My River Journey : Looking Back From The Present
My River Journey : Looking Back
From The Present
My first recollection of a running stream is that of bathing in the Sahastradhara near Dehradoon in the early 60’s. In summer the stream would be crowded and many people dipped into the stream for its curative powers even walking awkwardly over the boulders.
Going further in the late 60’s when the family was in Allahabad we would go to Sangam together on many a Sunday where the boatman, cheerful Shambhu, would row us over to the confluence and we would bathe without any apprehension. During the Kumbh melas even with the press of pilgrims and sadhus the water quality was never a concern. Occasionally we would go into the Fort from where the panoramic view of thronging bathers would hold our interest. Later when we learnt to swim our coach put us to the test of crossing the broad expanse of the Yamuna near the Fort while he trailed us in a boat. No thought was given to water quality and during the test ingestion of some river water was no cause of concern. Moonlight picnics at the deserted Minto Park near the river was another source of childhood joy.
In 1969 the family took a long journey by car to Darjeeling and en route we crossed the Son in Bihar at Derry-on- Son. The Ambassador car was driven on to a large boat and parked amongst passengers and livestock. The boatmen pushed the boat with ballis and soon we disembarked on the far bank. Looking back one wonders as to the depth of the river then which required no dredging for navigation. The sparkling waters of the Teesta and the roaring sound of the river as its cascaded from the ethereal regions unfettered by dams have remained etched in memory.
My next memorable experience was the floods in the Gomti in Lucknow. In 1971 the river spilled out of its course and schools got closed. In the 3rd week of September we were amazed to see that our football goalposts had gone under. The surging waters began rising up our hostel block. Late afternoon the Principal turned up and asked the hostellers to take the school records and music organs to the upper storey. Thereafter, we came down the stairs to take a boat to Hazratganj [main commercial district] and as we came down several animals such as rats and monkeys trooped up the stairs for refuge from the swirling waters [later we found that they had gobbled up toothpaste and shaving creams to survive]. We rowed the boats through the arcades of Hazratganj to higher ground and then stayed in the Cantonment till the floods receded. While there was disruption but there was little visible destruction. In hindsight I can say that cities were not overcrowded and settlements were not located in vulnerable areas of the floodplains.
Rivers and streams in the Himalyas and at Rishikesh always beckoned me with their powerful torrents and crystal clear waters. A journey to Badrinath in November, 1986, when commercial pilgrimage [or should I say pillage] had yet to overwhelm the upper reaches, assumed adventurous overtones as we crossed several chasms over bridges made in the colonial era. Finally near Joshimath crossing a makeshift wooden bridge at a height of 10,000 ft. late at night with planks creaking under the weight of vehicles was a highlight of the trip.
In Delhi my first brush with the Yamuna was in the floods of 1978. But at that time environment was not on my agenda and the river constituted the backyard of the city and did not really figure in youthful conversations. In the 90’s environment became more of a concern and a lifelong engagement for me especially in the water sector. As part of this engagement I watched floods of 1995 and how they enveloped Rohtak, how the Najafgarh Jheel formed and the powerful currents of the Sahibi Nadi being unable to exit into Yamuna which itself was in spate. Subsequently, one learnt more technical details about the river and the legal web in which it is enmeshed threatened by wastes and now additionally by realtors.
Visiting the Narmada at Maheshwar in 2008 was a delightful experience. The historic riverfront with Ahilyabai Holkar’s palace and flight of steps made for a powerful architectural experience. The river itself, at this point where no abstraction had occurred, was broad chested, ploughed by boats and having clean water untrammelled by urban discharges.
During 2013 an engagement with the Sabarmati River Front taught me how borrowed waters of another river can be used to make a linear lake in another. It is another story that while realtors gain from the capture of the floodplain the city at large is the victim in the long run. The core of the enterprise, the linear lake was full of weeds, garbage and disposed statues, an aspect not properly highlighted so far. One shudders to think that such a fate might befall more of our rivers.
During 2005-6 I had the opportunity to guide the research for a book entitled ‘Environmental Narratives Of Delhi’. This brought me closer to several aspects of the Yamuna. As it is engagingly written I have taken the liberty to reproduce the extract here :
Yamuna was omnipotent in determining Delhi’s history. Traces of the earliest civilizations in Delhi were found along the river. Yamuna bestowed upon Delhi one of the richest agricultural tracts of northern India. These tracts form a strategic corridor between the plains of Punjab and those of Ganga-Yamuna basin. The fertile alluvium soil of Yamuna supported the early stages of urbanisation.
In his book ‘The Seven Cities of Delhi’ (1906), GR Hearn, Captain in the Royal Engineers Associate, asks: “What were the reasons which induced the monarchs (of Delhi) to build new cities, instead of being content with the walls of the first extended, if necessary, to contain a larger population? Answer to this he found in a native proverb. “Three things make a city- Daria, Badal, Badshah”. That is to say, a river, rain-bearing clouds or an emperor (who can enforce his wishes). Two of these three emphasise the necessity for water, without large quantities of which life in a hot country would soon become unendurable. The storage of rainwater in tanks may prove sufficient for ordinary purposes, but the river comes first in the estimation of the Hindu because it is sacred…..All the great cities of Hindustan are situated on the banks of a river; Muttra, Kanauj…it is therefore suggested that it was found necessary to move the cities of Delhi to the north-east, to follow the river, which once flowed not so very far from Old Delhi, but has gradually set further and further east-a process which is going on today, the extent of which has been considerable, even during the last century…..whatever influence the daria had on the shifting of the cities of Delhi, there has certainly been a great change in the climatic conditions so that the wells in Old Delhi, have almost dried up, the tanks and reservoirs are never now filled and it would be impossible for a large population to exist within the walls. The Hindi proverb thus is justified; and it was the vagaries of the river, and the failure of the clouds to pour down their waters, rather than the caprice of emperors, which have been the causes of the construction of so many cities, where one would have otherwise sufficed.
Yamuna is believed to have once flowed into the Saraswati, eulogised as the foremost of all rivers in the ancient hymns of the Rig Veda. The Varaha Purana say that the river was in decline 3,700 years ago, around the time of the Mahabharata; the great sage Manu talks of the Saraswati disappearing into the sands near Sirsa, Rajasthan. Saraswati has been identified by many scholars during the past century as the present dry bed of the Ghaggar along the northern margin of the Thar Desert in Haryana and Rajasthan. In 1996 Indian remote sensing satellites found evidence of groundwater sanctuaries below the Sarasvati’s supposed bed. The tectonic movements initially pushed up the old Aravalli hills, cutting off the headwaters of the Saraswati. Betrayed by its two snow fed sources, the Sarasvati was left with the waters of petty streams rising in the puny Shivaliks. Forced eastward the Sarasvati was then progressively robbed of its water: first by the Yamuna, then by the Satluj- both rivers, along with the Tons, were once a part of its massive expanse. A branch of the Chambal cut northward in a channel deeper than the Sarasvati, finally beheading the great river. This new channel became the Yamuna, which migrated eastward. Satluj migrated westward. A geological paroxysm in the Aravallis pushed Satluj into a U-turn at Ropar, Punjab, forcing a complete abandonment of the Sarasvati, sending it into the arms of the Indus. Over time, Yamuna also preferred to chart a more and more easterly course, eventually abandoning the Saraswati and joining up with the system of the Ganga. The Sarasvati’s demise indicates how dramatic tectonic movements can change the face of a society. There seems to be archaeological evidence to this movement: the total absence of late Harappan settlements in area of the Saraswati is in sharp contrast to the dramatic increase in habitations in the plains of Harayana and western Uttar Pradesh. There is also a remarkable scarcity of Harappan sites around what are today’s Yamuna and Satluj. This is again in sharp contrast to the archaeological gold mines turning up in the dry channels of Punjab, Rajasthan and Sindh in Pakistan.
