Mindless construction of a series of bridges and other ‘development’ activities over the Yamuna in Delhi have only added to the woes of the dying river

The recent tragedy in Uttarakhand has taught many lessons. One of which is about the nature of structures built along or over the rivers. A bridge over a river is often the most common but poorly understood structure in terms of its impact on a river. It is time that this changes.   

The Yamuna in Delhi is today marked by three distinct stretches. First is a ‘free’ yet ‘threatened’ (as in non-monsoon months it only carries Delhi’s drinking water supplies) river over 26 km from the Palla village till Wazirabad, followed by 22 km of ‘bound’ and ‘dying’ (nothing but the city’s waste water) river till the Okhla barrage and finally about 2 km of a ‘free’ yet ‘dead’ (with little or no flow in non-monsoon period) river up till it exits the city at the Jaitpur village. This state of the river has a lot to do with the nature of bridges built over it.     

The city of Delhi in 1947 had just one bridge. That, too, was a rail cum road popularly known today as the Old Railway Bridge or the Loha Pul

Today there are 10 of them, including three barrage cum road respectively at Wazirabad, ITO and Okhla. Of the rest three are railway (including DMRC) bridges and four are road bridges at ISBT, Gita Colony, Nizamuddin and DND (Delhi NOIDA Delhi). Three more bridges are under construction — two by DMRC and the third planned as a city icon, the ‘Signature Bridge,’ which is under construction since 2008. 

Since a bridge, like any other structure standing within a river, is an intruder, the least it should do is not to become an obstruction to a free-flowing river, especially during floods. Herein lies the distinction between a ‘true’ and a ‘pseudo’ bridge.

With the passage of time, a number of ‘bridges on floats’ or the ‘pontoon’ bridges came to be raised at a number of points on the river during its lean period. Majnu ka Tila, Gita Colony, Bhairon Road and Sarai Kale Khan were names as much of localities in the city as the pontoon bridges raised there, annually. These had approach roads at the river bed level and were ‘rested’ soonest the river in monsoon came into its own. Many of the later bridges on the river in the city followed these temporary bridge’s alignments.      

A ‘true’ bridge spans over the entire width of a river from one end to another. This stands over a number of pillars and is often planned at the narrowest part of a river, as the Old Railway Bridge in the city is.    

Unfortunately, all subsequent bridges in the city came to be raised as ‘pseudo’ bridges. Where the bridge portion, like the pontoon bridge, stands only over the lean season channel of the river but the approach road gets elevated onto a bund jacketing the river between the pseudo bridge’s guide bunds and severely restricting its flow in floods. The result has been the capture and fixing in time and space the ‘meander’ of the river.    

A seamless river got thus divided into a number of sections defined by the stretches falling between these bridges. A false sense of security from flood waters came to prevail in the city and by the early 1980s (Asian Games 1982), the invasion of the river bed in the name of ‘development’ began. A ‘Player’s Hostel’ which is today the Delhi Secretariat was one of the results. Later, beginning in the 1990s, came the DMRC complex at Shastri Park followed closely by the Akshardham, DMRC yet again on the Yamuna bank and finally the Games village and a bus depot for the Commonwealth Games 2010.       

The saving grace is that the above situation in the city applies till now only to the 22 km stretch of the river in urban Delhi and the remaining part of the river is still free and playful (at least in the monsoon months). But it seems not for long. 

It is understood that a new bridge is now planned for the first time upstream of Wazirabad in what till recently was the rural stretch of the river. While details are vague but indications are that it shall bridge Karawal Nagar in north-east Delhi with Alipur across the river in north Delhi. 

We hold that any such bridge at this point of time is not warranted since there is hardly any noticeable cross-river traffic of man and material to justify a new bridge anywhere upstream of Wazirabad. If it were so then would there not have been a pontoon bridge of some standing there?

But even if the planners find enough justification to raise a bridge there, then we suggest that let it be a ‘true’ bridge with a span not less than 5 km, which is the river’s width there. Such a bridge would then truly be ‘harmless’ to the river and turn out to be an icon par excellence, as well.