Delhi and its river

BHASKAR GHOSE IN THE FRONTLINE

The national capital gets ready for the Commonwealth Games but nothing is being done to improve its drainage system and to clean up the Yamuna.

SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

Garbage on the banks of the Yamuna river. Crores of rupees have been spent on cleaning the river but it continues to be as filthy as a drain.

THIS is about Delhi for only one reason – next year it will be hosting the Commonwealth Games, for which great event the city, or at least, some parts of it, is being transformed.

The point is not so much the Games themselves; it is difficult to say just how many will go to the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium or the Indoor Stadium or the other venues to watch the track and field events and other sports such as cycling, boxing and swimming.

It would be a truly optimistic person who would declare with confidence that the venues will be full, that all of a sudden a city that has never shown any interest in athletics, swimming, cycling and other such sports will suddenly become so interested as to fill the stadiums and become excited supporters of these events.

No, the point is not the Games themselves. It is what Delhi will be left with afterwards – several flyovers, broader and better roads that are well-lit, more power, better buses and some other benefits such as wider pavements, and, perhaps, the most significant of them all, a much-expanded Metro network that will change the way people travel in the city.

Adequate power – they say surplus, but one can take that statement with a pinch of salt – and the Metro will be the two features from the Games that will improve conditions in the city in a fundamental manner. If all goes well, there may even be adequate water.

So far, there are few signs of there being any major improvement in the amount of water the city will get. This is not surprising as a lot depends on water being made available by neighbouring States. Political considerations are sure to play a role in how much water the city actually gets from Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, and how much comes through Himachal Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana, even though the last mentioned State and Delhi are ruled by the same party.

An important factor will be the water in the Yamuna river when it reaches Delhi after passing through a number of States, in terms of what the city can draw from the river and, more importantly, what it puts into it.

Despite all the great improvements going on for the Games – one account says that the rise in the SPM (suspended particulate matter) count in Delhi’s atmosphere is because of the enormous amount of building activity going on both for the Commonwealth Games and by builders in Delhi and its satellite cities of Gurgaon, Faridabad, Noida and Ghaziabad – nothing of note is being done to improve the drainage of the city, and, more to the point, to clean up the Jamuna.

Crores of rupees – the exact figure is of little interest, but it is in excess of Rs.60 crore – have been spent over the past few years to clean up the Yamuna, but Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit has admitted that nothing much has happened as a result. This is only too true, as those who have to cross the river know.

The stench is putrid and intense and hangs over the river and its surroundings like a miasma. Drains, big and small, discharge directly into the river – “raw sewage” – a convenient term to disguise what is actually large amounts of excreta and decomposing flesh laced with chemical and other waste liquids.

What those crores went into no one really knows. Ask the local government and its most likely response would be to set up an inquiry committee comprising retired officers, which would take years to prepare a report so large that no one would ever read it. The facts are brutally simple: crores of public money have been spent on cleaning the Yamuna but it continues to be as filthy as a drain.

The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India recently produced some frank reports on the Army buying golf carts with money meant for purchasing emergency material and equipment and buying dud shells from Russia for the Bofors guns.

Oddly enough, one has not heard of a report from it on how the money meant to clean up the Yamuna was used. If it has indeed examined this “utilisation” of public funds, the report has been kept very quiet indeed.

Work in progress at the Commonwealth Games Village in New Delhi.

There was a report some time last year of a comment made by the chief of the Delhi Metro, E. Sreedharan, that, while it was not his field of expertise, it seemed to him that a big sewer parallel to the river would be able to collect all the effluents released into the Yamuna, and this could then be treated and the cleaned water discharged into the river. It sounds simple enough; simple enough, actually, to work. And it may have cost less than the crores already spent on the schemes to clean the river.

One can only wonder how much of that money has gone into building some of the beautiful apartments and houses that have come up in different parts of the city, and how much into the green acres of “farmland” that surround Delhi. They can, of course, be seen as one aspect of the conversion of the capital city into a more attractive place, and therefore qualify as a public service.

Nonetheless, people can be forgiven for wanting to know just how those crores were spent, who spent it and, what action has been taken against those responsible for spending the money.

One thing needs to be made clear: no one knows just who is really responsible for cleaning the Yamuna. The almost comic structure to govern Delhi, which the Government of India has zealously preserved, has reached epic proportions – if something comic can also be epic – and the CAG will have his work cut out finding his way through the maze of the Delhi Development Authority, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, the Government of Delhi, the Ministry of Urban Development and perhaps a number of other agencies one is not aware of, such as the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Ministry of Environment and Forests, the Indian Space Research Organisation or the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre.

The CAG must necessarily take up this task, if it has not done so already. The people of Delhi need the answers, and they need a coherent, responsible body that actually can and does clean up the Yamuna.The River Thames used to stink in the 19th century until an engineer, Joseph Bazalgette, devised a plan to lay a set of sewers and embankments, which was carried out.In the mid-20th century the Thames Water Authority planned and executed the cleaning of the river, and today there are fish in the Thames and the water is clean.Several officials and dignitaries from Delhi, both from the Delhi government and the Central government, have visited London to “study” the Thames Water Authority and its work; surely some of those “study tours” have had some effect. Can the CAG ask them about that, too? People will be interested in knowing about those trips.•

http://www.frontline.in/stories/20090814261608200.htm

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