Aided by tectonic movements Yamuna continued to slither and change its course temperamentally, abandoning its meanders into marshes and lakes on its way east. New studies suggest that the Yamuna once flowed through the hills south of Delhi. It seems to have abandoned its hilly route around 4000 years ago, gradually moving eastwards through the plains area till it settled into its present course.
The remains of at least six palaeo-channels (old channels or courses) of Yamuna have been identified in the Delhi area. While a major palaeo-channel has been located in west/north-west Delhi coinciding in the main with Mungeshpur Drain, several palaeo-channels have been located in and adjacent to the Yamuna flood plains. Traces of old courses of the river can be seen in various lakes such as the Najafgarh, Surajkund and Barkhal lakes. Studies of the palaeo-channels have shown that the migration of the river ranged over about 100 km. in the north and west Delhi region to 40 km. in the south.
While changing its course the river also determined the soil character of the territory. While migrating east the river abandoned its fluvial deposits. The earliest deposits now constitute the bangar tracts while the more recent are characterised as old khaddar.
The Gazetteer states: “The drainage channel called the Budhi Nala, which comes down under the very doors of Sunipat, would seem by the conformation of the country to have been the old bed of the Jamna, and this is supported by strong and general tradition. The course of the Budhi marks off the division of the country into Khadar and Bangar” . This channel can now be identified as Drain No.6.
It may at any rate be considered certain that the river once flowed beneath the walls of Sunipat, and down south by Narela, to somewhere near Azadpur on the Grand Trunk Road near Delhi, where, beginning to feel the influence of the hills, it must have turned sharply to the east. Below Delhi its course seems to have been in the same way immediately east of the Bangar bank. This in the immediate vicinity of the city abuts almost directly on the stream where it now runs. But then the old river would seem to have taken again a more westerly course than the present- to have passed close by the ancient village of Tilpat: then turning again south-east along a nala still visible, to have rounded closely the high bank on, which the Khadar-Bangar villages in this part mostly stand.
Migration of Yamuna has been important in determining the history of ancient settlements in Delhi regions. While many Stone Age sites have been found in the hilly stretches that were once traversed by it, several ancient mounds mark settlements that grew up along the older courses of the river. There are interesting observations in history that indicate the gradual shift of the river. We have a legend that says a Hindu King built the first storey of Kutb Minar in order to enable his daughter to daily see the river without the trouble of taking a fatiguing journey”. Turkman Shah, the saint, is said to have lived and to have been buried on the banks of the river as was Empress Riziyat in 1240. The graves of both are near the Turkman Gate, far from the river, as it now flows. Mubarik Shah founded his incomplete city on the bank, and was buried within it. This tomb is not far from a ravine, which starts between the Ajmere and Turkman gates of the modern city, and looks extremely like an old bend of the river. Then again “the ravine which runs near the walls of the enclosure of Roshan Chiragh Delhi, may be part of an old channel- a theory which is to some extent borne out by the fact that the walls of Old Delhi, where they cross the Kutb Road, appear to follow an old river-bank”. When Babur entered Delhi, he camped besides the river Yamuna directly opposite Tughluqabad.
The Turks and the Rajputs before them, found their strongholds on the Ridge. The hills gave them a natural line of defense. It also ensured that fertile soil of Delhi plain was utilised fully for agriculture without any interruptions from urban settlements. The citadel shifted from the hills to the river for the first time in the reign of Firoze Shah Tughluq. Later Humayun and Shahjahan also established Dinpanah and Shahjahanabad on the banks of Yamuna in Delhi.
Imperial cities express the power and grandeur of court. The river au fond the palace multiplied the aesthetics of the court. Riverside palaces also benefited from the fresh cool breezes from the east called poorvai. Situated on the right bank of Yamuna, these forts are believed to made full use of the river as a natural defense, though the river’s meandering course is too unpredictable to lend itself strategically for the needs of fortification. Moats had to be stretched around the circumference of the fort to meet defense necessities. Firozabad, Dinpanah and Shahjahanabad flourished mainly during peaceful times.
Proximity of the river from the fort however did ensure a reliable escape route. In 1787, Prince Jahandar Bakht, eldest son of Shah Alam II, jumped from Shah Burj next to Water gate to escape an attempt on his life. Those were the years of Maratha ascendancy and also the time when Ghulam Qadir Rohilla attacked the fort. Jahandar Bakht swam across the river and made his way to Lucknow where he tried to enlist the help of the Nawab of Awadh and Lord Cornwallis to free the Mughal throne from the control of the Marathas and Rohillas who made Shah Alam II a virtual prisoner in the Red Fort. It is also said that when the British were about to recapture Delhi from the sepoys during the Mutiny of 1857, Bahadur Shah Zafar was advised to escape from the River Gate, cross the Yamuna and then reach the Punjab by the way of Saharanpur, from where he could make his way to Iran via Baluchistan in disguise and eventually reach Arabia and Mecca.
The gazetteer states “It (river) passes close under the Fort at Delhi, and it must always have rounded the eastern point of the rocky ‘Ridge’ at Wazirabad. But in the northern part of the district it appears formerly to have had a course much to the west of what it holds at present.” The river substantially moved away from the Fort in 1857. In 1858 only the floods reached the fort. GR Hearn writes in 1906: “Nowadays the Jumna alters its course very slightly indeed: it is turned to the east by the fort of Salimgarh, and by the modern city, built on ground which centuries ago was at a much lower level, and not safe from flood”
The decision to shift the British India capital from Calcutta to Delhi was followed by the plans to create a new centre as a proclamation of power, deliberate and distinguished from the anarchy of Shahjahanabad. A site was selected north of Shahjahanabad where the grand Coronation Memorial was held in 1912. That same year floods submerged the intended site creating in its wake marshes and pools of stagnant water, which bred mosquitoes. The New Delhi as we know stands aloft the Raisina hills.
The river influenced the fate of the city and the life style of its people as well. Yamuna to a large extent determined the socio-economic, cultural and religious patterns of life in the city.
The territories under Khadar (Riverain Zone) were flood prone but most fertile and hosted various agricultural activities. These tracts were known as Sailab or Dhari and saw cultivation of various cereals and fruits according to seasons. These fields were rich with fluvial soils that the river deposited alongside its banks. Flood irrigation was also practiced in the Najafgarh tract. Canals which received no flood water were used for the Kharif cultivation of jowar, bajra and cotton. Areas which got submerged were cultivated for the rabi crop. “As young boys we spent a lot of time at ghats under the clouds of the clear afternoon skies reflecting on the waters of the river, beyond which extended vast expanse of green farms across Qudsia bagh interrupted only occasionally by small hutments or grain stacks” narrates Mr Ravi Mehra in a poetic trance and then with a mischievous smile he adds “sometimes we would cross the river to steal Kakdis and other vegetable”.
