The Yamuna Story Revisited – Will AAP Sweep It Clean?

Posted on January 9, 2014 in Environment

By Jayasmita Ray:

Yamuna, meaning “twins” in Sanskrit, signifies the endless love of the Hindu goddess Kalindi for her twin brother, Lord Yama. It is believed that bathing or drinking in the sacred waters will rid one of all ills of death. This river has cradled many great dynasties such as the Guptas and Mauryas. Even today, about 57 million people depend on the Yamuna. It also serves more than 70% of Delhi’s water requirements. Long ago, its water had been described as distinguishably “clear blue”. Today, anyone in Delhi will beg to differ on this one. During the rainy season last year, I remember seeing the river from the metro. It was appallingly muddy and flooding at an alarming rate.


This sacred river has become a “sewage drain” since 1985, with most of the pollution load coming from Delhi itself. The flow of Yamuna in the city is controlled by three barrages: Wazirabad (Upper stream), Nizzamudin (midstream) and Okhla (lower stream) which form a 22 km stretch. Once it reaches Wazirabad, this relatively fresh water is mostly diverted by Delhi Jal Board for urban use. As the river passes through the other barrages, it receives untreated sewage from 18 major drains in the city. The most polluting drains are located at Najafgarh and Shahdara. This happens mainly because of faulty sewage treatment plans. Only 70% of required sewage treatment capacity is installed (2330 mld). Out of this, 48% is utilized (1575 mld). Thus, the river ends up receiving a lot of dirty water (without adequate freshwater dilution) and becomes utterly unfit for human use by the time it exits Delhi.

Despite government efforts such as stringent norms, YAP (Yamuna Action Plan), ambitious sewage interceptor plans at Najafgarh and supplementary drains at Shahadra with over Rs. 4600 crore sanctioned, there has been no major improvement in pollution levels. The former Delhi Government has already done considerable damage to the health of the river over the years, with its attitude of treating the Yamuna as a mere water providing body.

Now that the newly elected AAP is in power, there is fresh hope for revival. According to their manifesto, about 25% of households don’t have sewage lines while 30% dont have access to piped water. One must note that they promise to provide sewage lines to households irrespective of whether they are registered or unregistered colonies. Even the BJP agrees on this one.

Nonetheless, they initially want to install bulk meters to estimate the amount of sewage and then build sewage treatment plants accordingly. I don’t understand how they can actually manage to install enough functional meters to assess this. Secondly, their approach is more grassroots based in this regard. However, there is no guarantee that all colonies will manage the funds in everyone’s interests. Who will oversee their activities? Poorer colonies with opposing political influence could very well cause more chaos. The alliance with the Congress could also lead to possible functionality fractures in the future. The other doubt which comes to my mind is about the time frame required for constructing all these water pipelines and sewage plants in a cost-effective manner. In terms of saving water, it will be worthwhile to consider whether 700 kilolitres per household could actually lead to wastage in sparsely populated households and shortage in densely occupied ones.

AAP also intends to renew construction of Effluent Treatment Plants. This is definitely a welcome change, given that Delhi has 40% of national sewage treatment facilities and yet, the Yamuna ends up terribly polluted. However, they mention nothing about the problem of the dry season where the Wazirabad barrage is almost dried up for 9 months and ends up receiving only sewage filled water from the city. That will require change in the inter-state MOU signed in 1994 for sharing Yamuna water. Ultimately, this is supposed to be a perennial river. We require a more ecologically balanced approach on restoring the health of the Yamuna, though trying to clean it up is a good start. In all likelihood, AAP will be able to at least clean up the administrative mess created by their predecessor’s attitude, if not entirely restore the Yamuna to its former glory.