And unquiet flows the Yamuna

It is pristine... till it reaches Delhi. Now there is another mission to clean it – without learning lessons from previous attempts

pujab

Puja Bhattacharjee | May 19, 2016 | New Delhi


#Kapil Mishra   #Yamuna action plan   #Uma Bharti   #Arvind Kejriwal   #Delhi   #clean yamuna   #Yamuna  


Like a child, the Yamuna gushes down the Yamunotri glacier, its free flowing and crystal clear waters cutting through mountains and valleys. The youthful Yamuna generously nurtures life on its way. But its free-flowing spirit is abruptly interrupted at Hathnikund barrage in Haryana. There, the water is diverted through the western and eastern Yamuna canals. Then a tired river proceeds towards Delhi. The capital drains its drains and effluents into the river. The once pristine Yamuna turns murky. By the time it meets the Ganga in Allahabad, it is a poor shadow of its former self.
 
Since 1993, the government has spent a whopping Rs 1,500 crore to clean the river but to no avail. Its biological oxygen demand (BOD) level is on the rise and pollution continues unabated. In November 2015, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal vowed to revive the river within five years and promised to “promote the culture and heritage of Delhi’s Mother and main water source”. He had made this claim during the much-hyped Yamuna aarti at Gita Ghat. Going a step further, Delhi’s water and tourism minister Kapil Mishra declared that he would take a bath in a clean Yamuna within three years. But Delhi’s mother continues to die a silent death and is not clean enough even to wash hands. 
 
Yamuna is the second largest tributary of the holy river Ganga and shares the same fate as her sister. Both are losing their holiness and are choked by people and politics. Both are paying a heavy price for washing the toxic sins of humanity. 
 
Why is it so difficult to clean up the Yamuna? Because it is a job distributed among a slew of government departments, agencies and ministries entrusted with different, and sometimes overlapping, aspects of the river. For example, the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) is in charge of water supply and sewerage management in the city. Its task is to ensure that untreated water from the drains do not enter the river. The storm water drains on the roads are under PWD. Large drains like Barapullah are under the irrigation and flood control department. Drains passing through Delhi Development Authority (DDA) and municipality lands are under their respective jurisdictions. But sewage from the city enters the river through all the drains. The overlapping jurisdiction means a lot of waste water ends up in the river, untreated. 
 
To cut through the layers of red tape, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in Delhi wanted to set up a special purpose vehicle (SPV), on the lines of one which speeded up the Delhi Metro project. According to Kejriwal, the proposal had found favour with the centre and several rounds of consultations were held. But on December 15, 2015, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) raided the office of the Delhi government’s principal secretary Rajendra Kumar. With the CBI raid the relations between the centre and the Delhi government took a nosedive and the plan for the SPV was shelved, Kejriwal has alleged. 
 
However, Uma Bharti, union minister for water resources and Ganga rejuvenation, told Governance Now that the centre is doing “a lot” to clean the river and the SPV is still being discussed. The government on May 7 launched some schemes of phase three of Yamuna Action Plan (YAP) from Chhath Ghat in Delhi. Under YAP-III, an initiative under the Modi government’s Namami Gange scheme, Rs 800 crore will be spent on modernisation of sewage treatment plants (STPs), rehabilitation of sewer lines and rising mains of STPs and public outreach activities. Bharti also flagged off the operation of a trash skimmer for river surface cleaning. Trash skimmers have been used in the Ganga but without much success as the pollution at the source continues unabated. 
 
For decades this has been the fate of Yamuna – suffocating under the burden of a political tug-of-war and false assurances from various parties. The Delhi government, meanwhile, claims to be doing its best, in its limited capacity, to the clean the river. An organisation called Dayadham has been conducting a daily aarti at the banks since November. “The idea is to connect people to the river through this ceremony. People need to be made aware of what has happened to the river and they must make a commitment to do something about it,” says Kapil Mishra.
 