Mr. Javed Akhtar works in the administration of the Crescent School at Ghata Masjid, but his heart lies in farming. “Character of soil determines growth pattern of crops” he says thoughtfully. “Crops that were grown here had the distinction of Delhi’s ‘ab-o-hawa’. Fruits grown in the orchards and fields had the taste of Yamuna. Just three decades back, the air of early winter mornings used to be filled with cries of vegetable sellers, declaring “jamna par ki matar le lo” (peas from the fields of trans-Yamuna). “My mother used to make soft chappatis stuffed with these sweet peas for my school lunch” nostalgia engulfs Mr. Mathur. Summer thirst was quenched with the sweetness of melons, cucumbers and kakdis grown in the fields on the banks of the river.
Mr. Javed Akhtar remarks “Melons available in Delhi were like the Lukhnavi Kharbuza. The sweetness of these melons depended upon the prevailing air. Water melons with lines on them have only recently come in the market (some even call them Disco Kharbuza). The earlier ones were greener and devoid of these lines. They were also much larger and heavier. In fact it was popularly believed that bigger the size more sweet the melon will be”. A farmer from Dalupura informed me that earlier the melon crop gave fruits only once in the season and had few fruits one each crop but these fruits weighed between 15-20 Kgs. “The new seeds however give greater yield with smaller fruits”. On Friday or Sundays Professor Dehlvi and his friends would meet up on the fields across the left bank of the river and enjoy falez or melons. “Some would buy melons for home. Then they would take a dip in the river and come back home”.
“People would ritually go to ghats early morning to buy fresh vegetables and fruits (also flowers for puja), for the day” reflects Mr. Kishen Mohan Gundhi. However, produce of these field were taken to different mandis like Shahdara and Shakarpur from where it was taken to wholesale markets of walled city.
River water was important for even garden plants. Sydney Percy Lancaster reflects his concern in ‘Garden Chat’ where he writes, ‘Throughout the summer we had anxiously waited for a good monsoon but its failure caused us a great deal of worry and anxiety about our plants, most of which suffered much at the nursery. The water of the Jumna fell so low that it was impossible to maintain the full supply of unfiltered water’ (which year?)
As a physical feature Yamuna divided the rural landscape on its left bank from the urban life on the right. Before and post monsoons bridges of boats were in use. This bridge was made of airtight barrels tied together. Tongas and bullock carts could easily cross this bridge. In the absence of any permanent pedestrian bridge, the interdependence between rural and urban economy was sustained by a system of ferries and flat boats that carried people, livestock, grains, vegetables, milk and milk products, etc.
“The Jamna forms the eastern boundary of the Delhi district throughout, and is navigable for the whole of its course”. “During the cold weather the river is fordable almost anywhere, but at other seasons people have to cross by the ferries”. Punjab Famine Report of 1879 lists the mooring places of the ferries on the river and distances between them. It mentions the following stations across the river- Maniarpur Baghpat, Dahisra, Burari, Wazirabad, Okhla, Jaitpur, Kiraoli, Mahabatpur, Kabulpur Khadar, Majhaoli, Shajahanpur, Chhansa. Gazetteer of 1883 observes that “….there is a small wood depot at Garhi Mehndipur, below Mamiarpur, and corn is sometimes brought down the river from Bigah, a large village in the north of Delhi, to Sunipat; but there is little else worth speaking of in the way of river trade”. The Gazetteer also tells us that “For a period between 1875 and 1880 there were in average 10,302 ferries plying”. It seems that navigation on Yamuna was restricted to areas in the vicinity of Delhi. It would however be no surprise if once upon a time the river was used for long distance trade.
“Delhi grew up in its present locale as a trading centre with a broad navigable river adding is dimensions for the conveyance of goods”. Some rumours mention the dispatch of cargo by boats to Delhi carrying a load of as much as 100 tons from as far away as Calcutta for example Mohammad Sheikh has heard of large boats which were called ‘Sulfa’ plying Yamuna. Commodore Sinha tells me that boats were employed by the Mogul army from Delhi for transferring supplies for the Bengal conquest. The maps of 1907 and some old paintings indicate that a small tributary of Yamuna used to cross through the Water Gate of Red fort. This gate was used to carry a royal entourage to Agra on boats.
In fact till as late as 1971, Yamuna was extensively traversed by ferries. The existing ferry boats plied in five different areas, which were under the control of the MCD- Sungrarpur (18 Kms from Kashmere Gate), Burari (13 Kms), Wazirabad (2 Kms), Okhla (16 Kms) and Jaitpur (22 Kms). The ferry boats at Wazirabad transported villagers and their merchandise throughout the year. In Jaitpur and other places the boats could not ply when there is heavy rainfall as also in winter when the river water dries up. The public ferry at Sungrarpur helped movement of villagers not merely of the neighbouring villages but also of Uttar Pradesh. Milk vendors and dealers in sugars and gur from the latter region were frequent users of this ferry and carried their merchandise with them. The length of the waterway traversed by the ferries was about a kilometre and the average number of passengers per day varies from 100 to 200. The ferries were put to yearly auction. In the financial year 1970-1971, it brought to the coffers of the Municipal Corporations a sum of Rs 4,015.
Mr. Kirat Singh remembers that around the river near old fort lived people who were called ‘malleha’. Their livelihood depended upon taking people across the river on their boats. “Some of them actually used to live on their boats. These boats carried bullock carts across the river”. “The boats or kashtis took us on the other side for one anna”, Prof. Dehlvi tells me. The street called Ballimaran in Chandni Chowk was named after large wooden oars used for pushing the boat across the river. The ballimars used to live on this street.
However, slowly yet steadily ferries as a mode of transport declined. A dramatic change is noticed by the Gazetteer of 1976, “…..as a waterway the river has ceased to be of any consequence. Its changing course, insufficient water in summer time and connecting bridges have made transport by boats, barges and steam launches obsolete. The few public ferries on the Yamuna are probably the only survivals of a mode of transport which has passed into oblivion”. Cost of maintaining navigation on these water networks might be another cause of decline; “The Agra Canal is navigable, and boats ply regularly up and down it; but from the official report of the Executive Engineer in charge it appears unlikely that the income from navigation tolls will ever be equal to the interest of the additional capital required to make the canal navigable”. “….the ferries are under the management of the District Board which pays to Government a lump-sum of Rs.4, 500 per annum. The additional incidental costs of management amount to Rs.772 per annum”.
Boating however remained a favourite pastime especially at Okhla. When Commander Sinha first visited Delhi in 1946, he had been taken for a picnic to Okhla on the banks of Yamuna. “Okhla was very popular among Delhiwalas for picnics”. The head works of Agra canal, established by the British, was also situated here. Canal Bungalows were rented for picnics. For recreation many residents would go to Okhla with their personal boats. In her article, Shalini Saran narrates about her life in Nizamuddin before 1979 and talks about a Mr. Gawk who would load his boat every Sunday on to his car and to go to Okhla on a fishing expedition. Boats could however be hired on an hourly basis.
Boating was quite popular even in Okhla Sailing Club, where according to Commander Sinha, there were 35-40 boats. The club also held annual regattas. “Small islands would emerge in unpredictable places every summer in the river; they ensured new challenges even for seasoned Delhi sailors of the Club”.
Colleges like St. Stephens and Hindu had their own boat clubs. During his college days, Prof. Diwjen Kalia, along with his friend Arwind Sachdeva, would row a boat themselves from Wazirabad to Qudsia Bagh or all the way to Okhla. Going upstream however was quite difficult for them. Sometimes boatmen from eastern UP came to Delhi, recalls Mr.Vijay Kapoor, to recite Ramayan on boats. On rare occasions Mr. Virender Jain would take his family opposite the clock tower at ghats for boating. During summers, he recalls the water was shallow and muddy. In late 60s Mr. Ray remembers taking a motor boat from Okhla to Old Fort and getting down at University. In those days there was only one bridge – the old Jamna Bridge.
