“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.