No amount of cleaning can cure the Yamuna unless it is liberated at Hathnikund barrage

The fresh water used for irrigation and industrial purposes through the WYC returns to the Yamuna via the Najafgarh drain in Delhi. The river turns visibly dirty after this. Image courtesy Google Earth on 4 April 2016
05 April, 2016

“Where we are sitting right now was also a part of the original floodplains of the Yamuna,” Manoj Mishra lamented, when I met him on 25 March at his Mayur Vihar residence in East Delhi, around three kilometres from the river. Among other things, Mishra, the convener of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan—a civil society consortium that has been striving for the rejuvenation of the river since 2006—explained how the city’s land and infrastructure needs had gradually infiltrated into the river’s ecosystem. Tracing his fingers across a computer screen showing satellite pictures of Delhi via Google Earth, he indicated the latest infringements on the floodplains—the Shastri Park and Yamuna Bank metro stations, the Akshardham temple, the Common Wealth Games Village, and the Millenium Park Bus Depot, all of which came up between 2002 and 2010.

Apart from sustaining the biodiversity of the region and supplementing the capacity of the river to recharge the ground and surface water, the floodplains serve as a natural buffer zone between the river and the city during the high monsoon floods. This is why environmentalists protested the World Culture Festival (WCF) that was held right on the Yamuna banks from 11-13 March. In spite of the backlash and the National Green Tribunal’s (NGT) acknowledgement that the organisers—the Art of Living (AOL) foundation headed by the spiritual leader Ravi Shankar—had caused severe damage to the floodplains, AOL went ahead with the festival in the presence of prime minister Narendra Modi, without paying the 5-crore-rupee interim compensation stipulated by the NGT. The amount remains unpaid, and the next hearing for the case is scheduled on 21 April.

The annexation of the Yamuna floodplains, though, is just one of the problems ailing the river, which becomes a stinking black mass as soon as it enters Delhi. According to the activists I spoke to, since 1994, when the Supreme Court took suo moto notice of the river’s condition, the various central governments along with those of Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh (UP) have spent over Rs 5000 crores in attempts to clean the river, through schemes such as the Yamuna Action Plan (YAP), a bilateral river restoration plan between the government of India and Japan, which is currently in its third phase. These efforts though have mostly been marked by big promises with no actual results, since the governments have preferred an infrastructure-based approach, i.e. building more treatment facilities, sewers, etc. Over the course of my reporting, I discovered that this was essentially misdirected.

“The grammar used by the judiciary, executive and civil society was that we must clean the river. But we need to talk in terms of rejuvenation and target the root cause instead of the symptoms,” Mishra explained. “The Yamuna needs to be liberated at Hathnikund barrage.” The barrage, located in the Yamuna Nagar district of Haryana, right where the Himalayan river enters the plains, became operational in 2002, and through it the Western Yamuna Canal (WYC) and the Eastern Yamuna Canal (EYC) divert almost 90 percent of the fresh water to Haryana, UP, Rajasthan, Delhi and Himachal Pradesh, as per the water sharing agreement signed between them in 1994. In Mishra’s words, the agreement was “the death knell for Yamuna” since it depleted the river’s capacity to recharge itself and dilute the pollutants entering it.

The problem, he elaborated, is that the policymakers have been looking at the Yamuna simply as a water source and not as an ecosystem. As far back as 1999, the Supreme Court had ordered that a minimum flow of 352 cusecs (cubic feet per second) be maintained at Hathnikund. However, this was not done until last year, when the NGT took up the issue in its January 2015 judgment on a petition filed by Mishra. “Since July 2015, Haryana has been releasing 352 cusecs downstream instead of 160. But even this is nothing for a river like Yamuna, it must have a minimum flow of 2000 cusecs at all times. For this, sacrifices need to be made by the states,” Mishra told me.

