Yamuna and its floodplains hold immense possibilities of inclusive and sustainable regeneration for the city. Yet, pervasive lack of public interest seems crucially responsible for the deplorable state of the river in Delhi, writes Anubhav Pradhan
To most of us in Delhi, the Yamuna is not more than mere abstraction. Either politicised imagery of foam and muck or a banal montage of black water seen through the countless trains crossing it daily, the Yamuna is for the most a metaphor for much of Delhi. Unlike other great riverine cities of the subcontinent, unlike Agra, Kanpur, Prayagraj, Varanasi, and Kolkata, Delhi seems to have only a strictly functional relationship with its river: It draws water from and expels waste back into it, but there exists no close, affective tie between the Yamuna and the crores of citizens whose life it so critically supports.
This isn’t as surprising as it is often made out to be though. Unlike most other riverine cities, it is entirely possible to live fully in Delhi and yet never have the occasion to come across it. The city has not grown out from the river, its development has never been centrifugal to any one key site along its banks. Delhi has the enviable past of having had many iterations of urbanisation in often incompatible directions. Of these many cities which have been regarded Delhi over the past millennium and a half, only two — Ferozabad and Shahjahanabad — can be properly considered riverine. Shahjahanabad, the historical city we are most familiar with as Old Delhi, was also built with its regal back to the river, with Chandni Chowk and the great Jama and Fatehpuri masjids being the key sites of sociality much more than any of the ghats. New Delhi, arguably the centre of the city as we know it today, was built by the British on a vantage of the Ridge, Delhi’s other primary geographical feature. The Yamuna exists only on the peripheries of this city, part ornament, part malarial threat, and — a little downstream — simply sewage disposal channel.
Is it surprising, then, that the typical Dilliwaalah has no space for the Yamuna in his self-image as a citizen of Delhi? The Metro system, Raisina and India Gate, various roads and flyovers, Connaught Place, even smog, these signifiers stand in for Delhi. These and similar motifs are what most Dilliwaalahs lay claim to and identify with as constitutive of their mental and emotional make-up with reference to their city. The Yamuna is more often than not just an abstraction, something they hear and listen about but can hardly be bothered to care for.
More than lack of funding, much more than lack of policy, this pervasive lack of public interest seems crucially responsible for the deplorable state of the Yamuna in Delhi. The river and its floodplains hold immense possibilities of radically inclusive and sustainable regeneration for the city. However, since the Yamuna is just an abstracted metaphor for most Dilliwaalahs and they have no idea of what it’s actually like and what happens around and in it, the debate on how best these resources can be used remains restricted to a closed circuit of bureaucrats, planners, jurists, and environmentalists. The public is simply not involved.
Take farming, for instance. How many of us in Delhi know that there is a lot of agricultural activity happening in the city? Farming has no space in our collective imagination of a city, a so-called modern, world class city. For most of us, farming happens out there in the villages, outside city boundaries. It is supposed to be an anomaly in an urban environment, just as cows and hens and other kinds of livestock are seen as aberrations not belonging in a city. Yet, how many of us know that farming has been an integral part of Delhi for centuries now? Of the many millions who daily cross the Yamuna, how many have registered the presence of scattered farming communities along its much-maligned banks? We tend to think of such agrarian livelihoods as unhygienic violations of the urban imaginaries we aspire for and seek to materialise, but how many of us have bothered to examine their relation to our city and to its making?
Organised under the cooperative movement, farming on the Yamuna’s floodplains was given legal sanction via registered leases as far back as 1949. At the time, soon after the shortages of World War II and the ravages of Partition, putting the floodplains immediately adjacent to the urban limits of the city to agricultural use was considered an expedient avenue for self-employment, a pertinent contribution to Delhi’s food security, and a source of steady revenue for the Government. Revenue records and maps establish the long-standing presence of agrarian communities along the Yamuna’s floodplains in this region, so in taking this decision the Delhi Improvement Trust (DIT), precursor to the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), was only reverting to a tradition which Delhi’s tryst with British imperial modernity had ruptured. Even though Delhi was the National Capital and an exponentially growing city, agriculture was still considered integral to its social and economic fabric. This has been the reality of our city, this its actual, corporeal experience. Yet, we still insist on seeing our habitat through the grid and frame of idealised urban imaginaries which penalise such forms of urban life and livelihood simply because they no longer seem to fit in.
Such has been the fate of farming communities along the 22-km urban stretch of the Yamuna in Delhi, from Wazirabad to Okhla. The courts are told by the DDA that the leases were not renewed after 1967, so farmers are necessarily encroachers on public land. Why, though, were the leases not renewed? What plans did the DDA have for the floodplains and for the Yamuna?