Mr. Mohammad Sheikh inherited the skill of boat making from his father. He lives in Okhla where I met him near the Sailing Club. Some of their best boats were made of wood from Sheesham tree. “You can keep these boats in water for ever and they would not rot, but now because of pollution even good new boats don’t last too long”, he complains. With the increase in pollution levels and pungent smell, Okhla also lost its charm with people. Boat makers suffered great losses and were forced to find new vocations.
Along the river there were many fishermen village. The river catered to a variety of fishes which ensured good income in market. “Yamuna is divided into the Delhi area and the Okhla area” explains Mr. GS Malhotra of the Fisheries Department. “Licenses were acquired depending upon the nature of activity i.e. whether one was fishing with an angle or a net. Annual license was acquired from the Fisheries department for commercial fishing using. License for fishing using net is given only to the contractors” he elaborates. Angling was popular past time among people and was pursued by paying for a license on hourly basis. “License could be found at Old Okhla office which almost resembled shacks across the bus stand at Okhla headwaters. The license gave you the right to fish in Okhla and water in the canal” mentions Mr Rajan Ray. He also recalls that in early 1960s, a permit for fishing was priced at Rs1 “if we stayed on the bank” and Rs2 “if we wanted to fish on the jetties (or “thokars”) across on the other bank”. Reportedly fishing was quieter and better on the other side”. There were some dhabas and Dak Bunglow. The Bunglow was surrounded by Gulmohar trees, mango trees, etc. Ex-patriots from different embassies also came here to fish.
The Okhla area consists of the Barrage which was once known as the Anglers Paradise. “At Okhla only angling is allowed” adds Mr. Malhotra. According to Mr Kirat Singh fishing was popular in Okhla because the barrage created a sort of a waterfall which would have a deeper pool in which it would be easier to catch the fishes than in the flowing river. GS Malhotra elaborates that “the ladder near the weir is called the reserve notch and fishes are aplenty there”.
Professional fishermen could earn a decent wage by teaching the amateurs how to fish. As an adolescent Mr. Rajan Ray would travel on his bicycle from Jungpura to Okhla to fish. The canal had great fish fields on both the sides. The shikari community around these areas earned there living by fishing and purchased annual fishing license. Old fishermen from Jama Masjid area would come often to fish here. “Professional shikaris (guides) could be hired to show the sahib’s the ropes. They could find bait for them for one rupee”. His guide was a person called Nanku at Old Agra Canal.
Mr. Ray recalls that the tackle comprised of bamboo rods and a talcum powder can on which the line was wrapped or a fairly basic reel. Small fish called chilua were used as bait. “Nobody we saw had casting reels”. The equipment could not be hired but be bought in Jama Masjid or at Bharat Bhandar, a shop in Gole Market. “Okhla offered sport for real anglers and one saw a lot of Delhi’s keen anglers out there with expensive tackle with fibre glass rods and spinning reels”. Dwijen Kalia narrates that when he was in seventh grade he and his friends went to Okhla on their cycles and were amused to see fishing techniques employed there. For example, somebody had attached a small ghungroo to an angling rod that could immediately bring to notice a struggling fish caught in its bait. In another instance he saw a man almost dragged into water by an escaping fish. The man incurred many painful bruises. But with the help of few others he took control the fish which would have ‘weighed nothing less than 40 Kg’. Mr. Ray had also heard something similar. He remembers that once a big Goonch took their line and sank to the bottom. According to the locals the same fish had been landed a few years earlier by leaving a large piece of meat on an equally large sized hook tied with a nylon rope to a lamp post on the Rs2 jetty overnight. The next morning it took four people to pull the fish in and the lamp post got bent in the ensuing struggle. Since the lamp post was still bent when they saw it so perhaps the story was true. Near Wazirabad Bridge, yet another ingenious technique was employed for fishing. Some experts would jumped into the water and swam to the middle, where the river was shallow. With much agility they would catch those fishes which were trapped in the sandbanks and shallow waters. Mr Ravi Mehra recalls that during summers many fishes would jump out of the water just before the monsoons. They would flutter for a while on the ghats and die. Perhaps this happened because of change of temperature of the water in the river.
“To fish for Bachua we waited until the floodgates were lowered during monsoons and then cast out for in the fast running water. This fish was rarely more than 1-2 lbs in weight but offered a great sport while taking chilua and running for the wild waters. If you took half a dozen in the day you had done very well indeed”. “Silund fishing was a finely practised art. You threaded a single chilua through the head and cast out from the end of the pier reeling in slowly, (there were no spoons or artificial lures in those days) while moving in an anti-clockwise direction shoulder to shoulder with others. As you reached the tip of the pier you reeled in and went back to start all over again. If someone got into a fish everyone else pulled their lines in whilst the hooked fish was played in and landed to much praise. The fish were silver in colour, had no scales and ran 30 lbs plus on some occasions. The line could not be broken and with so many bodies behind and on each side one had to be sure of the accuracy of one’s cast otherwise the hook could be embedded in a sensitive part of the neighbours anatomy”. “The hot summer days meant sitting on the cement benches in front of the restaurant and fishing for carp. This was different from anything we had done. The hooks were of a different shape, being more rounded, and came tied together with a silky thread in pairs. Bait was worms carefully threaded onto the hook or atta (wheat dough) or moss. Below the hooks was about 12” of ordinary thread attached to a stone for weight. About 3-5’ above the hooks was a peacock quill float. This whole caboodle would be flung over the railing and the line slowly reeled in until it was tight and the float visible as a bobbing piece of white in the water. If a fish was feeding or sucking the bait (as carp are bottom feeders) we were told the float would begin to twitch or slowly sink. That was the moment to strike, too early or too late and you lost the bait. In any case if there was atta it needed to be checked every 10 minutes or so because it would wash off. On a hot summers day the bright light reflecting off the water would lead to drowsiness until the some watchful instructor would shout ‘maro, maro’ (strike, strike)”.
They would sometimes cycle as far as Ballabhgarh and fish along the way. The best grounds were beyond Palwal at Chajunagar. Because of the weir gates here there was a fall at Chajunagar. One could walk across the beach over the gates if the water gates if the water was not high. Alirjheel 3-4 miles from Okhla to Sarita Vihar there were old tombs (which he cannot find anymore). The water of this entire stretch was gorgeous.
One could find different fishes in different seasons because of migration and breeding. Cold water fish- Silund would come and one could find at least 4 to 5 fishes whole year. They were big in size and the shikaris would hunt them. Gooch was considered a prized catch. They could grow to 200-250 lbs and they chew up the bait without getting caught.
Even gangetic Dolphins were found at Okhla in a shoal of 4-5 fishes. Murral and sol were caught a lot in Agra Canal. At tokkar one could fish for a small fish called bachchua. It was a great feat for a beginner to catch even 3-4 of these fast fishes. Tortoises were found in plenty but they were considered a nuisance since they would eat the bait. Fishermen would drag them along the bank, turn them upside down and piling them on top of each other. Mr. Kirat Singh tells me that some people belonging to North-east India also caught tortoise. When the water course was low these tortoises would sun bath themselves on the islands that would create in the river.