According to him, the leanest month for any Himalayan river is January, when the volume of water is at its minimum since the monsoon water has long departed and the glaciers are yet to thaw. Even at this time, the average flow of the Yamuna at Hathnikund is 3500 cusecs according to the response by the Haryana Irrigation department to a Right to Information (RTI) query filed by Mishra. “So, leave 2000 for the Yamuna. Take 1500 cusecs and use it, but don’t put that back into the river, even as treated sewage or effluents. Let it be recycled for irrigational or industrial use. This will take care of the pollution, while the minimum flow would help cure the river on its own,” he concluded.

Otherwise, the average flow of the river during the monsoons tends to be around 25,000 cusecs, while during high floods, it reaches over 8 lakh cusecs. According to the 1994 agreement, the annual allocation of water from the Yamuna to the five states stands as: Haryana, 5.730 billion cubic metres (BCM); UP, 4.032 BCM; Rajasthan, 1.119 BCM; Delhi, 0.724 BCM; and Himachal Pradesh, 0.378 BCM. Thus, the total outtake of fresh water comes to 11.983 BCM per year, or about 13,400 cusecs. Considering that even during the lean season, the Yamuna has an average flow of at least 3500 cusecs at Hathnikund, leaving 2000 cusecs to the river should not affect the water supply of these states.

Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP)—an informal network working on issues related to rivers, communities and large scale water infrastructure—agreed that maintaining the minimum flow was vital to the Yamuna. According to him, the states take away almost all of the fresh water during the non-monsoon seasons, and they are yet to build proper reservoirs so as to avoid doing this. In addition, he stated that the pollution from sandmining in UP, Haryana and Delhi, and the extensive reliance on ground water in Delhi are major causes of concern as far as the river’s health is concerned.

Nonetheless, the states continue to wrangle over the supply figures, and the situation is further complicated by the use of water as a tool of political negotiation between the various governments in power. Moreover, after being put to irrigational and industrial use, the water diverted from Hathnikund often returns to the Yamuna, only now containing pesticides, fertilisers and myriad effluents. For instance, after covering the entire stretch of upstream Haryana through the WYC, the polluted water finally returns to the Yamuna via the Najafgarh drain in Delhi—which like the other major drains of the city, was once a tributary of the Yamuna called Sahibi river. “First you’re taking all that water out, polluting it, and then sending it back to the Yamuna. After that, you talk of treating it in order to clean the river. But even the latest technology cannot make the water as pure as it originally was,” Mishra stressed. He went on to reiterate that this was akin to treating only the symptoms, and not the cause.

Additionally, the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) is supposed to ensure that all sewage and effluents are treated and recycled. “But the DJB has continuously been violating the Water Act [1974], which mandates that no pollutant of any kind should be allowed to fall into a natural stream,” Mishra explained. Also, according to him, the standard claim that Delhi is unequipped to deal with the amount of sewage it generates is false.

As per the latest DJB reports, the total sewage generated in the city is around 680 million gallons per day (MGD), while the present sewage treatment capacity of Delhi stands at around 604 MGD. Therefore, on paper, Delhi has the infrastructure to treat around 88.8 percent of its sewage, but this is never achieved in practice since most of the 36 sewage treatment plants (STPs) at 21 locations around the city function below capacity. According tovarious news articles over the past couple of years, and a CAG report of 2013, DJB only manages to treat 50-60 percent of the total sewage generated in the city. Therefore, instead of creating more infrastructure and investment through schemes such as the Sewerage Master Plan 2031, Mishra stressed that the government ought to fix their existing systems on priority to achieve higher efficiency.

Additionally, Mishra asserted that instead of sending the supposedly treated water back into the Yamuna, it must be recycled for non-potable purposes such as the irrigation of parks, cleaning and firefighting. “Why should fresh water be given to industries or used for irrigation? And again, the industries need to be zero discharge, that is, they must recycle whatever water they use,” he said, before adding that the government bodies supposed to ensure this—such as the Delhi State Industrial and Infrastructure Development Corporation (DSIIDC), the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) and the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB)—are terribly understaffed in terms of scientists and inspectors. As a result, the implementation of the law suffers, and the industries mostly go unchecked.

