The unhindered encroachment of the Yamuna floodplains is causing irreversible damage to wetland ecology, experts told The Sunday Guardian, expressing their dismay at the lack of government intervention. While there was a hue and cry recently over the temporary structure put up on the floodplains for an event by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living, political parties have closed their eyes to scores of illegal colonies dotting the place and to the fact that transgressors are taking advantage of the loopholes in the National Green Tribunal’s directives prohibiting new constructions.
Experts say that the absence of a clear ruling that the floodplains cannot be used for any purpose but biodiversity is a major loophole, giving an opportunity to interest groups to sometimes get permits for some constructions.
“Illegal constructions are going on in spite of the NGT directive that the sanctity of the floodplains has to be maintained. Some constructions are arguably ‘legal’, for example, the hospital which is being made and also the extension of the Metro line which is coming up. The argument being given is that the new constructions are not blocking the water flow. This issue is not likely to be resolved soon in the absence of more concrete laws and directives,” said Ravi Agarwal, founder-director of Toxics Link, an NGO striving for environmental justice.
When these two correspondents surveyed the Jamia Nagar area up to Kalindi Kunj, they were told that the colonies are not regularised and at many points there had been encroachments in the past, which have taken the shape of full structures now. It has been reported that the Shaheen Bagh area in Jamia Nagar has AT&C (Aggregate Technical and Commercial) electricity loss levels of nearly 70%, primarily because of power theft. The two correspondents found the area to be dogged by heavy encroachment, which seems to have jeopardised the electricity infrastructure as well. In fact, electricity poles can be seen pushing into or getting merged with flats’ balconies because of encroachments.
This is a dangerous situation posing a grave threat to the ecologically sensitive belt. In June 2015, the Delhi Development Authority decided not to regularise the colonies that have mushroomed along the Yamuna floodplains over the last few decades. But owing to apparent electoral compulsions, the ruling Aam Aadmi Party opposed the move, obstructing the DDA’s plan of a demolition drive.
Manoj Mishra, who is campaigning to save the floodplains through his NGO, Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, said even if the colonies were regularised, their safety would be under question. Speaking about Sanjay colony in the Ridge and the Majnu Ka Tila Tibetan colony in river Yamuna flood plain, which his NGO surveyed, he wrote on his blog, “The residents of these colonies have chosen to live in the river zone; they know they are at risk. After regularisation, the government may give them certain amenities, but there would still be the risk of floods, as seen in Srinagar in 2014,” Mishra opined.
Some residents in and around Jamia Nagar complained that the floodplains have become a hub of migrants who first took shelter in makeshift houses and then gradually started constructing permanent structures.
Manoj Mishra said, “It is strange and unfortunate that this city, which attracts migrants from all over, does not have any designated public policy or space where these people can be accommodated, pending their final rehabilitation and return. Thus, they are forced to squat wherever they find some place away from the glare of the city regulators. Such places are found often on the floodplains.”
A resident of Shaheen Bagh, who did not wish to be named, seconded the thought: “There is a growing migrant problem here. Non-locals have been routinely settling down here but the administration is not serious about it.”
Officials in the Shaheen Bagh police post, which comes under the Jamia Nagar police station, had similar views to share. “This whole area has been badly encroached on. These are not regularised colonies. Illegal constructions are happening right under our nose, but there is no will to stop this,” said two policemen at the Shaheen Bagh post.
Mishra said that more often than not openings are created within the forests where illegal parking comes up. Besides that, night shelters that are made on the floodplains are soon turned into permanent structures.
The National Green Tribunal prohibits any new construction on the riverbank and riverbed. Various encroachments, however, are routinely reported from across the city, through the heart of which the 22 kilometres of the Yamuna flows.
The Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan brought some of these illegal constructions to the notice of Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal in a letter date 4 October 2015. “In almost a decade of river Yamuna monitoring by us, we have received perhaps the worst jolt when we found an entire channel of the river been brazenly obstructed by the same contractor (L&T company) working in Zone O (river zone) for pile laying in the river bed opposite the Sarai Kale Khan locality. We have been informed that similar obstruction by the PWD has also been raised in the river bed downstream of the Okhla barrage. This kind of developmental activity is illegal since the NGT in its judgment in Maily Se Nirmal Yamuna case (OA No 6 of 2012) has imposed a fine of Rs 50,000 on any instance of dumping in the river bed. Here it is not just one dumping but the entire destruction of an active channel of the river” the letter said.
The National Green Tribunal prohibits any new constructions on the riverbank and riverbed. Various encroachments, however, are routinely reported from across the national capital, through the heart of which the Yamuna flows.
Loopholes in the existing directives to safeguard the Yamuna Zone are also the reason why these are routinely flouted. “Part of the problem is the lack of a clear process through which clearances for constructions—temporary or permanent—are to be given or not given. A case in hand was the Art of Living event, where, despite the fact there was an NGT order not allowing constructions, the organisers exploited the loopholes in the process. So unless you clearly demarcate the area as a regulatory zone and announce that this is an area where you cannot do anything else except preserve the biodiversity of the area, disturbances will keep going on,” said Agarwal.
The floodplains are a water recharge area, which means that they have a deep clean pool of groundwater. Nearly 30% of Delhi’s water comes from the floodplains. Damaging the floodplains means water availability in the city gets reduced. The floodplains are made up of riverbed soil. It’s only in the past few years that water has receded from here, but they are still an extension of the riverbed. When the river submerges the floodplains, the soil absorbs the water, which is beneficial to the wetland ecology.
The Yamuna is a shallow river and overflows periodically. Therefore, building permanent structures on the floodplains is risky. Apart from that the land is very fertile and is home to a marshy biodiversity. Constructions on the floodplains block the water flow, which will then find another route and inflict damages on other areas.