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A site of contestation

Published : Jul 29, 2005 00:00 IST



The Delhi government's plan to develop a major portion of the Yamuna river banks meets with strong opposition.

AMAN SETHI in New Delhi

ACCORDING to the poster on her office walls, Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dixit dreams of a Delhi where "lush green parks beckon our children to play with joy, and invite our elderly to relax in the sunshine of peace". While Sheila Dixit's vision is undoubtedly noble and sincere, the city's largest open space, the banks of the river Yamuna, is rapidly becoming a site of contestation between a host of government agencies and private lobby groups. The fate of 97 sq km of prime land, 7 per cent of Delhi's total area, hangs in the balance.

With the Master Plan for Delhi 2021 released by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) calling for "a strategy for the conservation/development of the Yamuna River Bed area in a systematic manner" and a June 4 Delhi High Court decision granting the DDA permission for the acquisition and commercial development of a 25-km-stretch along the river bank, the decks have been cleared for the transformation of eastern and central Delhi.

Seen as the sewer of the city, the Yamuna's banks have never been seriously considered real estate. However, a growing demand for real estate and a winning bid for the 2010 Commonwealth Games have meant that Delhi has no choice but to reconsider the prospect of river bank development.

The Chief Minister believes that the Commonwealth Games will play a vital role in making Delhi a "world-class" city. She said: "The Games Village will require infrastructure, transportation links and development of the riverfront. East Delhi shall be transformed in the manner south Delhi was during the Asian Games in 1982-83. Delhi shall also bid for the Asian Games and maybe even for the Olympics in the coming years."

According to the bid submitted by the Indian Olympic Association to the Commonwealth Games Federation, the Games Village is planned on 100 acres (40 hectares) on the banks of the Yamuna and will be well connected to the rest of the city by roadways and public transport. The land has already been acquired, the clearances have been granted and construction has begun. However, opposition is mounting from various quarters and has taken many forms.

Environmentalists such as Ravi Aggarwal of Toxics Link and Vimalendu Jha of We for Yamuna explain that construction on the river bed is inadvisable as the soil is sandy and has low carrying-capacity, a fault line runs through the area on a north-south axis and the area is prone to periodic floods. Further, covering the banks with impermeable concrete would threaten Delhi's largest groundwater recharge zone, they say. Construction would also lead to the channelling of the river, whereby its meandering course will be restricted by steep embankments. While channelling will make more space available for development and construction of the river banks, it will not do much for the river. Jha said: "Channelling ensures that the amount of water allowed into the river shall never be increased. Any increase will result in the river flooding its embankments." A major reason why the Yamuna is so polluted is that there is not enough water flowing in the river through the Delhi stretch. Construction on the banks would make the river's rejuvenation close to impossible.

The DDA is tight-lipped about its plans for Zones O and P, the Yamuna banks, while the plans for most other zones are available. Based on periodic statements made to the media, the DDA plan seems to consist of an integrated model involving channelling in part of the river, and the development of the banks as green spaces and commercial areas. The proposals are centred on a "Thames-type Plan" and include a water sports complex, a cycling track and heritage walks. In fact, the latest proposal, according to the Chief Minister, is to invite an international body such as the Thames River Authority to carry out a feasibility study for the development of the river front. The study is scheduled to start by September and the results should be available by early 2006.

CONTRARY to the fond imagination of the DDA and the real estate lobby, the Yamuna banks are not a tabula rasa on which the success story of a "world-class city" may be penned. The banks are the basis of a complex network of religious, social and economic relations between the river and those residing on its banks; and the residents are legitimately suspicious of any development plan. Institutional development of public areas usually results in their appropriation by the elite and the rapid exclusion of less privileged groups. Lodhi Gardens, Dilli Haat and similar supposedly "public spaces" are examples. At present, the elite have no connection with the river. The only people who engage with the river on a regular basis are those who depend upon it for survival. They shall be the first to be forced off the banks.

Punjabi Ghat, near the Inter-State Bus Terminal, is one of the few access points to the river. Narender Singh "Nandy", who runs a cold drink stall at the entrance to the ghat, said: "This ghat has existed for as long as I can remember. It is an important site for offering shradda to Ma [Mother] Yamuna." Most days are busy. Sundays and religious occasions are chaotic. Ram Lal has lived on the bank for the past eight years. He said: "I collect plastic and paper waste from the river and sell it as kabari. It is not a very satisfying work, but I make between Rs.50 and Rs.60 a day." Mohan, a boatman, takes pilgrims on short yatras along the river. He makes between Rs.70 and Rs.80 every day. Further down the river, women scrub clothes at Dhobi Ghat, coin-divers practise their art, and the pious offer prayers to the river. The banks also provide sites for farming and for a dispersed series of slums, collectively called Yamuna Pushta.

Yamuna Pushta is already experiencing the first signs of riverfront development. In an attempt to curb the pollution of the river, in March 2003, the Delhi High Court directed the State and Central governments to remove all unauthorised structures on the Yamuna's banks, including places of worship and illegal settlements. A public interest petition contesting the eviction was filed on February 5, 2004, but on the basis of a ruling on February 11, 2004, eviction was resumed.

But Yamuna Pushta is not the only "illegal" settlement on the banks of the river. "The Delhi Metro Depot and I.T. Park, near Shastri Park, are both illegal constructions," said Gita Dewan Verma, author of Slumming India: A Chronicle of Slums and Their Saviours. "Construction of these two sites began well before the Delhi government issued a `Public Notice for Change of Land Use'." Gita Dewan Verma has filed a public interest petition questioning the legality of the construction of the two sites.

The basic problem with drafting plans such as the Master Plan, Zonal Plans and the Yamuna Action Plan is that things rarely go according to plan. Most residential settlements in major cities are established on the basis of settlement and regularisation. In Delhi, for instance, only 8 to 12 per cent of residential space comes from master-planning. Thus, actually, the plan becomes an ideological construct that provides privileged sections of society with varying degrees of leverage over their less privileged counterparts. By declaring certain settlements "illegal", the plan allows for their demolition and for the construction of "legal" structures such as shopping malls, cinema halls and "lung spaces". However, the need for cheap labour ensures that the working class is not banished altogether. Planning allows for "land use change" by government authorities, which ensures that the state is rarely caught in its own tangles.

Ravi Aggarwal suggests that development plans for the Yamuna and its banks are trapped in a techno-managerial, problem-solving format. This denies the citizens opportunities to engage with the river personally or as a community, he said.

The river is no longer seen as a living, breathing entity, but as a problem that must be solved, or as a plan that must be drafted and implemented. Plans are heavily invested in over-arching, centralising visions of development and force people to think in the same way. Thus, it becomes impossible to view the Yamuna as a series of small areas with different models of development, as opposed to a grand crisscross of walkways, heritage sites and water sport parks.

Plans reduce the scope of development to a series of infrastructural choices - between a walkway or a bicycle track, channelled flow or non-channelled flow, five star hotels or slums. The development of the Yamuna need not revolve around landscapes, but around mindscapes. Can the residents devise strategies by which the Yamuna is a river first, not just a resource to be "preserved", "conserved" or "developed"?

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jul 29, 2005.)



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