Death of a River

This was first presented as a paper in a seminar on “The River” organised by the Max Muller Bhawan on 11 and 12 December 2010. Photo credits: Gigi Mon Scaria, Himanshu Joshi and Sohail Hashmi. Maps: The coloured map of Delhi is the restored version of an 1850 map; restoration is by E Ehlers and T Krafft. The black and white map is based on an 1807 map of the draingage of Delhi, made by a British cartographer. The three current three maps have been drawn by Shela Hashmi Grewal. You can stop at any image in the silde show above, by using the controls that you will discover once you hover the cursor over the slideshow.

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The Final scene in the epic tragedy of the Jamna is being enacted at these very moments and the agencies that have wrought this havoc continue to initiate decisions that will permanently erase all signs of the river that has sustained the city that you and I call Hamari Dilli.

Before coming to my understanding of what needs to be done to save the Jamna, instead of what is being done to destroy it. I would like to draw your attention to certain geographical features of the land around Delhi, in order to better understand the factors that contributed to the location of the several Delhis and their relationship to the river.

The river Jamna roughly divides the city in two unequal halves, with two thirds of the city to the west of the river and 1/3rd to its east. To the southwest and the northwest of the river the land rises gradually till it meets the outcrops of the Arravalis while the plains extend without any major prominences across a vast region to the east. It was perhaps the combination of a river and hilly prominences not too far away that contributed to the popularity of the area as an ideal location for building capital cities in the Delhi plains.

The hilly prominences of the Arravalis to the South west of the city were to become the location of two of the first four Delhis -the first was Lal Kot or Qila Rai Pithora and the third was Tughlaqabad. Al’a-ud-Din Khilji’s Siri, and Mohammad Bin Tughlaq’s Jahanpanah, respectively the 2nd and the 4th Delhis were located in the plains, relatively closer to the Arravalis than they were to the river, both incidentally were surrounded by protective walls.

Now these 4 cities did not have anything much to do with the river. They certainly did not depend on it to meet their requirements of water.

The First urban settlement in Mehrauli relied on wells, step-wells, manmade water bodies like the Hauz-e-Shamsi- built by Sultan Altamash and a few streams like the Naulakha Nala to meet its water requirements.

The second, that is Siri met most of its water needs from the Hauz-e-Khas, commissioned by Ala-ud-Din Khilji and filled by trapping streams, both perennial and rain fed. These streams probably included the two that now run through the IIT campus.

The third city that is Tughlaqabad was the closest to the Jamna, in fact, the Naulakha Nala, carrying the monsoonal overflow of the Hauz-e-Shamsi had created a huge lake, in a depression, between two hills that stood facing each other. Ghyas-ud-Din Tughlaq built the Tughlaqabad fort on the Arravalis using the lake as a moat for the south facing wall of the fort; he chose an island in the middle of the lake as the site for his mausoleum. His son and heir apparent, Mohammad Bin Tughlaq built his fort of Adilabad on the opposite hill, to the south of the lake. A path above the barrage connected the two forts, sluice gates built into the barrage regulated the overflow of the lake into the Jamna and the waters were used for irrigation by the peasants living to the east of the two forts and the lake.

Despite so much water neither the fort nor the town of Tughlaqabad appear to have used the water of the lake for their daily use, for they had built many reservoirs, kunds and baolis inside the fortified city and palace.

Due to large scale construction in the Bijay Mandal area it is difficult to hazard a guess about how the fourth city, Jahanpanah, met its water needs. The Jamna, due primarily to its distance from this area, could not have been a source and therefore, wells, manmade or natural reservoirs, perennial and non-perennial tributaries of the Jamna including the Chiragh Dehli Nala, across which Mohammad bin Tughlaq had thrown a barrage and several others that criss- crossed the plains, could have been the sources that met the needs of the population that resided within the incomplete walls of Jahanpanah.

From the above it is clear that the Jamna was not the life line for at least 4 of the seven Delhis that came to exist in this region between the early decades of the 13th century(Iltutmish reign 1211-1236) and the middle of the 14th century (Mohammad bin Tughlaq reign1324-1351) and that these cities relied mainly on the large number of wells, step wells, natural and manmade lakes and reservoirs and to a limited extent on the streams that fed the Jamuna. The peasants living outside the fortified cities would perhaps have made more use of these streams.

