New Delhi: Minutes before one catches a glimpse of the Yamuna on Delhi’s outskirts, a whiff of unpleasant odour hits the nose — almost foretelling the state of this dying lifeline.
Getting closer, the Yamuna barely appears to be a river any more in the national capital. It is a concoction of mucky sewage — made up of untreated industrial waste, plastic matter and other effluents.
The courts, through several rulings, and successive governments have been trying to get the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) to clean up this mess but not much headway has been made.
One of the most recent attempts was by the AAP government, which promised in its 2015 manifesto to make extensive efforts to clean the Yamuna. An exhaustive network of sewers and construction of new sewage treatment plants (STP) was part of the plan.
The DJB, which has been missing multiple deadlines over the years, cites infrastructural roadblocks as one of the main issues plaguing its work.
Delhi has a population of over 2 crore and the DJB requires treatment plants that can handle 720 mgd (million gallons per day) of sewage. However, the treatment plants currently functional can only manage 617 mgd.
According to the Central Pollution Control Board, more than three-quarters of the river’s pollution is found in a 22.5-km stretch between Wazirabad and Okhla, which is roughly about 2 per cent of the river’s total length of 1,376 km.
In Delhi, three major drains — Najafgarh, Supplementary and Shahdara — carry more than 70 per cent of raw sewage to be thrown into the Yamuna. The areas east of the river and west along the Najafgarh drain have the highest population density that directly correlates to this pollution.
Why DJB cannot meet deadlines?
The government body was supposed to set up a new sewage treatment plant (STP) in order to increase utilisation of the existing STPs to 99 per cent by June 2019. Full utilisation of STPs has not been possible because of the difficulties in laying pipe sewers in its correct place, especially in unauthorised colonies.
But work on it is yet to begin.
Similarly, the interceptor sewer project (ISP), to intercept sewage collected from colonies not connected to the city’s three major drains and channelise them to the STPs, was supposed to be completed by 2014. But work on the project is still going on.
“There are practical difficulties that cannot be overlooked while implementing projects,” said DJB member R.S. Negi. “Sometimes, road cutting works are done and at other times trees along highways become obstructions to the completion of our projects. We have to get approvals from several other departments before setting up a sewer line. But we are hopeful of completing substantial amount of work by 30 June,” he added.
DJB chief engineer V.K. Gupta added, “Digging very deep in certain areas can cause damage to buildings and we have to be very careful.”
ThePrint has also learnt that the DJB had in December 2018 informed the monitoring panel of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) that it would complete 95 per cent utilisation of the ISP by 2019 end.
The body had also informed the green panel that it would start another 40-50 mgd plant by May this year, but so far only approvals for the project have been given. Work is yet to begin.
Sumeet Pushkarna, who is representing the DJB at the NGT, feels the river needs to be continuously monitored so as to keep it obstruction-free.
“Simply saying that the DJB is not discharging its duties will not do. The key to keeping the river healthy is to maintain its natural flow,” he said. He explained how the unavailability of natural water in a river makes dilution of waste extremely difficult.
However, Manoj Mishra, a former IFS (forest) officer and convener of the ‘Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan’, a group fighting to save the river, blamed these delays on the lack of coordination between two DJB departments – sewerage and water supply.
“Technical officers of both departments need to realise the consequences of missing deadlines and it affects the river,” he said.
Projects in the pipeline
The 8,100-km-long internal, peripheral and 200-km-long main trunk sewers covering 130 urban villages, 54 villages and 266 unauthorised colonies in the national capital are able to provide sewerage facilities to only around 70 per cent of the city’s population.
DJB officials said work was in progress to lay a sewerage system in 384 unauthorised colonies. Delhi has a total of 1,797 unauthorised colonies.
Gupta also said that a ‘Sewerage Master Plan 2031’ is already in place for laying of sewer lines in all uncovered areas. “We are in the process of completing it in a phased manner. People have to understand that we cannot lay STPs or sewer lines overnight since several technical and infrastructural issues have to be addressed in an area where work is undertaken.”
He added that the DJB has taken up an ambitious project to rehabilitate 167 kilometres of the existing peripheral and 21 kilometres of the trunk sewers.
Decades spent in court rulings, government projects
Attempts to revive the river have been on for decades now.
In 1994, the Supreme Court had taken suo motu cognisance of a newspaper report titled “And quiet flows maili Yamuna” to initiate proceedings regarding its clean-up. The DJB was subsequently tasked with taking care of raw sewage flowing into the river in the national capital.
But 23 years later, while transferring its PIL to the NGT, the top court remarked how the river was still “maili”.
In 2015, the NGT had rolled out the ‘Maili se Nirmal Yamuna’ Revitalisation Project to bring down pollution levels in the river and directed setting up of 14 sewage treatment plants with a deadline of 31 March 2017. But three years later, in 2018, the green panel pulled up the DJB for making “no meaningful progress” in it.
Other projects taken up by successive governments include the Yamuna Action Plan I (YAP-I) that was formally launched in 1993. The Japanese government had provided a financial grant of 17.7 billion yen to carry out this project which was being executed by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, the National River Conservation Directorate and the central government.
The Yamuna Action Plan II (YAP-II) kicked off in 2008 when the Congress was in power in the capital city. The Yamuna Action Plan Phase III (YAP-III), which is currently underway, had begun in 2013 but actual execution in the project started only in November 2017, said a senior DJB official. The project should have been completed in 2015.
Under the YAP-I and YAP-II, 286 schemes, which also included 39 STPs, were completed in 21 towns of Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana at a cost of Rs 1,453.17 crore.