New Delhi: Before Ashoka Road, there was the Khilauli Bagh canal. On May 2, 1912, the New Delhi Town Planning Committee cited concerns of water and drainage and decided that the new capital would be southwest of Shahjahanabad. In doing so, it wasn’t just the course of the city’s history that was altered, but also its waterways and eventually brought us to where we are: a city, exploding at the margins, hurtling towards a future without water.
In little over a century, or four generations, the city’s population has increased by 81-fold — from 2.3 lakh to an estimated 1.9 crore. Groundwater is disappearing at the rate of 10 centimetres annually. Waterways and canals have been buried, replaced with roads. And the river has transformed into one of the most polluted in the country, no longer able to support aquatic life.
Previously, as a part of this series, News18 investigated the ways in which ‘planned’ development converted the city’s traditional drainage system into sewers. Here, News18 spoke to experts, officials and historians while going through archival records, maps and surveys to piece together the answer to a different question: what were the seemingly unrelated but interconnected events that changed the capital’s relationship to water?
Delhi's Lost Drains and the Making of Yamuna, a Sewer
Instead of Ashoka Road, a hand-drawn map from 1807 which was reproduced by the Survey of India in 1989, shows the now lost Khilauli Bagh canal. Danny Cherian, in his dissertation for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2004, suggested that the streams on the new site were “reinterpreted as circulation routes”.
The map for Delhi’s environs from 1807 from the Delhi archives clearly shows a lattice of interconnected waterways where there are now roads.
The Curzon Road (Kasturba Gandhi Marg) partially runs on top “portions of the buried Nizamuddin Nallah” while the Queen Victoria Road (Dr Rajendra Prasad road) “replicates the course of the buried Talkatora Nallah” — a stream that once “flew down Rikabganj and Raisini villages into the Nizamuddin Nallah”, he wrote.
Meanwhile, the Clive-Dupleix and King Edward Roads (Maulana Azad Road) were laid “atop the Kushak Nallah” that defined the southern edge of the site.
Historian and INTACH convenor Swapna Liddle suggests that the theory of channels serving as circulation routes isn’t a particularly strong one. But adds, “Of course, the construction of New Delhi did disrupt and cover over drainage channels.”
A closer look at the 1807 map and several other maps of Delhi shows streams originating from the ridge crisscrossing the modern-day capital, eventually feeding the Yamuna. Today, only the larger ones, like the Chirag Delhi nallah and the Barapullah nallah, remain.
Clues as to their disappearance can perhaps be gleaned from the New Delhi Town Planning Committee’s first report that noted that many roads were “spoiled in appearance” by the “irregularity and unkempt conditions of the nullahs or surface water drains usually provided along the sides”. It suggested that in the new capital “all deep open surface water drains should be avoided”.
As architects Swati Janu and Sagarika Suri pointed out in their essay, ‘The River and the City’, the British also “took up the construction of water supply lines for their new capital city with an underground sewage network that ultimately drained into the river”. And thus began “the use of the Yamuna as a drain, which set the tone for independent India as well, continuing the river’s gradual relegation up to its eventual and complete decline today,” it added.
The results, according to officials of the Delhi Jal Board tasked with keeping the city’s crumbling drainage infrastructure intact, continue today. “If you go back to before the last century, the river, the canals and the land constituted one composite unit and they were all preserved for livelihood," said an official.
By the 1950s, the euphoria of independence had begun waning. After the partition, a third of Delhi’s population — 3,29,000 of the total 9,00,000 — had left for Pakistan, while another 4,95,000 poured in from Western Punjab, Sindh and the Northwest Frontier. With the city growing without a plan, a special development authority was created and charged with the preparation of Delhi’s first master plan under the aegis of the Ministry of Health by 1956.
The crisis facing the capital today was foreshadowed repeatedly in the resultant ‘Interim Plan for Greater Delhi’ and the country’s first health minister Amrit Kaur warned, “Unplanned growth in Delhi has caused population to run ahead of water supply and sewerage capacity.”
Although the plan had noted the need to provide water, sewerage and drainage facilities to all, things weren’t as simple. Paucity of jobs in rural areas led to massive migration towards urban metropolises. From 1941 to 1951, Delhi’s population had increased by 45 per cent (from 9.1 lakh to 17.4 lakh) and land, above all, else were in short supply. The last remaining canals, drains and ponds were forgotten.
To this, Delhi’s first master plan in 1962 by a nascent Delhi Development Authority, added a new problem. The creation of effluent spewing industrial zones nestled along Delhi’s nallahs. A total area of about 1,600 acres was proposed for “generally small nuisance industries” that could operate with “rigid enforcement of small-scale regulations,” leading to the creation of industrial areas in places like Okhla and Shahadra.
This, a former CPCB official said, set a precedent where “the drains were used to dump waste”.
Last week, the NGT-appointed Yamuna Pollution Monitoring Committee identified 116 such locations along the city’s remaining 22 major drains where industrial waste, construction debris etc. was being dumped.
The next decade, with Emergency in 1975 that led to the eviction of over seven lakh people to five resettlement colonies in Gokalpuri, Khichripur, Kalyanpuri, Sultanpuri and Trilokpuri, brought new challenges.
Revenue records of the period and a 1981 paper by the Indian Institute of Public Administration indicates that the land had initially been designated as “green and marshy”. But as a revenue department official added, “This marked the beginning of the urbanisation of the trans-Yamuna basin, now amongst the most densely populated. There are parts that still don’t have sewer lines and all the waste ends up in the river.”
The preparation for the Asiad Games, meanwhile, brought another spurt of urbanisation as hotels, roads, flyovers and sports facilities were built. Time and again, streams and canals were buried, show revenue records.
The CGO complex came alongside the Barapuallah nullah, Rohini was developed alongside the Nangloi nullah and Dwarka atop the Najafgarh nallah. Cherian added that with “much of the unskilled immigrant labor (that) stayed back” after the games found homes “in slums on public land along Delhi’s stream”.
These include present-day unauthorised colonies like the ones at Sanjay Amar Colony (along the Yamuna), Mangolpuri (along Nangloi Nallah), Jahangirpuri (along the Bhalswa jheel).
When in September last year, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal took charge of the water ministry, a cabinet colleague admitted that he was surprised with the decision. After all, Kejriwal had remained without a cabinet for nearly two-and-a-half years. "But it showed the gravity of the situation," the minister said.
Since then the Delhi government, like every government before, has focused its attention on the riverfront. A key difference though has been the emphasis on creating ground water recharge. The DDA, too, has prepared a Yamuna Rejuvenation and Restoration Plan, that seeks to create ponds and wet lands to increase aquifer recharge. The Delhi government is also attempting to restore lakes and ponds that had been lost in the previous decades of urbanisation.
So what changed? And will it be enough?
An official of the Delhi water ministry said, “Look at the Najafgarh jheel and drain. It is polluted, yes. But there is scope to improve the situation. We need to learn from our past mistakes.”
(This is part of the series that takes an expansive look at Delhi's water systems and how they've been governed.)