The avifauna was so plentiful that the Gazetteer of 1912 describes that on the various water bodies and the Yamuna one only had to ‘hold straight’ to bring down the birds. Licenses were issued to shoot ducks behind Old Fort, recalls Mr. Ray. Fishing was also done at Wazirabad and WJC. Many also came to these grounds to shoot Partridges and other birds. Partridge hunting was gradually banned but no ban was imposed on fishing. This activity gradually declined with the increase in water pollution of the river. At Okhla however state jurisdiction of the weir (or darisi in Hindi) came under controversy. When the sluice gates are closed the area behind it stores water and makes it a reservoir. In 1992 this reservoir near Okhla was declared as Bird Sanctuary. Therefore all the activity in this region was prohibited including fishing. However G.S. Malhotra argues that in reality it is not a true reservoir. If the sluice gates were to be opened then the water will resume its natural flow.
Today fishes caught upstream at Wazirabad (especially above the barrage) are considered much better than those found down stream. On my visit to Wazirabad I made two observations. First the community of fishermen that are found much often along the banks are the recent immigrants from Bihar or Bengal. This was similar to my findings in Pakshi Vihar where there is in fact a whole settlement of immigrants from Bihar who either till the small farms near by or catch fish in mornings and late evenings. There is also a Bengali Club that pays them for their services. I found this to be an interesting social change. Secondly, I realized that my over excitement on discovering a small shrimp drying near a hut of a fisherman, was unfounded. Many fishes I was told were cultured in the river. The fisherman told me that he got many seeds for these fishes from the Barafwala. Mr. Malhotra however informed me that culturing Magur which is a carnivorous fish is banned.
Among the various other competitive sports in Delhi like wrestling, archery, kite flying, etc., swimming was greatly popular too. Swimming was considered a great accomplishment especially in Yamuna because of the fear of magars (crocodiles). Along the river mushroomed akharas or local gymnasiums. Many of the akharas also operated swimming schools. The Jungla Singh Tairak Sangh (Jungla Singh swimming association) at one time had more than 5000 members on its rolls. These akharas operated under the traditions of guru and shagird. Teams were also patronized by the elites of the city. The competitions were a matter of prestige and the elites were responsible for their teams. At the end of the course at the Zenat-ul-masajid (Daryaganj) they would recite their prayers.
Swimming in the river was not a pastime for the men alone, we hear that Mughal princesses too were fond of it, and of boating. Moonlight picnics were arranged on the waterfront; bathing on hot summer nights was a pleasure. Water for moat at Red Fort was controlled at a point near River Gate or Water Gate. The River Gate is incidentally also known as Mumtaz Mahal or Chota Rang Mahal. It was here that the Mughal princesses had their apartments, which were a part of the imperial seraglio, also known as the Choti Baithak. It is to the south of Rang Mahal, from the latticed windows of which the ladies of the harem watched animal fights held during the day. At night the mahal was the centre of song and dance and drinking sessions. The inmates of the seraglio used the River Gate to reach the Yamuna. A huge old wooden door can still be seen at the side of Rang Mahal. This was the entrance which was closed after the royal ladies had descended the staircase and reached the waterfront. Eunuchs with drawn scimitars guarded the two gates, while several of their kind accompanied the ladies, who either bathed on the banks or went in boats from which they jumped into the water. There were romantic escapades too, though most of the eunuchs were faithful retainers who had to guard the imperial ladies at the cost of their lives. There was a staircase which descended to the river bank. The princesses and their ladies-in-waiting used it for their leisurely swims and secret assignations. “When one thinks of the riverside games the princesses must have played, one does get the feeling that the Mughals led a full life”.
The emperor and his entourage also went down the staircase when they wanted to enjoy the river breeze. Akbar used to have boats tied in the Yamuna at Agra if he felt like sleeping out on the river on some nights. Shah Jahan and his successors did the same, both at Agra and Delhi. But the begums had to be told in advance so that the men’s plans did not clash with those of the zenana..
The elites of the walled city continued with the traditions of organising soirée long after the demise of the Mughal court, with equal panache. Professor Dehlvi remembers reading anecdotes about parties organised by nawabs on flat boats called bajrā. They had comfortable sitting arrangements and enough space to allow for dance and musical performances. These performances would take place mostly during bright moonlit nights. To create the ambience these boats were lit with camphor (kafori) lamps.
The experience of the river, now dead, still lingers in the childhood memories of many old timers. Mr. Ravi Mehra, a 1968 alumnus of Ludlow Castle School, remembers that the river used to flow very near to his school. “We used to bunk classes and escape to the ghats. Oh! What fun it was to splash around in the water, compete at stone throwing, or just lie on the sandy banks discussing gossips and modus operandi of future pranks. During summers the river would develop small islands of dry sandy patches over which we could cross to other side. I couldn’t help but picture in my head the adventures of these local Tom Sawyers’ and Huckleberry Finns. As a child Mr. Yogesh Bahadur eagerly waited for his cousins from Punjab to visit Delhi and together they would go to Yamuna for a swim. “Jamna was so clean then”, he exclaims. Ms. Alvi remembers how her young nephew used to entertain himself by throwing stones into the river. The river had a steady flow without any unpleasant odour.
During monsoons schools would sometimes organise picnics at Qudsia Bagh or Okhla, remembers Dwijen Kalia, where “groups of boys would miss the eyes of teachers and escape near a ghat where the leaders of the group would take their shirts off and jump into water”. At Okhla even lifeguards were employed. Mr. Mohammad Sheikh told me that if somebody drowns in the river at old Delhi, the police would inform us at Okhla as soon as possible and we would close the gates of the weir to be able to locate the body and then he went on to narrate few incidences trying to prove the authenticity of a local belief that the river Yamuna never lets a women drown in her waters.
The river was in some or the other way integrated into the daily lives of people of the city. Many Old Delhiwallahs habitually visited the ghats early in the mornings to bathe, to exercise at akhadas, or to get a massage. “We used to go to Qudsia Ghats for taking bath in the river and for tel malish” proclaims Mr. Kishen Mohan Gundhi “from Nigambodh ghats till Nilichatri there were provisions for men and women to take bath separately”.
Across the river there were vast expanses of fields that allowed cool eastern winds or poorvai to gently sweep the city. It was a fashion amongst the young girls of Shahjahanabad to visit Thandi Sarak on a phaeton for tafri (promenade), remembers Prof. Dehlvi with a smile. The street was called so because of its proximity to the river.
Ms. Tamkin Alvi who used to live in Zakir Nagar in Okhla not far from the river, remembers that in summer evenings the breeze from across Yamuna was very pleasing. Her father regularly went out for evening strolls to enjoy the breeze and the view of the river.
The Okhla Sailing Club would also regularly host night balls. These summer parties were normally held alfresco. “The river created a prefect ambience, we never felt the need for fans or coolers and only the womenfolk complained about the breeze bothering their hairstyles” exclaims Commander Sinha.
It is said that Yamuna was once known as Kalindi, the dark one. She was Sarjuga the daughter of the sun and the sister of Yama, Lord of death. She was so winsome that Sri Krishna’s brother Balaram got besotted by her looks. Our ancestors were given to weaving folktales and venerations around the inspiring forces of nature. They also transformed this zeal into idolization through art forms, which symbolized their perception of that force. The goddess Yamuna is depicted along with Ganga in the sculpture of many ancient Indian temples, often flanking their entrance. Ganga, white as the moon, stands on a matsya (fish) or makara (crocodile). Yamuna is the dark goddess (Kalindi). She stands on a kachchhapa (tortoise). The two goddesses sometimes hold a chamara (fly whisk) in one hand and a flower in the other. Elsewhere, they may be seen wielding a purna-kumbha (jar of plenty). In the Mahabharata, the Yamuna is a sacred river. In the course of their tour of important places of pilgrimage (tirthas), Yudhishtra is urged by the sage Lomasha to bathe in the Yamuna, the gateway to Kurukshetra. It is believed that once when the Ganga was in spate, she threw up the Shastras, sacred texts of the Hindus, on her banks this site is marked by a temple, known as Nigambodh (Sacred Knowledge) Ghat on the banks of Yamuna, were many now perform the last rites of life.