Let us quickly review the other three Delhis, all built on the bank of the Jamna, to see if proximity to the river had in any major way altered their patterns of water consumption. The fact that none of the three cities Firozabad or Kotla Firozeshah (1350s-1388), Quila-e-Kuhna (1533-1556) and Shahjahanabad(1642-1857) were open to the river gives us some idea of their relationship with the river.

All of them were fortress cities, enclosed within a retaining wall and like their predecessors, had their own sources of water that included wells, step wells water tanks etc to meet the daily needs of the residents.

The Kotla of Firozeshah has a huge Baoli and the baoli has so much water even today that it is used to irrigate all the lush green lawns and flower beds of the fort, there could have been other wells, stepwells and reservoirs that supplemented this baoli.

The Qila-e-Kuhna or Puraana Qila was located atop a hillock and taking water from the river, that flowed next to the eastern wall, would not have been feasible, not at least to meet all the requirements of the fort despite a small gate on the eastern wall that provided access to the river. The Purana Quila Baoli and the large well located next to the Hamam, both of which have water even now, could very well have been the major sources of water for the fort.

There was plenty of water inside the Red fort in the ornamental channels, waterfalls and fountains and there was plenty of water in the city as well, flowing through the canals that criss-crossed the streets, gardens and Havelis of Shahjahanabad. Surprisingly none of this was drawn from the Jamna next door, but instead from the Jamna at Hansi, 120 miles upstream of Shahjahanabad and brought to Delhi through the engineering skills of Ali Mardan Khan. Aside from the canals there were baolis and wells that were in use till not too long ago, for instance Chhah Rehmat in Paiwalan that supplied water to Jama Masjid, Chhah Indara behind the erstwhile Majestic Cinema near the Fountain at Chandni Chowk. A few are in use even today like the Sarai More well, now outside the Delhi junction and the well inside Katra Shahanshahi in Chandnichowk and others in many old Havelis and Katras etc.

The water from the Jamna at Delhi was used only to fill the Moat that ran around the fort and the moat that encircled the city running along the Fasil-e-Sheher or the enclosing wall around the city.

What is clear from all this is the fact that all the cities that came into being in this region from around the early 13th century to the 18th century  and even a little later did not primarily depend on the Jamna to meet their daily needs of water.

The large agricultural populations, fishermen, washer men and others that inhabited the banks of the river would have depended on the river more intimately, as they would do even today, if the water was usable. In fact some use the waters, as they are, even now. But the residents of the cities that grew in this region had little or no daily contact with the river, excluding of course boating across if travelling outside the city or when out on a picnic etc or for ritual baths or for cremating their dead on its banks, aside from these instances the river was not, by and large, a daily presence in the lives of the residents of the walled cities, including those who lived in Shahjahanabad.

I am raising these issues in order to foreground the fact that despite more than a thousand years of urbanisation in this region, it is only in the last 200 years or so that we have begun to draw on the resources of the river and this time has been enough to kill the river. The exploitative relation that our colonial masters established with the river, as they did with everything else in their empire, has been persisted with in independent India and today the river is a festering sewer except during the erratic monsoons when it has a flow for 2 to 3 weeks.

I am not going to go into the details of the impact of the building of dams upstream, or the impact of the diversion of flow for irrigation, on the meagre flow of the river, occasioned by the use of water guzzling MNC produces Seeds, Fertilisers and pesticides.  I will also not talk about the dumping of untreated sewage over decades that has slowly but surely killed the river. I will also not talk about the excessive reliance on the non existing waters of the Jamna for domestic and industrial use .All this has been documented and explored by environmental experts and scholars who have spent a life time exploring these areas and I cannot add anything new.

I will however like to draw your attention to two initiatives that are geared to kill whatever chance this benighted river has of surviving, the first is presented to us in the guise if reviving the river face and the other comes to us disguised as an effort to clean up the river.

The first, that is reviving the river face, has the long term objective of putting the river in a concrete channel and freeing the entire flood plain for the builder mafia. Simply put the idea is to canalise the river and to build a overflow channel that would carry the monsoonal overflow of the river outside the city and rejoin the river downstream of Okhla. If this operation succeeds, thousands of acres of land would be freed in the heart of the city for all kinds of building activity.

