What the Yamuna needs is a genuine clean-up that tackles its sewage and industrial effluent inflow.
NO FREE FLOW: The Yamuna is shackled. PHOTO: S. SUBRAMANIUM
ALTHOUGH the river has a life of its own, it is by no means an unmodified natural entity. The Yamuna is everywhere regulated and manipulated, its waters tapped for agriculture, industry and domestic use. On entering Delhi, almost all its freshwater is diverted for drinking at the Wazirabad barrage. After that, for most of the year, the river in Delhi is a sluggish stream of pure sewage. Nineteen major drains feed the Yamuna an estimated 1,341 million litres of untreated wastewater daily as it passes through the city. And that's on a good day, when the sewage treatment plants (STPs) are working at full capacity (they usually aren't). In a city that produces more sewage than all the Class II cities in India combined, almost half of all sewage goes untreated. And to make matters worse, this wastewater is generated by only half of Delhi's population; the other seven million live in unsewered areas!
Harsh on the poor
The magnitude and intensity of this pollution cannot be exaggerated and yet it has never been adequately addressed. Judicial directives prompt knee-jerk reactions like evicting people who live along the river and shutting down industries. The Yamuna Action Plan (YAP), with much fanfare, spent Rs. 700 crores to build two small STPs of 10 million litres a day (MLD) each and 956 community toilets in jhuggi bastis. Toilets are good things, no doubt, but since the people for whom they were built were not contributing to Delhi's wastewater stream, it isn't quite clear how such facilities help reduce river pollution.
No imitating the West
In an all-too-familiar way, the YAP rounded up the poor as "the usual suspects" in environmental crimes. Despite court orders, despite high-profile foreign-funded projects, Delhi is still appallingly short on sewage treatment. Once a year, the Chief Minister and enthusiastic volunteers pick up litter from the river's banks. It makes a good photo-op, but such tokenism fails to acknowledge that no amount of polythene bag-picking will make a dent in the biggest source of pollution in the Yamuna untreated wastewater.
What the Yamuna needs is not prestigious projects for the rich built by bulldozing the poor, but a genuine clean-up that tackles sewage and industrial effluents. Restoring water quality will not only render a valuable service to millions of downstream users, but will also revive the river's role as a habitat for biodiversity. Delhi is uniquely blessed that two features define its geography the forested Ridge and the river Yamuna. No other city can boast of such expanses of forest and floodplain. A selective mimicry of First World waterscapes building malls and stadiums but not the legendary subterranean sewage systems of Paris and New York reveals the superficiality of our superpower ambitions.
But if we have to copy the London model for our own Yamuna, I have a candidate for Delhi's answer to the Tate Modern, the art gallery housed in a massive old power plant on the Thames, a brilliant example of creative recycling. In north Delhi stands a gigantic waste-to-energy plant, looming over its vast settlement ponds and the outer Ring Road like a majestic chrome-yellow ship, its chimney visible for miles around. Gifted by the Danish government in 1984, this plant worked for exactly 21 days before its machinery seized up. You see, it was designed to the specifications of Scandinavian sewage; it couldn't handle our rich desi sludge. Now if only Sheila Dixit would convert this gently rusting behemoth into a stadium-cum-convention centre-cum-cultural complex ... .
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