in favor of giving respect to water bodies. However, unless freshwater crisis in the city is addressed by emptying the erstwhile tributaries of their sewage overload the river will continue to ferry wastewater along its course. Civic bodies need to acknowledge the fact that sewage is but the effect of a cause that rests on freshwater crises in the city.

 
Disclaimer:
The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.
 

Sudhirendar Sharma  |  sudhirendarsharma@gmail.com

Dr Sudhirendar Sharma is an environmentalist and development analyst based in New Delhi. Formerly with the World Bank, Dr Sharma is an expert on water, a keen observer on climate change dynamics, and a critic of the contemporary development processes.

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