The only hitch in this project was the fact that building on the flood plain is not permitted, Delhi cannot use the water downstream of the Wazirabad Barrage, as this water belongs to UP, not only the water in the channel but all the rain water that falls on this land is supposed to flow unhindered to UP and that is why all the barrages downstream of Wazirabad Barrage from ITO to Kalindi Kunj are maintained by UP irrigation.

From the point of view of the Developer lobby unless this “antiquated” rule was sidestepped there was little hope of progress and development. Not surprisingly religion came to the rescue. For the first time land, and not a few thousand square yards but all of one hundred acres of flood plain land, was released for the Akshardham Temple. Land that was according to all the master plans of Delhi was not be built upon, come what may.

After much ado and offering alternate sites the DDA offered 60 acres of land to the Akshardham temple promoters in April 2000 and UP offered 30 acres of land from their entitlement. It is interesting to note that land in Delhi is controlled by the central government, the home Ministry to be precise.  Mr.L.K. Advani was the then Home Minister while Mr Ram Prakash Gupta of the BJP was the Chief Minister of UP at the time.

The coming up of this temple was the crack through which the builder lobby put their foot inside, the next occasion was the Commonwealth Games, that has generated a lot of uncommon wealth for a few, especially the builders and several others, another sleight of hand operation was the building of a temporary parking lot for the low floor buses over 76 acres at a cost of rupees 76 crores that is now sought to be made permanent.

So even if all the efforts to clean up the Jamna were to fructify, there will not be any place for the river to flow in by the time it is actually cleaned up.

The second initiative is the so called effort to clean up the river. After guzzling hundreds of crores in several Save Jamna campaigns the new idea that is being actively pursued is to collect all the filth brought in by all the drains from the city, incidentally there is no mention of the muck flowing in from the eastern bank, to collect it and clean it up through a mega filtration plant to be set up by a well known multinational and to release it into the Jamna. I am not sure, but what I have heard, suggests that the company in the running has of late acquired some experience in treating and supplying drinking water but very little in recycling and filtration sewage.

What would happen if this mega plant handling millions of litres of untreated sewage was to breakdown even for a few hours is something that has not even been considered, another thing that has not been considered is the fact of large amounts of leeching of pollutants into the river bed from this phenomenal reservoir of untreated sewage.

So this is what is in store for the Jamna in the near future. A constant encroachment of the flood plain, a narrow channel for the river to flow in, the annual cleaning agent of the flood being denied the opportunity to flush the river bed by diverting the monsoonal flow away from the river as it passes through the city, a mega plant for cleaning up dissolved pollutants, set up by a company that probably has little experience in the field.

I think there is an alternative to the Mega Water treatment plant, an alternative that can be put in place in stages and the completion of each stage will lead to improvement in the quality of water that enters the Jamna from Delhi.

First of all we need to stop untreated sewage and domestic waste water from entering the Drains. This can be achieved by laying down sewage pipes on both sides of each drain and directing all water flowing towards the drains into them.

Small water treatment plants, built along the course of the drains at regular intervals, will tap this sewage and the residue flowing in the drains, treat it, clean it and release it into the drains.  This method of treating waste water and sewage might work out to be more expensive than a mega treatment plant, but we have the know-how and all the monies don’t have to be forked out at one go.

The exercise has to be conducted all along the course of the drains, so that by the time the water reaches the Jamna it has ceased to be sewage and the drains have been transformed once again into tributaries of the Jamna.

Simultaneously with this, all storm water drains need to be connected to the proposed water treatment plants along the drains or similar water treatment plants in order to treat the water flowing in these drains and then to direct this water into the natural nalas that crisscross the city, this exercise will have to be conducted along the entire course of the storm waters drains.

I have included these drains in the scheme because, in the absence of proper sewage in many areas, the storm water drains have been converted into open drains.

The advantages of this scheme will include reduction in the leeching of pollutants in the sub soil and improvement in the quantity and quality of sub soil water. This may gradually lead to a rising water table and revival of many dry baolis and disused wells.

