Life and times of a river and its people

Life and times of a river and its people

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Wazirabad threshold: Yamuna before and after

Standing atop a bridge leading to a pumping station at Wazirabad water works, Rashid Khan, 65, looked with an intent gaze at the abundant water.

This was the Yamuna he remembered from his younger days when he was into keeping elephants. He had lived near the ITO bridge with elephants for almost 30 years. Around 10 years ago, the government forcibly evicted them. Long before coming to the Yamuna banks, Rashid and his family had stayed at Ashoka Hotel to enable haathi rides for foreign tourists. 
Over the years, Delhi has had just 8-10 families – all from the same clan and there were a total of 20-22 elephants. But only 10-12 elephants remain today. 
Looking at a bountiful Yamuna, Rashid recalled, “The elephants used to enjoy in monsoon the most, bathing for hours. In summers, it was the hand pump drilled into the Yamuna flood plain, which was used for bathing them.”

Rasheed Khan, Hathi Wallah

The spot where he was standing was part of Delhi Jal Board’s water treatment plant (WTP) at Wazirabad, where members of the Yamuna Katha have gathered at the first stop of day one.   
RK Garg, DJB’s member (water works) gave an elaborate explanation about the water supply system and various sources of water for the national capital. There were interesting nuggets of information like, as much as 40 % of Delhi’s water needs - 325 MGD is the quantity of raw water – comes from Yamuna, or, of the various water user states of Yamuna, Haryana gets 45 %, Uttar Pradesh 30 %, Delhi just 6 % and the rest is shared by Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan. As much as 11 million cubic metres of water, i.e. almost 85 % of the water in the river in the entire year is contributed by rains. 
“In Delhi, up to 40-50 lakh people live in unauthorized colonies/slums in Delhi. Their sewage comes directly – untreated – to the river Yamuna,” he lamented. Immediately downstream of Wazirabad barrage start the various drains that empty Delhi’s sewage into the Yamuna. There is no natural water flow after this. 

R K Garg, member of DJB

Rashid nodded in agreement. Over the years he had seen the quality of Yamuna waters change from bad to worst. Overall, the quality of life on the Yamuna banks had changed for worst. Earlier, there was ample fodder for elephants. Fodder was patela – tall grass, sugarcane, jowar , bajra and even papal trees. “But more than anything else, slowly the pollution in Yamuna started taking its toll on the elephants’ skin,” Rashid rued. 
Dr Ritu Priya, public health specialist threw light on the history of Delhi as a capital city, specially, the city’s water history. There was a major cholera epidemic in the 1980s. “Over the ages, Delhi had always been a planned city. But in modern times, the unplanned growth has proved to be a major health hazard.” 

One of Rasheed's elephants getting prepared for a ride

For instance, British New Delhi had no place for class IV employees, she said. So they inhabited fringe colonies. These kind of colonies increased the quantity of untreated sewage being flown into the river. 
Her message: Go for de-centralisation of the water planning system. Second, use modern technology to do natural harvesting and revive natural streams. And last but never the least involve the citizens. “It should be part of the planning as to how we relate to the river,” she said.  

Dr Ritu Priya, JNU, public health specialist

But that is not the case. Government has taken over the ownership of the river from the community and hence restricted people’s access to the river. Rashid is a living example for it. With several government restrictions, there is hardly anyone in the elephant keeping business. The youngsters have turned to horse buggy business. 

Unaware of the plight of youngsters from elephant keeping families, another bunch of youngsters was quite gung ho about the Yamuna and ways to reduce pollution. Sardar Patel School from Lodi Colony had sent its students to Wazirabad WTP. The students – Abhilasha Bakre, Anshula Mehta, Ananjay Sharma, Adarsh Kumar Singh, Shrishti Banzal, Khushboo Chattree and Anoushka Kopila – all from class IX – made a presentation on the concept and their understanding of the National Urban Sanitation Policy vis-à-vis water distribution system, problems due to growing urbanization and possible solutions by community awareness. 

Then, DJB’s quality control officers Vinod Kumar and Pritam Singh showed the group around the water treatment plant, the various steps involved in water treatment. 
GIZ’s Regina Dube asserted it was important to understand the historical dimension for city’s sanitation history. “For the future, we need to understand and link the historical and the cultural dimensions. Also, people from the entire society need to sit together and come up with a developmental solution.”
Earlier, Arne Panesar from GIZ had pointed out how he had badly wanted to meet the haathiwala and ride elephant since he was in college. “The river is very much a symbol for many cities. But experts alone are not enough for thinking about rivers, we need people from all fields,” Panesar added.
Agreed Rashid, who is very clear about his ideas about the Yamuna: “Aadmi change hua, toh darya bhi hua (As the man changes, so has the river).”

So true, especially for Delhiites!!

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