A lifeline ... under siege
As the Yamuna's transformation seems imminent, there is need to carefully consider the connections between urban ambitions and river ecology, and the politics of remaking Delhi's land and waterscapes.
"The Yamuna's banks now appear as an internal ecological frontier, ripe for conquering."
MURKY PLANS: The stretch of the Yamuna floodplain is only seen as prime property and ready for expansion in a manner that befits a "world-class city". PHOTOS: RAJEEV BHAT
THE Yamuna flows through Delhi but is invisible to most of its citizens. Even the residents of east Delhi, whose residence is defined as jamna-paar, know the river only as an obstacle to be crossed on congested bridges.
The Delhi Government plans to change this. If the Thames in London can redevelop its South Bank, why can't the desolate 22 km-long stretch of Yamuna floodplain also become a glittering strip of sports complexes, banquet halls and festive promenades? After all, this is prime land in the heart of Delhi and ripe for redevelopment in a manner befitting "a global metropolis and a world-class city". Of the many plans afloat to lift the riverfront out of its present obscurity, the most ambitious is the 118-acre Games Village to house the 8,500 athletes and assorted sportspersons visiting Delhi during the 2010 Commonwealth (CW) Games. As this project gets off the ground, and the Yamuna's transformation seems imminent, we need to carefully consider the connections between urban ambitions and river ecology, and the politics of remaking Delhi's land and waterscapes.
Getting the CW Games and a tantalising glimpse of what might follow in its wake the 2014 Asian Games and, hold your breath, the 2016 Olympics, has been hyped as a major coup for Delhi and India. With national prestige at stake, the fiscal purse strings have been loosened and Rs. 3,000 crores promised for new projects. Sighting juicy contracts in the offing, public and private entrepreneurs have been hovering around the Games like the kites that circle a rich pile of garbage on the riverbank. The Delhi Development Authority (DDA) wants to build a stadium for rugby and another for wrestling and the martial arts. It contemplates tunnelling below the Yamuna for an underground road from the Games Village to Nehru Stadium. The Lt. Governor wants the DDA to quickly develop land for eight to nine five-star hotels. Not to be left behind, the Punjab Haryana and Delhi Chambers of Commerce and Industry propose that central Delhi be declared a Special Economic Zone for international tourism where businesses get a tax holiday and land at throwaway prices.
Land grab is not the only game in town. The Delhi Government wants a 1,000 MW private power plant to be built in time for the CW Games. Since the privatisation of power and water has become a touchy subject in Delhi, the project has been discreetly folded into the CW Games portfolio where the labels Top Priority, National Prestige, and Superpower Status are likely to ensure smooth passage without critical scrutiny. Does Delhi really need more five-star hotels and stadia built on public land with public money? Do we want electricity at exorbitant rates, while traders get tax-breaks? The buzz around the CW Games makes it "unpatriotic" to question such lucrative deals.
Flashback ... the 1982 Games
The construction spree spurred by the CW Games is reminiscent of an earlier moment in Delhi's past the 1982 Asian Games when national prestige was invoked to suspend the regular rules of land management. The biggest violations of Delhi's Master Plan occurred in the lead up to the 1982 Games as the DDA built stadia and flyovers. Revisiting these relics is a useful reminder of the likely fate of the Rs. 3,000 crores to be spent on the CW Games. Along the river, the Indraprastha stadium, with its retracting roof hailed as a triumph of technology, is now used for the occasional Bollywood Nite, its roof rusted into immobility. The Players' Building wasn't finished on time and remained uninhabited for 15 years, a grey concrete ghost haunting the riverfront, till it was reborn as the Delhi Secretariat. The DDA poured its energies and considerable funds into the Games Village houses in Siri Fort which, after the athletes' month-long visit, were allotted to senior bureaucrats. They are now the most posh official addresses outside the Lutyens zone. No surprise if a similar division of the spoils happens once the CW Games are concluded and the spotlights switched off.
The pre-1982 construction boom also resulted in massive labour migration into Delhi. Workers and their families continued living in wretched conditions in the shadows of the buildings they had made. The low-grade civil war waged by the Delhi Government against the city's working class is a legacy of these lop-sided land use practices that prioritise elitist projects over housing the poor. Last summer, one lakh people were forcibly evicted from the Yamuna Pushta (embankment). Most of them became homeless since the city has virtually no low-income housing that is affordable and legal. Earlier, a bustling Sunday bazaar below the Red Fort ramparts, mainly patronised by Yamuna Pushta residents, was banned on the grounds that it "spoiled the splendour of a historic monument". Nearby land will now accommodate a shopping-cum-cultural complex a la Dilli Haat, albeit for a class of well-heeled citizens. Delhi's double standards are never more apparent than in its use of urban space.
It is no Thames or Seine
As the modest homes of the poor are removed from the riverfront, other buildings are left untouched. The monstrous Akshardham temple, aggressively encroaches on public space by flouting all rules. So do four power plants and the plush Delhi Secretariat. And now the CW Games village, another sprawling edifice adding to the river's ecological burden. These structures leave a deep footprint on the floodplain's fine sandy soil, accumulated as the Yamuna licks away at the rocky toes of the Aravalli range. For centuries, this land has served to recharge groundwater, supporting vegetable growers, hosting hundreds of bird species. Its sandy soil and tendency to flood kept it safe from more exploitative uses. But with land at a premium, the Yamuna's banks now appear as an internal ecological frontier, ripe for conquering. So the Government speaks of channelling the river and reclaiming land, invoking London and Paris.
But the Yamuna is neither the Thames nor the Seine. Its distinctive rhythm is harmonised to the Indian subcontinent's seasons. With the bulk of its flow concentrated in the monsoons, the Yamuna is liable to breach its embankments if denied its present fertile expanse. While the floods in New Orleans vividly illustrate the hazards of building in a floodplain, residents of north Delhi and the Pushta have also experienced the risks of a swiftly-rising river. The vast stretches of riverbed revealed in the summer may lure developers, but the line between land and water is rapidly blurred once the rains come. As Mike Davis reminds us, nature is not a stable backdrop against which humans can orchestrate their affairs. That natural processes have their own dynamism and integrity must be borne in mind lest world-class ambitions founder on the fluvial bed of the Yamuna.
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