The noxious fumes rising from these drains that all of us inhale will be greatly reduced. In areas where the drains mainly carry industrial effluents, the cleaning up of the water will lead to a return of vegetation and of birds.

And most importantly it will lead to great amount of savings for the Delhi government because the Government of the NCT of Delhi will no longer be required to spend billions for building the mega plant and for covering up the drains and building Dilli Haats, flower markets or parking lots over them.

When the Drains have once again been turned into tributaries of the Jamna, their water could be diverted during the Monsoons to revive the lost water bodies and gradually large sections of the Delhi population could be weaned away from their reliance on the Jamuna for their daily needs of water.

This then will be a return to an old tradition of the Dilliwalahs, an old tradition that needs to be revived if the Jamna has to be saved.

All this will however only clean up the water that drains into the Jamna from Delhi the drying up of the flow due to activities upstream of Wazirabad Barrage and the concerted invasion of the flood plains and the River bed need to be resisted on a much larger scale and for that we will perhaps need to build our own Green Party.

4 thoughts on “Death of a River”

  1. Something I have realised differs greatly between traditional Indian cities and contemporary Planned ones is the attitude of what to do with storm-water. As far as I have been able to research, most Indian cities were designed like bowls to collect as much rain-water as possible from within and around the built area. This water was made to seep into the ground using various mechanisms, thus recharging the groundwater table every monsoon. Today most of our cities have been infiltrated with storm-water drains that only allow the water to flow away to a lower altitude (in Delhi almost all of it goes into the Yamuna, I guess). This is understandable from a British planning perspective as it rains so much over there.
    But in India it rains for only 3-4 months in a year and we need to conserve that water instead of letting it flow away. Look at Connaught Place where almost 80-90 % of the ground is paved so almost no water has a chance to seep into the ground.
    Why I think this is an important factor is because all this clean rainwater gets mixed with sewage and waste and creates a huge volume of sewage. Water which could easily be diverted locally to replenish the groundwater table becomes sewage.

    1. @ Asim Waqif
      You are absolutely right, Take the case of Hauz-e-Khas, not the ‘Boutique village of expensive shops and eating joints of doubtful parentage created by fashionistas and mostly fake epicureans’, but the water body created by Ala-ud-Din Khilji, out side the old village that came to bear the name of the Hauz. Ala-ud-Din tapped a few perennial and a few monsoon streams, to colect in a depression and met the water requirements of his garrison town at Siri.. All the rain water that flowed down from Mehrauli along the slopes tapering down along what is now Aurobindo Marg, were directed into the Hauz, now all that rain water is channalised, through storm water drains directly into the jamuna. the rain water that runs down the jamuna causes a flood situation for 15-20 days and is eventually consigned to the seas at the bay of Bengal. even if a small part of this could be trapped in man made ponds like Hauz-e-Khas, Hauz Rani, the Najafgarh lake, the Naraina lakeand natural water bodies inside the sanjay van and outside like the Neela Hauz etc etc. we would have solved much of the water problem of Delhi.

      1. Glad we are on the same page.
        Its also curious how contemporary green technology tries to portray a new-age image, ignoring vernacular practice. Bikaner had one of the most intricate systems roof-top harvesting (not to mention talao, baoli, kuin, etc), and some of it is still active inspite of decades of disrepair. Rain-water harvesting is now being enforced in Delhi, but there is no emphasis in Bikaner about this. In fact a large part of the water in Bikaner comes from IG canal. The city development plan states that “It is proposed to reduce supply of ground water, having high TDS and chlorides, by increasing canal water supply.” Ofcourse Punjab doesn’t want to release as much water as Rajasthan would like.
        Most of the wells that supply water to the city are from deep aquifers, some more than 1000 feet deep. This depth puts more pressure on the water and it absorbs more minerals. The vernacular system relied on an yearly renewal of the upper aquifer and tapped this water for the rest of the year.

        Linked with the problem of storm-water is also the shear quantity of sewage created by each individual. Our daily consumption of clean water has increased manyfold over the last few decades and most of it goes down the drain. The irrigation engineers would only like to increase the supply. That is their vision of “development”.
        With the result that many lakes in Bikaner now collect sewage! :-(

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