Vimlendu Jha, the founder of Swechha, a Delhi-based organisation that, among other things, has been fighting for the Yamuna since 2000, echoed Mishra’s opinions. Jha stressed that the major blame for the Yamuna’s condition lies with the revenue-driven approach of the various governments, both in terms of agriculture and industry. “You choked the river to further your Green Revolution, but the irony remains that while most of the fresh water is pulled out for irrigation, dirty water is used for drinking,” he stated, before explaining how, “after the liberalisation period of 1991, both small and medium factories, as well as large industries—such as pharmaceutical companies, paper mills and steel factories—mushroomed all over the Yamuna.” Then, tracing the river from Yamuna Nagar—about 50 km downstream from Hathnikund—to the outskirts of Delhi in Bawana, Jha described how this 200 km stretch across Haryana is littered with industries at Kurukshetra, Karnal, Panipat and Sonipat. “They all either draw water from the river, or dump their effluents there,” he said.

In 1999, the CPCB published a report according to which, the Delhi stretch of Yamuna was found to be the most polluted section of the river, and was labelled class E, i.e. fit only for industrial cooling, irrigation and controlled waste disposal. “It wasn’t even deemed fit for fish or animal breeding!” Jha emphasised. Then, in 2000, the Supreme Court asked the Delhi government to ensure that all polluting industries were moved out of residential and non-conforming areas. As a result, these industries moved to the outskirts. “Back then, there were all these advertisements for areas like Bawana and Narela, or along the Haryana and UP borders, inviting people to set up industries without worrying about industrial clearances for five years,” Jha recalled, before accusing the current chief minister (CM) of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal of playing the same politics when he announced that pollution clearances would be done away with for small industries, right after being sworn in as CM in February last year. “If the CM really thinks that the clearances breed corruption, bring alternate systems and better governance,” Jha said, before adding that small industries should not be given a free hand since they are the ones who often take liberties with the law. “Everything is about ease of doing business,” he told me, “that is the new language, but we have been doing it since the nineties—and so, bad air and bad water is what we get.”

Then referring to the CM’s silence and tacit approval for the WCF, Jha continued, “As an RTI activist who has worked on pollution and water issues, the CM knows what a floodplain is. Still he allowed Ravi Shankar to go through with the event. This shows a clear double standard, where on one hand you promise to clean the Yamuna, and on the other, you’re letting the floodplains deteriorate and are inviting more industries without clearances.”

Apart from political agendas and misdirected policies, the other major obstacle in rejuvenating the Yamuna lies with the bureaucracy. “There are numerous agencies, such as [Delhi Development Authority (DDA)], [Public Works Department], irrigation and environment departments of different states, the Ministry of Environment and Forests, the Ministry of Water Resources, and so on. So, it becomes easy for them to pass the buck, like in the case of the [WCF],” Mishra explained. Jha added that the various phases of the YAP too were plagued by problems of corruption and bureaucracy as there were too many stakeholders involved. “In the end, it just became a tool to cater to municipal, industry and water needs. The health of the river—the Y in YAP was ignored.” Over the past weeks, I often tried to access the official YAP website, but each time received a 404 error message saying that the requested resource was not found.

When asked about what the present governments led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) had done in terms of fulfilling their pre-election promises to clean the Yamuna, both Jha and Mishra were unimpressed. “Kapil Mishra [the water minister of Delhi, and chairman of DJB] did an aarti,”—a Hindu ritual—“and there was the [WCF]. That’s it! Both the parties have only made claims, nothing else,” Jha said. The water minister remained unavailable for comment, and on 28 March, I mailed his personal secretary a list of queries on topics such as the actual expenditure out of last year’s allocated budget of Rs 3656 crores for the Yamuna. This time, the Delhi government’s budget released on 28 March did not contain any special allocation for the river. Recalling an old joke among Yamuna activists, Jha said, “Instead of spending thousands of crores, they could have just bought mineral water worth that amount and put it in the river—that would have done more for the Yamuna than any of their efforts.”