Politics around Yamuna rejuvenation and the noises ahead of Delhi polls

A woman offers prayers in froth-filled Yamuna river. (PTI/File Photo)
Every year, as the sun sets on the first day of Chhath Puja, images of women knee-deep in a puddle of froth and toxic chemicals get circulated widely on social media, highlighting the state of the Yamuna in the national capital.

In the run-up to the Delhi Assembly election 2020, to be held on February 8, Yamuna rejuvenation appears to be a strong poll plank, quite like previous elections.

Addressing his fourth townhall meeting in East Delhi, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said Yamuna would be the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government's priority in the next five years. "A lot of sewer and industrial waste currently flows into the Yamuna. We have identified all of it," the chief minister said. “I can say this with complete confidence that Yamuna will be cleaned in the next five years. Before the next elections, you all will be able to take a bath in the Yamuna, and I will take a dip along with you."

The Yamuna, which originates in Uttarakhand, covers a 50-km stretch, or 3.6 per cent of its 1,376-km journey, through Delhi. Of this, nearly 22 km forms the dirty part polluted by sewage, drainage and industrial discharge. Over the years, the river’s cleanliness has been marred by several factors, such as bureaucratic hurdles due to multiplicity of agencies, a delayed approach to schemes, and lack of accountability ending in a blame game.

The Yamuna, which originates in Uttarakhand, covers a 50-km stretch, or 3.6 per cent of its 1,376-km journey, through Delhi. (PTI/File Photo)
According to environment activist Vimlendu Jha, who had previously filed a petition against spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's programme on Yamuna floodplains, “there is no road map or concrete structure to address the pollution of the Yamuna. Political parties made similar promises in their previous election campaigns, too. But the deadlines keep extending. The present Delhi government considers the Yamuna an infrastructure issue, but this is in fact a problem of constricted flow, which is an inter-state issue. There has been no meeting to address this.”

Delhi shares its borders with Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, both of which are touched by the Yamuna on its course. So, inter-state coordination is a must. But that does not happen due to political reasons.

Sewage treatment a challenge for Delhi

One of the major reasons for the Yamuna’s plight is the discharge of sewage and drainage. Four drains — Najafgarh, Supplementary, Shahdara and Barapullah — deposit their waste (nearly 333 million gallons per day) into the Yamuna. This is where the role of Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) kicks in.

While the Delhi government strives to treat the sewage, the upgrade of STPs has been a challenge. “In the run-up to elections, the government set up and inaugurated several STPs, but these are not enough and there is a need to prioritise them,” Jha adds.

One of the major reasons for the Yamuna’s plight is the discharge of sewage and drainage. (PTI/File Photo)

There are 36 STPs operating across Delhi currently at a capacity of 30 BOD (Biochemical Oxygen Demand). This needs to be enhanced by another 10 BOD to clean the Yamuna’s sewage sludge.

Ankit Shrivastav, a technical advisor to Chief Minister Kejriwal, says: “We are in the process of upgrading these STPs to increase their capacity. In the past couple of years, the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) has upgraded 10-12 STPs. Seven or eight others, under rehabilitation at present, will be fully upgraded in a year’s time.”

Meanwhile, the board has also moved a file for upgrading the remaining STPs, likely to be taken up after a new Delhi government takes charge.

The case of missing accountability

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has intensified its attack on the AAP government, has targetted Kejriwal over its claims of cleaning the river. Speaking to Business Standard, BJP leader Vijender Gupta says: “Kejriwal is repeating what he said five years ago. In fact, they are admitting that the Centre under the BJP has been doing all the work. It was Nitin Gadkari who allotted Rs 1,700 crore for STPs. The Delhi government neither planned nor invested; it is all being done by the Union ministry for water resources, river development, and Ganga rejuvenation.” The BJP plans to develop the Yamuna riverfront on the lines of the Ahmedabad riverfront.

A view of the chemicals on the upper layer of Yamuna river. (PTI/File Photo)

Amid a growing call for cleaning of the Yamuna and enriching the ecology on its floodplains, the AAP has once again promised to revive the Yamuna’s past glory. AAP leader Sourabh Bhardwaj, who is contesting the coming election from Greater Kailash, says: “In the past five years, most of the unauthorised colonies were connected with the sewer network; new STPs are being constructed and waste interceptors placed. The government is also working on reviving other water bodies like the Sanjay lake and Bawana lake.”

Stuck in bureaucratic trap

Environmental activists see the buzz around river pollution and rejuvenation as a welcome step, but they fear that lack of executive determination might stall the work. Manoj Misra, founder of the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, says: “As far as a road map is concerned, it was laid out by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in its 2015 judgment. It was supposed to have been met by December 2017, but nothing has happened to date. What leads to a delay is a lack of executive will. Had there been a push, a lot would have changed."

The cleanliness of the Yamuna calls for a multilateral approach, with the Public Works Department (PWD), Delhi Development Authority (DDA), Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), the water resources ministry, Delhi Jal Board (DJB) and state governments working together. The NGT had set up a Yamuna monitoring committee with two members, including a former chief secretary. But even they, officials say, find it difficult to navigate among so many agencies to get the work done.

Delhi Chief Minister and AAP convenor Arvind Kejriwal speaks at an event ahead of the Delhi Assembly polls. PTI

The restoration calls for a holistic approach, rather than considering the river as a piped body. The reverberations around the issue of Yamuna are not new, and these talks assume greater proportions around the time of elections. But a sustained effort in the right direction remains elusive, even as the aquatic ecology keeps crying for human intervention.

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