As lack of a unified authority over Yamuna harms Delhi, illegal encroachments on farmlands go unchecked

A river discreetly enters and slips out of Delhi's borders. People drive past its strong saline stench in a hurry and its black-brown water makes the news only when it's even closer to devastation than it usually seems. Over the last one week, more than 1,000 families have been evacuated from the low-lying areas along the bed of the Yamuna river.

Water levels rose to 205.46 metres on Sunday after discharge from Haryana's Hathni Kund barrage and incessant rainfall in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Haryana had released six lakh cusecs of water at 6 pm on Saturday. In the east zone, 750 tents for about 1,000 families inhabiting the low-lying areas have been set up along the road.

Why does the rain dislodge inhabitants from its floodplains and why did people inhabit this stretch in the first place? Firstpost hit ground zero to find out.

Just before the ITO barrage, a 552-metre-bridge on the Yamuna, there was a straight row of tents along a footpath. Next to it were mobile toilet vans and medicines spread out on a table. Some officials of the Delhi police shared that the mobile vans had been arranged for by the Delhi Jal Board and the government of NCT of Delhi had sponsored food and shelter. Soon enough, Praveen Kumar, AAP MLA from Jangpura Assembly constituency (East Delhi), showed up.

“Like in 2013, Haryana has released waters that have caused the low-lying river bed to flood. We have been giving them constant warnings and made arrangements to rescue them,” he said. Below the bridge, some disgruntled migrants from Bihar said they work as agricultural labourers in the lowlands. They narrated a story of how they were manhandled by the rescue forces and that their semi-constructed homes were smashed to pieces without a notice of at least a couple of hours.

 As lack of a unified authority over Yamuna harms Delhi, illegal encroachments on farmlands go unchecked

Cluster of tents set up by the Delhi government for farmers evacuated from the Yamuna floodplains.

Firstpost reached out to the rescue teams to hear their side of the story. “On July 30 alone, we rescued 15 people. There’s a deep-seated fear of homelessness in the people here, which is why they don’t budge until their homes nearly drown. We have seen families waiting calmly in their homes drenched up to 4 feet in water on all sides,” revealed Harish Kumar, in-charge of the Boat Club of the Revenue Department, the only agency in the capital that performs search, conducts rescue and retrieves bodies of people from water bodies, especially during the flood.

Shiv Kumar, executive engineer assisting the East District Magistrate in rescue operations, said warnings were being sent to families five days in advance through the Delhi Development Authority. He explained that rescue operations follow the precautionary guidelines laid down by the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF).

Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal on Saturday had held a review meeting with officials concerned on the preparedness to tackle the flood-like situation in low-lying areas of Delhi. The Delhi government also requested the army to remain on standby should any emergency arise. K Mahesh, District Magistrate, North East and Shahdara District, told Firstpost that along with urban planning, there’s a need for environmental planning. “The wetland areas are shrinking and there are less trees to soak in the water,” he said, adding that the water level under the Delhi Railway Bridge was 205.84 m on the midnight of 30 July and it rose to 205.98 m at 5 am on 31 July.

A copy of an order issued by the District Magistrate to close movement of traffic on old Yamuna Bridge in the light of rising water levels.

A copy of an order issued by the District Magistrate to close movement of traffic on old Yamuna Bridge in the light of rising water levels.

“Rescuing people is necessary because people still keep living on floodplains. A flood is the river’s way of cleansing itself. It brings life to the water body. We don’t find homes on the floodplains of the Ganga and Kosi, except on the peripheries. The real question is not how these people should be rescued, but why they’re still living there,” Dr Faiyaz Khudsar, scientist in-charge of the Biodiversity Park, pointed out.

Another bio-diversity expert working with the DDA, who wished to remain anonymous, said that the state government has granted permission for agricultural activity in these lands and the people (landless migrants from Purvanchali belts) settle themselves on lands where most of them grow cucumber, watermelon, muskmelon, cabbage and green chilly (as opposed to grain farming in the villages).

“There are quite a few seasonal farmers who show up for two to three months and build makeshift huts that succumb to floods easily. There’s a big population in front of Golden Jubilee Park, which was developed by the DDA in 2007-2008 on 30 acres of the floodplain,” he said, adding that a walk inside villages like Mandrauli, Wazirabad and Gopalpur will show you how cultivation goes on.

The main problem is that there is no single agency monitoring activities along the river bank. Two years ago, there were news reports regarding the possibility of an agency called Delhi Yamuna Development Authority (DYDA) that was to be set up on the lines of Delhi Metro Rail Corporation, which was to be jointly run by the central and Delhi governments. There are a dozen authorities to look after the river, which is the source of 70 percent of the capital’s water needs. These include the Delhi government's revenue department, the irrigation and flood control department, the Delhi Jal Board, and the DDA along with civic bodies.

Makeshift homes inhabited by urban farmers along the footpath on a bridge over the Yamuna in East Delhi.

Makeshift homes inhabited by urban farmers along the footpath on a bridge over the Yamuna in East Delhi.

The need for a central agency and greater centre-states cooperation is necessary to implement policies and execute orders. For instance, a judgment was passed by the National Green Tribunal in 2015 in the matter of Manoj Misra Vs Union of India & Others regarding pollution in the Yamuna wherein the NGT had noticed that "authorities lacked requisite will to execute the orders…which has resulted in turning Yamuna into a drain carrying sewage, domestic waste as well as industrial and trade effluents."

It had further stated that "lands within floodplains are entirely government lands and that some of these lands were being used under the lease granted by the DDA for agriculture or fodder produce. However, the DDA has now already terminated all the leases, while the Estate Officer has already passed orders of eviction. The DDA was also taking action in furtherance to the said orders."

Delhi Peasants Multipurpose Society, the farmers’ organisation that challenged the court’s order, called it hasty but the court had rejected the plea. Three and a half years on, the problems remain the same, be it unchecked leases or scores of encroachments. Aditya Chaudhary, farmers' rights activist attached to the Rashtriya Kisan Majdoor Party, said that unlike farmers from other farming belts who are fighting against land acquisition and for MSP, migrant farmers from the Yamuna floodplains don’t participate in any protest because their problems are more centred around the urban concept of homelessness, which is different from traditional landlessness.

“There are 17 rain baseras (night shelters) around the general area of Yamuna Pushta. Each has a capacity of 100-120. The problem is that families don’t prefer living in these shelters because these are essentially occupied by men, and theft and drug addiction run rampant. So, instead of living in shelter homes, farming families like to be closer to the river and hidden from public view,” explained Shaleen Mitra, OSD to Delhi Minister for Health Satyender Jain. He cited another reason for people not evacuating the river bed: Proximity to livelihood-sustaining sites like Hanuman Mandir, Nigambodh Gath and Chandni Chowk Market.

In a paper titled ‘Urban Agriculture in India’ published by the International Journal of Environmental Science: Development and Monitoring (IJESDM), research findings suggest that farmers have been cultivating vegetables along the banks of Yamuna for several generations. But since they lack government identification and don’t own the property on which they farm, they are among the most vulnerable — "not only unknown, but also invisible". The conclusion of the research terms urban agriculture in the capital as "intensively practiced and decidedly irrelevant".

More than a mere evacuation plan, farmers from the Yamuna floodplains need a framework of norms that are binding and enforced by a singular agency.

Updated Date: Aug 03, 2018 18:48:57 IST