Rather than turning their faces away from ganda nalas that happen to be essential to Delhi’s drainage system, authorities and residents should try protecting and greening them

There is hardly any town in the country that does not have its ganda (dirty) nala (drain). In many places the ganda nala has become a part of the city’s psyche and even the city’s directional landmark. Delhi today boasts of 22 such major drains and both Meerut and Saharanpur have at least one each.

Look closely and you will find that each one of them is the combined output of a network of many such smaller nalas, some of which might even be originating from your own house, housing complex or the locality. Ever given a thought to these nalas, their origin and if they were always ganda?

The fact is that most, if not all, are the creation of the natural topography of the place in question and originated as storm water drains that carried the high flows during monsoon rains to either yet another drain or to a nearby water body or a river. In case of Delhi, it is the river Yamuna that has acted as the end destination of the city’s high flows. Thus these nalas were essential features of the natural drainage system of a town or city. Also in olden times, most of them acted as the town’s greenways and sites of recreation. It was much later and mostly during the last and the present century that we as part of our ‘development’ process converted them into ganda nalas.

Anything that is ganda abhors us and we have a tendency to wish or shoo it out of sight. It is also a fact that many of these ganda nalas exhale nauseating stench and become a source of vector borne diseases, especially when water in them tends to stagnate. No wonder there is a frequent clamour from affected people to seek their covering and concretisation.

But is it the ganda nala which is at fault deserving to be ‘fixed’ by the municipal authorities? Travel to a ‘developed’ western nation, and one is hard put to locate such ganda nalas? Surely they exist there, too, but have mostly been ‘fixed’ either under a road, a culvert, a parking site or into pipes. But if that was the correct ‘solution’, then why is there now, a growing clamour to “daylight” such infrastructure?

“Day lighting” or a ‘greening of grey (concrete) infrastructure’ is the process by which cities like Philadelphia in the U.S. endeavour to ‘green’ themselves, by rediscovering their lost or hidden streams and storm water drains and then expose them back to the elements. This is taken up even when the costs for such reversal prove prohibitive as a lot of effort, including enabling science, technology and legislation is required to re-nature such sites.

Not many might recall that in the year 1996, a dissertation by researcher Pallavi Kalia at the TVB School of Habitat Studies, New Delhi looked at the drainage system in the city of Delhi and then tested successfully the following hypothesis: “ The natural drainage channels, existing as a part of a city’s fabric, if developed through capitalising on their inherent characteristics, can be transformed from being corridors of filth and squalor, into means of reinforcing the imageability of the city, apart from making it functionally more efficient and ecologically more sustainable.”

While the referred study had focussed primarily on the Barapula drainage sub-system in Delhi, its applicability to the rest of the city was found to be obvious.

Now as Delhi bids for a heritage city and a world class city status, it would be best advised to not limit its ‘green city’ claim to just the tree cover that it has justifiably achieved. How it protects and suitably develops its natural drainage channels and reclaim those that it has already lost shall be the litmus test of its claim to a world class city. And since the tentacles of its natural drainage system spreads to every nook and corner of the city, it shall as much be the responsibility of the State authorities as of every resident of this city to work towards protection, preservation and improvement of its natural drains.

The role of the city’s residents and their associations (RWAs) in transforming every filthy drain in the city into a welcome greenway is immense. For where does the ‘filth’ that clogs the drains actually emanate from? Secondly, does it not make much better sense to appreciate, value and work together to clean and green our drains now, rather then spend a fortune at a later date to “daylight” them, a la many cities in the West?

(The writer is the Convener of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan)

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