But Manoj Misra, convenor, Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan, is unimpressed. “I do not think that events like aarti with primarily ceremonial value have any real role to play in the rejuvenation of the river. For its rejuvenation, the river needs flowing water, secured flood plains, and cessation of pollution. How is aarti going to help in this?” 
 
For the past 10 years, Misra, a former Indian Forest Service official, has been spearheading several movements to save the Yamuna. He has campaigned against the construction of the Commonwealth Games village, Akshardham temple, and the Millennium bus depot on the floodplains. Last year in December, he had filed a petition before the National Green Tribunal (NGT) protesting against the hosting of the World Culture Festival at the floodplains. Asked if the government policies have made any difference for the river, his answer is an emphatic “no”. 
 
“The polluting drains continue to dump a toxic mix of sewage, industrial effluents, and surface run-offs. Majority of STPs in the city continue to operate sub-optimally and there are a number of unauthorised industrial units operating out of non-industrial areas and hence out of the purview of the pollution regulators,” he rues.     
 
Are there any solutions?
The Delhi government is planning to involve residents’ welfare associations (RWAs) and schools for the cleanup act. “We will ask them to adopt a particular stretch and maintain cleanliness and greenery in that area,” says minister Kapil Mishra. He believes that years of negligence have not only killed the river but people have also forgotten it. “People do not know how to reach the river. We either pass the river via the ring road or via a bridge. We have to start bringing people on the banks of the river and make them aware of its existence,” he adds.
 
The Delhi government is also mulling to conduct water sports on the river banks to ensure people come closer to it. To give a boost to Yamuna tourism, the state government is also planning to organise cultural activities and events on the banks of the river. 
 
As for cleaning itself, the government is in the process of building 14 more STPs and planning to upgrade the existing ones. “Most of our STPs have 30 BOD output. We want to make it 10 BOD,” says Mishra.
 
However, Sushmita Sengupta, deputy programme manager, water management, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), feels that more STPs is not the solution. “The hardware approach to solving the problem is the reason we could not successfully clean the river. The focus has always been on building STPs or effluent treatment plants (ETPs) whether it is the Ganga or the Yamuna,” she says. STPs can be constructed only where land is available. Given the density of any metro city, land availability is rare. Moreover, constructing STPs does not guarantee that the waste water will be treated. Most cities lack the conveyance system to carry the sewage to the STP and this problem is often overlooked by policymakers. Only 50 percent of the cities located on the banks of rivers like the Ganga and Yamuna are connected to sewer pipelines. The waste from unauthorised colonies and slums flow through the drains into the river, untreated.
 
Also, the existing STPs are functioning only at 60 percent efficiency. “Why is the government constructing more STPs without upgrading the existing ones?” asks Sengupta. 
 
On a field visit to the newly constructed Chilla STP, a team from the CSE found that during power cuts, which are frequent, the STP releases untreated waste into the drains. The STPs are also allegedly not engineered to treat faecal coliform. STPs in east Delhi like those at Kondli, Yamunanagar and Chilla that are located along the drains take the sewage water from the drains to treat them. But owing to their limited operational capacity, they are not able to treat the waste water fully. And after the partial treatment, the water is released back into the drains and gets mixed with the sewage water flowing from east Delhi and Noida. “In this way we are just wasting our energy and money,” says Sengupta.
 
To escape this quagmire of bad governance and inefficient systems, Sengupta suggests that localised decentralised waste treatment measures can be adopted. She points out that there are 22 natural drains in Delhi which are supposed to carry excess rain water but are carrying sewage instead. “Why are we not thinking about using these open drains as treatment channels? Microbes, micro flora and fauna can be used to treat them,” she adds.
 
Her claim has merit. In 2007, residents of Dwarka, overwhelmed by the foul smell from the Palam drain, complained to the DDA about it. The drain originates in the Delhi cantonment area and carries 140 million litres of waste water daily. It eventually meets the Najafgarh drain. Under fire from the people, the DDA initially contemplated covering the drain, the cost of which was coming around Rs 40 crore per kilometre. Discouraged by the whopping estimate, the then lieutenant governor of Delhi, Tejendra Khanna, who was also the chairman of DDA, contacted the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) to come up with a cost-effective solution. And they did. “We employed anaerobic bioremediation and floating wetlands to resolve the problem,” says Manu Bhatnagar, principal director, natural heritage division, INTACH, who led the project for cleaning the Palam drain. 
 
