Riverbed is no place for a road

Developmental pressures have seen the Yamuna riverbed in Delhi eyed by various developmental authorities -- power plants, refugee settlements, Metro station, Akshardham temple. The list goes on. Now, an elevated road is proposed on the river's floodplains

Manoj MisraManoj Misra   13 Nov 2019 6:21 AM GMT

Riverbed is no place for a road

The Yamuna riverbed in Delhi is a blue curly ribbon spread in an almost north-south direction over a length of some 52 km and a maximum width of 3 km. Covering some 9,700 ha, it is popularly called as Zone O (River Zone) in Delhi Development Authority's (DDA) planning divisions of the city.

Bounded by the Ring Road on its West and the Eastern Marginal Bund (popularly called the NOIDA link road) in the east, the Zone O is well marked on the city's map and in people's minds. The entire Zone O (which is a much-reduced version of its original spread) incidentally goes under deep floodwaters whenever Yamuna chooses to flood, which is quite often. Notable floods have been seen in 1924, 1947, 1964, 1977, 1978, 1995, 1998, 2010, 2013 and 2019. There are seven road bridges, four rail and metro bridges across the river in the city.

Developmental pressures saw riverbed eyed by various developmental authorities from time to time. First came the power plants that not only occupied space and diverted portion of the river's water but also dumped their fly ash onto its banks. When the Tibetan refugees first came, they occupied a portion of the river's west bank and stayed put. Still, till the mid-1990s the onslaught onto the river floodplain was restricted and limited to the west bank which had an elevation higher than the east bank. But with the coming of the Metro in late 1990s, all hell broke loose and it was as if the river bed was up for grabs.

The development projects along the banks of Yamuna river have devastated its floodplains over the years. Pic: Water-to-Cloud project

Soon after the Metro station and the depot at Shastri Park, now in the east bank came the Akshardham in early 2000. The latter was vehemently opposed by the local farmers and legally challenged at the Supreme Court but in vain. Finally, when in mid-2000, another Metro depot and the Commonwealth Games came to be planned, the civil society rose in opposition and a Yamuna Satyagrah followed by a petition at the Delhi High Court brought the question of importance and sanctity of Yamuna floodplains for the city to the fore. Ultimately the Lt Governor of Delhi was obliged in 2007 to impose a moratorium on any new construction in Zone O.

While the said moratorium stemmed to some extent the tide of developmental plans aimed at the Yamuna floodplains, it was finally a judgment in 2015 of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) that decisively sent a clear message that the river floodplain was not on offer anymore. Delivered after an extended adjudication spread over three years (2012-2015) during which some 20,000 truckloads of debris dumped in the floodplains were physically removed. It is a comprehensive judgment that has gone into various aspects of river rejuvenation with time-bound directives for the various agencies involved.

Named the 'Maili se Nirmal Yamuna', the 100-page judgment prohibited any construction in the floodplain. It also mandated an expert committee to prepare a restoration plan for the river floodplains and the said restoration plan was directed to become an integral part of the judgment. It was the brazen violation of this judgment and the provisions of the restoration plan that brought the planned World Cultural Festival in 2016 by the Art of Living foundation into a legal contestation and the imposition of a Rs 5 crore environmental compensation levied on it by the green court.

It is in this context that the now planned elevated road parallel to the Ring Road bang in the riverbed close to the active river water edge is to be seen.

Proposed by the Public Works Department (PWD) of the government of National Capital Territory (NCT) of Delhi, this 22 km long elevated road is meant to decongest the existing Ring Road. Without contesting the need or not of the said road it is a matter of deep concern when developmental agencies seem to view the floodplain as an available piece of unused land awaiting development? Moreover, such a road is not a part of the restoration plan prepared by the experts, which is currently under implementation by the DDA.

One of the issues deserving urgent attention is a lack of legal protection available to our floodplains. Pic: Water-to-Cloud project

In the words of celebrated Australian author D. Mussared (1997):

"Floodplains are as important to rivers as bark is to trees. Most of the processes that drive life in rivers happen around their edges. Just as the sap flows through the outermost ring of a tree, not through its centre, the lifeblood of river ebbs and flows on its floodplains. The vegetation growing there isn't mere decoration; it's a river's roots and leaves."

It is a sad commentary when city planners are still not able to appreciate the eco-sensitive nature of the river floodplains in the city and are ready to further devastate it in form of a 22 km road that shall not only play havoc, during its construction phase with the integrity of the floodplains, but also leave behind an eyesore standing bang in the river like a serpentine hump?

The key objections to this plan, in addition to it being in the teeth of the NGT judgment and the floodplain restoration plan, include an awful lack of public consultation, an obvious lack of options assessment and an open disdain for the integrity of the floodplains.

Even a rudimentary options assessment with avoidance of floodplains as an objective would have preferred the said elevated road going right above the existing ring road as a number of Metro corridors currently, do within the city.

The worst fear is that once approved and in place, the said road shall set an avoidable precedence whereby more and more similar corridors shall be planned to criss-cross the floodplains like an overbearing matrix.

One of the issues deserving urgent attention is a lack of legal protection available to our floodplains which makes such plans easy game. It is thus suggested that the Yamuna floodplains in Delhi be given either an eco-sensitive status under the Environment Protection Act or a wildlife protected status under the Wildlife Protection Act.

Whatever, unless stopped in its tracks such and other plans in due course might even convert the Zone 'O' of the city into a Zone 'Zero'. God forbid!

Manoj Misra is a former forest officer and the convener of the 'Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan' (Living Yamuna Campaign), a civil society consortium.

(Views are personal)

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