“Temples are built on the terraces and elbow bends of a river. These terraces are created either due to prolonged siltation and accumulate into a stable block. These deposits are very fertile. Settlements crop next to fertile lands and temples are built in between these settlements” explains Mr. KK Mojumdar of Geography Department, Delhi University. All along the right bank of Yamuna, there are variety of ghats and temples. In the past, these ghats and the akharas situated near them used to be the centres of social activity in the city. Saints, pirs and penitents often visited these akharas. Outcastes, orphan and rebels were given shelter and food.
Under Wazirabad masjid there are remains of a staircase which the locals believe was used by Bela the daughter of Prithvi Raj to descend down to Yamuna for her daily prayers. RV Smith writes in his book “Delhi no one knows” that the main part of the Ramlila celebrations then used to be held on the Yamuna bank, with the Mughal emperor looking on from the Red Fort
“On any religious occasion which calls for taking bath in river, for example Ganga snan, baisakhi, marg snan, people would bathe in Yamuna especially if they were unable to visit the ghats of Ganga. Sometimes people would bathe in Yamuna for a whole month, everyday” remembers Mr. Ravi Mehra. A letter of concern sent from the Deputy Commissioner’s Office to the Police Authorities observes “People bath in Jamuna in large number, on Baisakhi and other festivals. I am told that yesterday about 12 people drowned in the river. There were no rescue arrangements.” It is interesting to note that even in the months of April and May the river had water deep enough to cause such havoc on people.
“Water was allowed to pass from Wazirabad before the beginning of any festival in order to clean the river” informs Dwijen Kalia. “But from last 15 years or so most of the festival near the water has shifted towards Wazirabad” adds Mr. Ravi Mehra.
On my visit to Wazirabad barrage with Bhagwandass under the scorching heat of mid May sun, we stopped at a small kiosk for refreshments where I had to explain a group of really curious audience, why I was shunting up and down the bridge and peering over it at intervals. To avoid making a long conversation I told them that I had come to survey the river. Their immediate response was a frustrating query. “Madam why can’t they open the gates of the barrage and let the water cleanse the river…..he went on to narrate that before there used to be so many ceremonies from Basakhi to Kali Pooja for which people used to immerse flowers, idols and confetti in the river but the next day one could find only a few remnants of the festivities.
Mr. Ravi Mehra recalls that water of the river was very clear and clean without debris, except for the algal growth sometimes along rocky banks. Ms. Tamkeen Alvi remembers that at Okhla the river held flowing water and had no stink, weed or hyacinth. “In summers when the water level recede, workers cleaned the river bed with a crane like machine and removed silt and sand from the banks”. In 1964 Commander Sinha participated in the National Regatta hosted by the Okhla sailing club. During the course of the event his yacht capsized and he fell in the water. While struggling to get back on board he accidentally swallowed some water, which he describes tasted like mountain spring.
“The most vivid memory that I have of my childhood is that during monsoons water used to come inside our home. But instead of loosing nerve our elders would smile and say Yamuna has come to our home to bless us”. Professor Kalia used to live near Kashmiri Gate and was perhaps in fifth standard. The water, he insists was not sewage. “There was no stink”. Water would enter the city after breaking the kucha kinara along the bank and would stay for three four days and then recede. This was a normal part of monsoon life in Delhi. “We knew that such a thing would happen in July or August” he asserts. “During floods”, he recalls “water would reach till ISBT and my mother would take us in the evenings to see the ‘baad’ from Chandni Chowk”. River in full spate was very inviting for those who wished to commit suicide. His mother had spotted a few such desolate souls and tried to talk them out of such ventures. “One girl in fact stayed with us at our home for three months”.
“Yamuna used to flow where the present ISBT Ring Road is situated, along the Hanuman Mandir. During floods the water would come till Calcutta Gate which was near the railway bridge called Calcutta Bridge. There is a jat dharamshala just next to it” reports Mr. Mehra manager of an old dharamshala at Kucha Ghasi Ram. Before the samadhis of the political leaders were constructed, the floods of Yamuna would leave behind a large wetland which would attract Siberian cranes and many other birds. Many a times the ring road would submerge under water during rainy season especially at Maharani Bagh. Inner ring road was the outer boundary of the city then. In the 1978 floods it was predicted that the Loha Bridge would get washed off.
Delhi District Gazetteer of 1883 informs: “In the floods of the rainy season the river has a considerable breadth swelling in places to several miles, with a maximum depth of some 25 feet. In the cold weather its normal depth is said to be four feet only; the stream is only sufficient to feed the three canals which draw from it ….” Floods are systemic to Yamuna, Najafgarh and Sahibi networks.
The Yamuna crossed its danger level (fixed at 204.83m) twenty five times during the last 33 years. Since 1900 Delhi has experienced six major floods in the years 1924, 1947, 1976, 1978, 1988 and 1995. The peak level of Yamuna River was one meter or more above danger level of 207.49m at old Yamuna Rail bridge (2.66m above the danger level) occurred on sixth September 1978. The second record peak of 206.92m was on 27th September 1988.
Dr. SK Ghosh narrates his experience of 1978 floods “at Tajewala the river changed its course and flooded the banks on both sides. First warning from the meteorological department was issued in August and observers were stationed all along the river. They were not sure about the flood. The flood waters normally take two days to come towards Delhi. By 6th September the river was filled to its brim.
The Irrigation and Flood Control Department received warnings on 2 September 1978 that a discharge of level more than 7 lakhs cusecs (maximum level, after which there was no bench mark) had passed through Tajewala. It had rained persistently from 31st August to 2nd Sept. Those installed at the head-works from the Haryana Irrigation Department had to flee away. The heavy discharge had dead bodies and broken tree trunks. A breach had occurred on the right bank of the Drain no.8 which caused the water to flow in the city. The bunds were weak and the embankments got breached. Desperate thinking commenced at higher levels. Some suggested that the railway tracks should be blasted so that the pressure on Trans Yamuna could be reduced. But it was decided otherwise because the fall of debris may cause the water in the river to rise and may also close any possibilities for escape for the TransYamuna residents. Areas in trans-Yamuna are low lying where in the wake of floods swamps and marshes crop up. It was decided thus to breach the Shah Alam bund and let the Model Town area flood. “The flood water over topped and breached the walls of a pump house at Shah Alam bund. The entire GT road was under water and the entire Alipur Block got inundated. These (marginal) bunds are normally earthen.
The residents were pre warned by the Revenue Department through media and by ‘Munadi’. Wealthy people left their cars at an elevated surface and started motor boating in the lanes. The water filled the entire ground floor. Residents of the villages located on the river bank like Jagat pur, Wazirabad, Gadi mandi, Osman pur, Chauhan patti, Gujran, Sherpur, Sadat pur, etc, had to be evacuated with the help of army boats.