The anaerobic bioremediation process employs dripping a mixture of bacteria in a liquid medium in the open drain right from its source. The bacteria break down sulphates nitrates and other impurities to release oxygen. Floating wetlands i.e., aquatic plants like fragmites, typha and cayenne suspended in floating rafts perform the same function as natural wetlands. They suck out nitrates, solid organic wastes through their roots and improve water quality by degrading organic pollutants. The drain was cleaned in two years and cost one-fiftieth of conventional methods. “One-time capital cost for this project is Rs 3 crore and the operational cost is Rs 8 crore annually. Whereas the one-time capital cost of activated sludge method used in STPs is Rs 600 crore and annual expenditure is Rs 100 crore. STPs require one square kilometre of land and 15,000 units of electricity per day, whereas we require none,” says Bhatnagar.
 
It may seem a simple method but the path to this achievement was fraught with difficulties. It was again caught up in bureaucratic hurdles and delays – as always. The detailed project report (DPR) was ready in 2008. But it was only in 2012 that the project was implemented. The DDA, the overseeing authority, had been busy with the preparation of the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Also, though the project was successful, the DDA decided to discontinue it after two years. “DDA believed that the DJB should take the project forward,” explains Bhatnagar. 
 
INTACH has not submitted the proposal to continue the cleaning process though the DPR for the DJB is ready for the past two years. “Our proposal was to clean 35 km of the drain. DJB proposed that we clean only 8 km in two months,” says Bhatnagar. “The bacteria need to be introduced at least 3 km upstream from the location of the project for it to work properly. Also, how will we restrict the bacteria to only 8 km?” he questions.
 
Moreover, such decentralised waste management systems can thrive in areas which have no access to the sewage infrastructure, feels Sengupta. But she warns that a city cannot thrive on such systems alone; a conventional system is needed. 
 
This matter highlights the intertwining mess among different agencies for the cleanup of a water body as small as the Palam drain. The drama is played at a much larger scale for cleaning up of the 52-km stretch of the Yamuna in Delhi. 
 
Annexation of the river
Originating in the Yamunotri glaciers, the river travels 1,376 km through Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Delhi and ends at Triveni Sangam in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh. Some 230 km upstream of Delhi, Haryana diverts most of the water from the river disturbing its natural course. The 22-km stretch between Wazirabad and Okhla in Delhi is severely polluted as 22 drains dumps their waste in this stretch causing 80 percent of the pollution of the river.
 
Misra believes maintaining a minimum flow in the river can ensure that the Yamuna fulfils its environmental roles of ground water recharge and  biodiversity needs, and social needs of people living close to it. But according to the 1994 water sharing agreement between Delhi, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, most of Yamuna waters get diverted.
 
There are, however, two ways to ensure adequate flow in the river. One, if Haryana agrees to release enough water, which is nearly impossible, laments Sengupta. The other option is to store water during monsoon and release it later. “But there is no single solution. It has to be a pack of solutions,” she says. For this, again, collaboration among states and implementing agencies is vital.
 
In January 2015, the NGT in a landmark judgment issued directions for the restoration of the river under the ‘Maili se Nirmal Yamuna’ project, which is slated to be completed by March 2017. Misra, whose petition led to this judgment, is happy with the verdict. 
 
But Sengupta says that the NGT judgement is one thing and its implementation is another. “NGT had also directed the administration to penalise anyone throwing garbage into the river.” But people continue to dump garbage and filth in the river. “Who will implement the court orders?” she asks.  
Only time can tell the fate of the river. But one thing is sure. In the absence of strict governance and monitoring mechanism, the river must be ruing the day she decided to leave her heavenly abode and come to earth. 
 

puja@governancenow.com
(The article appears in May 16-31, 2016 edition of Governance Now)

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