Over the past three decades, as Delhi witnessed massive structural transformations, the Yamuna and its floodplains have been sites of fierce contestations amongst the DDA, the judiciary, and environment activists. Much has been researched and written about the waves of brutal demolition which swept the floodplains clean of many bastis, often in violation of rehabilitation and compensation policies. Even as the river turned black and became a weary icon of Delhi’s apathy towards itself, the poor and the disadvantaged metamorphosed into convenient scapegoats for pollution. Being visibly present on the floodplains, they were assigned a lion’s share of blame for degrading the river’s ecosystem. Farmers, being peripherally part of these bastis, too were considered criminal offenders; that they continued to farm on public land to which they legally had no right counteracted the fact that they also continued to deposit land rent to the DDA. Consequently, successive bureaucratic and judicial regimes have found them unnecessary eyesores, and have maligned them for not only encroaching upon public land but also polluting the river by practising agriculture along it.
But what must be practised along a river if not agriculture? Which uses must a river’s floodplains, in close human contact, be put to? What suits a riverine ecosystem, exposed for millennia to human touch, better than seasonal farming? Jogging tracks, tourist gazebos, and ornamental ponds, if the DDA is to be believed; biological parks and wetlands, as per environmentalists. However, thinking thus, both assume that the Yamuna’s floodplains have been empty land, tabula rasa awaiting the master stroke of visionary experts.
There is, first, the logic of capital, seeing the river and its floodplains in terms of their dual potential as sources of revenue-oriented recreation on one hand and sites for supposedly iconic public infrastructure on the other. This logic, informing policies across generations of the DDA’s technocracy, has sought to make the floodplains amenable for so-called development. The Golden Jubilee Park and Akshardham Mandir are prime examples of this, as are the Commonwealth Games Village, Millennium Bus Depot, a number of Delhi Metro installations, and even the Delhi Secretariat. Built in violation of zoning and environmental laws, these and similar establishments have been accepted as fait accompli.
Secondly, there is the rhetoric of revival, seeing all human contact as polluting and seeking to restore the river and its banks to some halcyon, pre-human bio-diverse heaven. Environmental activists of this ilk argue, rightly, that the Yamuna has reached its present degraded condition only due to the unchecked interference of all of us, as a city. They appeal to the judiciary to enforce basic minimum standards upon the state, to monitor the augmentation of our sewage treatment capacity and check the flow of untreated waste water into the river. The floodplains, they feel, are best suited for biodiversity reserves and ecological parks, nurtured carefully and closely to reflect the wealth of local flora and fauna being lost to urbanisation.
Both these stakeholders, vocal and powerful, ignore the basic reality of the river in pressing these solutions: That it is not empty land, that it has been home to farming communities for more than seven decades now, and that people’s lives and livelihoods must be prioritised as much as any ideal imaginaries of what cities should look and feel like. Consider Bela Estate, a small stretch of the floodplains from Loha Pul to Rajghat Power Plant. From January 2010 to January 2017, the DDA undertook as many as 25 demolition drives to free public land from farmers. The Golden Jubilee Park is located here, much of compensatory afforestation happens here; this is the site of Phase 1 of the DDA’s Yamuna Riverfront Development Project. Even as farmers’ fields and hutments are regularly bulldozed, there seems to be no question of dismantling, say, the defunct Rajghat Power Plant, or shifting out the Delhi Secretariat, or evicting the Delhi Metro. All of these public installations have been built on floodplains in violation of the law by those appointed to implement it, yet the larger public and judicial discourse on saving, reviving, cleaning, and developing the Yamuna seems to revolve only on the apparently wilful occupation by an unscrupulous few. Not only does this conveniently gloss over the complex history of riverine farming and its completely legal precedents in Delhi, it also negates the possibility of involving all stakeholders in fruitfully co-creating a viable solution for the deep, dark mess the Yamuna is today.
We must ask new and different questions if we are to productively imagine a sustainable future for the Yamuna and its floodplains. We must acknowledge that what we think our cities should be like is often divorced from what they actually are. This is not as much compromising from cherished ideals as examining these ideals on the sound basis of ground realities. How much, for instance, do a few hundred individuals reduced to the brink of desperate poverty by ceaseless demolition pollute an entire river? Is their presence responsible for our failure to clean up the 22 major storm water drains discharging millions of gallons of untreated domestic and industrial waste in the Yamuna? Is further concretisation and landscaping likely to augment ground water recharge over and above what currently happens naturally in farmlands?
At a time when rooftop farming and urban farming have become international trends, we don’t have to look elsewhere for inspiration. We simply need to remember that agriculture is already an integral part of Delhi and has contributed to its environment and economy for generations now. If we expect the state and judiciary to prioritise livelihood over law in exempting merchants and markets from sealing, then we can surely move to accept farming as an ecologically inventive and socially profitable use of the Yamuna’s floodplains. The nature and terms of agrarian activity come later, what should be grown and how; what is needed first is to recognise the very real threat to an entire way of life which has been integral to Delhi. As a city, we recently showed ourselves capable of coming together to assert our inalienable right to determine its future in the avenues of Sarojini Nagar. We can do something similar for the Yamuna and its farmers, only if we come forward and acknowledge their contribution to the city.
The writer has been conducting archival and ethnographic research on the Yamuna’s floodplains in Delhi. The views expressed here are his own