After the floods personnel of Irrigation and Flood control department got busy with raising bund levels, undertaking repair works, etc. RME, LMB and Shahadra Ninor Bund were raised and strengthened, Bhawana escape was diverted and brought along GT road near Wazirpur barrage so that the Alipur sector is not affected. The Public Works Department erected Road Number 50 which acted as an embankment to save the city against flood. Near Jagatpur and Wazirabad villages Left Forward Bund was constructed. Dhaisra bund of Haryana was raised and strengthened by paying money to Haryana government. Drain no. 8 on the right bank of the river was strengthened. Anti-erosion works were taken to safeguard the bunds. During both the floods (77 and 78) Mr. AK Gupta was Assistant Engineer holding charge at Najafgarh Drain and, Wazirabad-Timarpur area. Water was backing up at Najafgarh Drain and these inlets had to be stopped. His team was given the charge to safe guard these inlets. Metcalfe and Qudsia outfall regulators were in their charge.
Delhi Environment Status Report by WWF for Nature-India (1995) observed that since 1978, the flood threat to Delhi has increased. In 1980, a discharge of 2.75 lakh causes at Tajewala resulted in flood level of 212.15 meters at the bund near Palla village in Delhi. In 1988 also Delhi experienced fierce floods. Dr SK Ghosh informs me that due to heavy rains the water stored in the Bakra Nangal dam also flooded, aggravating the situation in Delhi.
According to Mr. AK Gupta, main reasons for this rise of water level is not a part of natural process but release of excess water from Tajewala headworks upstream to the two canals one on left and other on the right bank of the river. Rise in water levels caused over flows in the connecting drains and increase in monsoon related diseases.
During the past few years, flooding due to the city’s 18 major drains has also become a common phenomenon.
Already under the pressure of the city’s effluent discharge, these drains experience reverse flow from the Yamuna during monsoons, as a result they tip their banks, flooding the neighbouring colonies.
A significant phenomenon which has been increasing during recent years is that of local flooding. Urban areas are characterized by a high area under impervious surfaces (Roads, pavements, houses etc). High rates of development along with the resultant loss of natural landscape have led to high surface water run-off rates. This results in flash floods in the low lying areas even after moderate precipitation.
Flood Plain Zoning is phenomenon of demarcation of the areas that is liable to be affected by flood of different magnitudes and frequencies and the regulation of the use of such areas. The flood prone areas of Delhi have been classified into thirteen zones based on flooding risk in relation to incremental rise in the water level of the Yamuna (DDA, 1993). These cover a range from 199m to 212 m level of water in the Yamuna. This zoning map covers part of North Delhi on the West bank of the Yamuna and almost the entire Trans Yamuna Area on the East bank. Besides this, the Delhi Flood Control Order also the NCTD into four Flood Sectors, namely Sectors, namely, Shahadra, Wazirabad – Babrapur, Alipur and Nangloi – Najafgarh sectors. By creating such zones, developmental activities in the different zone of the flood plain are organised in such a manner that the inconvenience and damage due to flood are minimized. This was so far not been implemented.
Occupancy if the flood plains for agricultural, industrial and urban development have always been attractive due the various advantages such as fertile nature of the soil, availability of water and river transport facilities. Consequently, in spite of the risk of damage by flooding, considerable encroachment has taken place in the flood plains in several areas. While it is possible to demarcate the flood zones in such areas and to legally restrict their use, it may not be easy to enforce it in the already developed areas, both on account of likely public opposition and the magnitude of rehabilitation programme that will involve.
Even much after independence, Delhi witnessed its urban development along the western side of the river, placed much higher and less flood prone than the eastern side. Dr. Narayani Gupta insists that many viewed the River as a menace.
Pre-partition, the bundhs were not constructed, so during the monsoons, the flood basin used to be submerged under water. Hence, agrarian activities used to be only seasonal. The low-lying areas used to act as a buffer for the overflow of water during the monsoons. These are seasonal low-lying farmlands that remain underwater during the monsoons. At the site level this zone appears to be a large open space, which connects the urban edge of the zone to the river. There are some pockets of temporary hutments, which change in character with the changing season. It was only after the construction of the bundhs in 1960’s by the Delhi Government Drainage schemes solved the problem of floods the area recovered could easily become habitable.
Raising of embankment or construction of embankment on river Yamuna is one of the flood control measures which may be required for flood control in NCR. Embankment is generally the cheapest, the quickest and most popular methods of flood protection. These embankments are strengthened further by creating spurs and shanks; they jut out perpendicular to the embankment. Spurs and Shanks are a part of River Training Works. They are meant to keep the active flow of the river away from embankments. During floods the flow of the river can erode the masonry works of the embankment causing it to collapse. Spurs impede the flow of the water and tames it along the embankment. Locally they are known as thokkars.
The kar sevaks initiated the local citizenry to aid them, in making a bund which is now known as Bela road. These efforts were undertaken to prevent the city from getting flooded during the rains. I was told that this bund was later extended to constitute the present Ring Road. To prevent the Cremation parks (Raj Ghat, etc) from inundating, embankments were erected on its riverfront. After the 1978 floods various embankments were erected at Mukherjee Nagar, Jehangirpuri etc. Real estate value of the low lying areas like Shakarpur, Laxmi Nagar, etc. increased only after the fear of inundation during rains was checked by making embankments along the river.
But there are number of inherent environmental problems. Also they are liable to be breached by over-topping erosion, seepage, leaks and cracks which may result as environmental consequences. Bunds remain earthen for its low cost value, lining it with cement works would be very costly. It is not because of the percolation as it is not affected drastically. And therefore need constant and often expensive maintenance. Embankments are designed to cater for a flood of specified frequency which the general public is normally not aware of and with the sense of security provided, there is likely to be excessive development on the land side of embankment. This may cause serious deposition of silt and debris in the river bed in case of breach of embankment. Also embankments can cause an increase in flood heights up stream, and drainage difficulties in the country side. Secondly, the areas which used to be inundated by the floods and get the benefits of silt laden water are deprived of this due to the construction of embankments. This has direct impact on environment of agriculture field. Where the river channel between the embankments cannot develop adequate velocity for carrying down its silt load, the deposition of silt may lead to rise in the bed level and consequent higher flood heights. There will be impact on existing environment. In such cases they require to be supplemented by training measures which will induce siltation near banks and erosion of the bed and enable the river to carry its silt load effectively. The silt is also dredged out from river bed mechanically to create velocity and erosion of bed.
Although the unprotected flood prone area is only 1.7% or 25km only towards the south east and about 5% or 74 sq km in the north eastern parts which is protected by earthen embankments every year water level rises in Yamuna above danger level and large population has to be evacuated to the top of the bunds and Delhi highways.
The Yamuna is harvested at the Wazirabad and Chandrawal waterworks. Wells were constructed in Chandrawal village in 1889 to provide Delhi with tap water for the first time. The harvesting of Yamuna began in 1925 with a bund at Waziarbad village across the river. Subsequently, a weir was raised in 1957 just before the point where the Najafgarh drain falls into the Yamuna. This led to a massive cholera epidemic during the 1950s.
Wazirabad Barrage was made in 1959 to supply drinking water to Delhi through two plants. Delhi’s water supply came from WYC from Haryana.
The ITO barrage was erected to divert water to the Indraprastha Power Station. Thermal Power Stations run on coal which has to be burnt to provide energy. Hot coal after burning has to be cooled. Water diverted from ITO was thus used as a coolant. This process however produced large quantities of ash that was deposited along the open flood plain now known as Nagla machi situated behind Old Fort. Ash deposited here was to be removed every day and taken away by trucks. Government paid for this work. However, this activity could not be maintained efficiently, therefore ash remained deposited there and was continuously blown around with wind.
