A source of traditional water management in the past, all that remains of the historical Khirki Satpula barrage in Delhi is the basic frame hemmed in by an iron grill fence, so typical of all our ‘protected’ monuments

There is much talk these days of rainwater harvesting and of learning from our traditional methods of water management. Beginning this week we look at a few of these water bodies, one structure per week, starting with the Khirki Satpula built in the 1320s by Muhammad bin Tughlaq as part of his fortification for the fourth city of Delhi that he named Jahanpanah (the refuge of the world).

The Satpula, a seven arched barrage, was built adjacent to one of the tributaries of the Yamuna now known as the Chiragh Dilli nala because about a kilometre downstream it runs next to Chiragh Dilli village where the great Sufi, Nasir-ud-Din Roshan Chiragh-e-Dehli --- disciple and successor to Nizam-ud-Din Auliya is buried. The barrage probably dammed the tributary, the flow of which must have been diverted to accumulate in the form of a lake in front of the barrage and beyond the barrage the overflow must have been directed back into the channel of the tributary.

Peasants from villages like Maidan Garhi, Khirki and Hauz Rani used the water of the lake to irrigate their fields. According to Bashir-ud-Din Ahmad, the author of Waqeyaat-e-Daar-ul-Hukumat Dehli (events in the capital city of Delhi - 1920) Khwaja Nasir-ud-Din had once performed his ablutions in the waters of the barrage and the locals began to treat it as holy water.

Now, of course, all this sounds like fairy tales or plain white lies, because the site of the lake is now a DMRC staff residential colony and the erstwhile tributary has been reduced to the status of an open drain carrying its untreated sewage directly into the Yamuna.

All that remains is the basic frame of the barrage hemmed in by an iron grill fence, so typical of all our ‘protected’ monuments. The insides are littered with broken beer bottles, plastic cups and empty packs of salted snacks -- remains of a beer party held recently.

Till a few years ago, downstream of the barrage was a cesspool mostly occupied by a few buffaloes. Now the pool is gone and the ground has been levelled. Environmentalists had been campaigning that all the nalas, originally the tributaries of the Yamuna, should be cleaned up and untreated sewage not allowed to enter the channels. The Chiragh Dilli nala was one of these old tributaries that needed cleaning.

It has been suggested that the dirty water from the large number of unregulated residential, commercial and industrial areas that continues to flow unhindered into the channels of the erstwhile tributaries and eventually ends up in the Yamuna is the major reason for the pollution of the river. A simple two-step method can be applied to stop filth entering the river. A) Lay down pipelines on both banks of each drain and trap all untreated water before it enters the channels, and B) construct a series of very small and small water treatment plants along the course of the channels to treat the water being carried in the pipes before being released into the channels. The water would now be clean before it reaches the Yamuna.

Now, this is a scheme that neither requires huge financial outlays nor does it need participation of multinational corporations. We have the technical know-how and the resources and yet this simple method is not being adopted while hundreds of crores are being spent on periodic exercises at window dressing through much publicised clean-ups of the Yamuna flotsam.

During preparations for the Commonwealth Games, there was a lot of noise about the imminent change of fortunes of the Chiragh Dilli nala and the Satpula. Unfortunately, none of that has come about. What has happened is that all approaches to the Satpula have been blocked and strange meandering footpaths have been created in the open grounds between the Satpula and Khirki village. There is a carved granite tablet in front of the permanently locked main gate of the proposed recreational area. The tablet carries the text Satpula Lake! You need to remove the weeds that have grown all around over the last two years to be able to see the text on the tablet. All this is the handiwork of the Delhi Development Authority (DDA).

Whose hare brained idea is this? The open Chiragh Dilli nala, home to millions of mosquitoes flows barely 50 metres away from the proposed site of the lake, the stink emanating from the nala constantly is a physical presence.

The DDA is building what looks like a jetty or a platform in the middle of what used to be the channel through which the overflow of the barrage would have passed into the nala, on its way to the Yamuna. Has the Archaeological Survey of India given DDA the permission to build that ugly structure? One does not even know if it is beyond the 300 meter limit. But does anyone bother?