Mrs. Tamkin Alvi booked their house in Patparganj in 1986. Before its development the area had many sand tilas (mounds) through which it was not possible to drive. Therefore they had to park their car at Patparganj depot. Driving across Nizam-ud-din Bridge to reach the construction site was sometimes very difficult, especially during rainy days. “There were days when the visibility would just extend to 5 to10 meters. Anyways driving over it in late hours was quite a scary experience.
Mr. Virender Jain had a cousin living in Daryaganj where they would visit and at nights they would sleep on the terrace. In the mornings their sheet would be covered by ash and dust particles coming from the newly constructed Power Station. They had experienced a similar fate two decades before at Pahari Dheeraj but this time the cause was the chimney of the DCM factory just in the vicinity.
Okhla barrage was created to divert the river water into Agra Canal. When closed the barrage creates an artificial pondage which over the years became habitat of migratory birds. In 1991 the barrage was given the status of a sanctuary. “Bird watchers and hunters frequented the barrage. The barrage occasionally caused excitement when fast flowing water jumped across its gates and sometimes along with the waves fishes were also compelled to follow this acrobatics” remembers Mohammad Sheikh.
As far back as 19th Century the author of Asar us Sanadi complained about the scarce water supply from Yamuna, which according to him had considerably reduced because the water was regularly diverted by the canals (nahar). He observed that even the quality of water had suffered.
Although Delhi is situated on the banks of the river Yamuna, it is unable to draw water from the river, as the entire flow of the river is diverted by the Government of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh into their canals upstream of Tajewala under the draft agreement signed in the year 1954 between the Chief Engineer of Punjab and Chief Engineer of Uttar Pradesh, which was primarily an instrument for operation of their canal system.
In 1994, Chief Ministers of the five basin states viz. Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh and Delhi signed the “Yamuna Water Accord”. According to this agreement different share of Yamuna water was allocated to respective participant states. Haryana got the largest share of about 5.73 BCM, follwed by Uttar Pradesh with 4.032 BCM. 1.119 BCM of water was also diverted to Rajasthan along with 0.378 BCM to Himachal Pradesh. Finally Delhi only was given a miniscule share of 0.724 BCM.
There is hardly any flow downstream of Tajewala except regeneration. Commodore Sinha insists that the water started becoming unpleasant from 1985 onwards. More and more water was being diverted to the Western and Eastern Yamuna Canals for irrigation. Finally by the end of the eighties, no water was being allowed to flow downstream of the barrage at Tajewala, and greater amounts of sewage was being deposited in it (due to rise in population), converting the Yamuna into a dead river for eight months of each year. The Central government at Delhi watched helplessly on, unlike the predecessor British Government, which had expressly barred withdrawals from the river beyond the levels of adequate flow.By 1988 as a result of the untreated sewage disposal the water smelled bad and had lost its flow. The old sewage plants called STP’s were of old design and treated only a small part till the secondary stage.
Delhi, therefore, has to depend upon the neighbouring states to meet its drinking water needs. Since 1983, Delhi has been drawing water not only from the Yamuna but also from rivers of Punjab- Ravi, Sutlej and beas- through the Bhakra-Beas storage system; from the Ganga and it tributaries; and from groundwater wells in and around the city. Delhi’s water system is, thus, dependent on five rivers, and on the five states through which these rivers flow- Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. Delhi’s water supply system will work well as long as the rivers on which it depends provide water; the state chief ministers remains docile to Delhi’s rulers; and there is no sabotaging of the watercourses. Should any one thing go wrong anywhere, the whole water grid will go haywire.
Presently, the water in Delhi is supplied from three points- Chandrawal and Wazirabad in North Delhi, Haiderpur in West Delhi and Bhagirathi in east Delhi. The Okhla plant in south Delhi had to be closed because the potability of the water became very low. Some 19 drains empty into the river. The water from Murad Nagar Ganga canal was initially meant for the TransYamuna colonies but was transferred to south Delhi. Delhi has been facing acute shortage of water for operation of its water treatment plants at Wazirabad (120MGD) and Chadrawal (90MGD), except during monsoon season. The citizens of Delhi remember the traumatic experiences of the months of April and May 1988, when water level in Wazirabad and Chandrawal fell dangerously low and the two plants had to be closed down. The third was operating at about 20 percent of its capacity. With the rapid growth of population and urbanisation, water demand has increased rapidly and urgent action is called for to get due share of Delhi from river Yamuna itself.
The change in water quality, reduction in flow, control of the river meandering and the extensive cultivation within the floodplain, has led to substantial changes in the vegetation of the khadar tract (reference). Mr. Ravi Mehra laments that these days vegetables don’t taste like they used to.” He retorts “the vast grey expanse of slum and garbage has taken over the green vistas”.
Lack of flow in Yamuna also destroyed the eco-systems maintained by the river; economy of many fishing villages has been destroyed, with fishermen migrating to other areas to seek other jobs. The polluted Yamuna water is today no longer used for the gardens and lakes near a samadhis. Groundwater is used for this purpose. As the river flows down it gets more and more polluted and covered by water hyacinth, a weed which indicates growing water pollution.
After the samadhis, the Rajghat and Indraprastha power stations discharge hundreds of tons of fly-ash and other toxic materials into the river. Large expanse of agricultural farms placed along the river. Open spaces, however, are unstructured and are resultants of the left-over spaces from the settlements having come up legally. Also, these open spaces were conveniently used as dumping grounds for ash that is produced as a by-product of the Thermal Power plant on the zone. Over the years, these ‘ash ponds’ have been filled with ash, resulted in huge mounds of ash. This whole phenomenon has ensured contamination of not just surface water but also ground water.
Delhi not only needs freshwater but also a system of disposing off the wastes created by about 15 million inhabitants and a number of industries. Some 19 drains from Delhi open into the Yamuna. Waste disposal arrangements in Delhi are extremely poor. City’s engineers, instead of laying down sewers, simply discharge the polluted water into the 19 channels that originate in the Aravalli hills. At one time these channels acted as streams for draining off rainwater, and in the process recharged many wells and baolis. However, now these channels carry more industrial pollutants and domestic sewage than rainwater. As a result, on their way to the Yamuna, they pollute all the water bodies.
The most polluted of these is the Najafgarh drain, which is located just about 100m downstream from the Wazirabad pumping station. In between is the Wazirabad weir. Except in winter and the monsoon season, thousands of sand bags are put between the barrage and the drain to avoid contamination of water at the pumping station. The 1982-86 statistics of the Central Pollution Control Board show that the drain discharges on an average 1.028 million cum sewage per day.
At Okhla, the Yamuna is transformed once again into a broad river from a nullah, this is because just before the Okhla barrage, the Hindon cut canal discharges a huge amount of water into the Yamuna to supply water to the Agra canal. Until 1984 south Delhi colonies used to get water from the Okhla water treatment plant. However, cholera and Jaundice epidemics forced the municipal corporation to stop water supplies from Okhla, and to link south Delhi with the Bhagirathi water supply. The old Okhla barrage is no longer functioning due to heavy siltation. The mouth of the Agra canal is full of weeds and water emits a foul smell. A new barrage has been constructed just 3km downstream from the old one. At the barrage, the Yamuna gets diverted into Agra Canal carrying with it the wastes of a mega city. Beyond the barrage, the river itself disappears and only the riverbed exists.