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Updated: October 18, 2013 01:48 IST

No covering up this mess

Amita Baviskar
Comment (14)   ·   print   ·   T  T  
The Hindu

Contrary to global efforts at restoring covered streams, the Delhi government’s initiative to concretise and pave nallas is a misstep that will increase drainage problems and destroy vegetation

Like millions of people living in Indian cities, my home is next to a ganda nallah. Only an embankment separates my neighbourhood from the sluggish stream of sewage. On summer evenings, the nallah announces itself with a stench that infiltrates our flats, a bouquet of rotten-egg hydrogen sulphide and methane. Brass lamps and bronze idols are tarnished within a day of being polished. Fridges and air-conditioners need to have their refrigerant gases replaced every year because of leaking pipes. If noxious fumes from the nallah can corrode metal, we wonder what they are doing to the soft tissue of our lungs.

Problems like these are now being addressed by government initiatives to cover up the nallahs. This has already happened in Delhi’s affluent Defence Colony, while work is under way on Kushak Nallah in central-south Delhi and the Shahdara drain in east Delhi. The earthen bed and sides of the nallahs are being concretised and the top paved over. The covered area is to be used for road-widening, parking lots and shops. Many neighbourhood associations support these projects as a solution to a long-standing problem that mars their quality of life and lowers property values. However, instead of improving their environs, covering up nallahs is likely to make their life much worse.

Ecological crisis

Concretising the channel of a nallah means that it can no longer replenish groundwater. Covering it makes it harder to remove debris and sludge. During the monsoons, constricted flow results in backed up drains and flooding. Reduced oxygenation causes more gaseous emissions, increasing the stink. Many nallahs are lined with trees and shrubs that shelter wildlife. Walking along my nallah once, I was surprised by a raucous party of Grey Hornbills stripping the figs off a peepal tree. But when the vegetation is cleared to enable construction, precious green spaces get decimated. As the environmental NGO, Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, has argued in a case being heard by the National Green Tribunal, covering nallahs is a decided misstep, one that will take the city further down the path of ecological crisis.

Understanding the landscape

How do we then deal with the polluting presence of the nallah next door? This problem requires not kneejerk solutions but an understanding of the natural landscape which the city inhabits. Most nallahs were once seasonal streams that followed the lay of the land, flowing into lakes and rivers. The nallah near my home was a channel of the Sahibi river, connecting the Najafgarh jheel (lake) in west Delhi to the river Yamuna. It absorbed monsoon overflow, irrigated crops and provided drinking water. So did the Kushak Nallah, a tributary of the Yamuna which was dammed at Satpula in the 14th century by the Tughlaqs. After Independence, as the city grew bigger and denser, public sanitation projects installed underground sewers that debouched into these water bodies. Today, the Najafgarh jheel has vanished and the nallah that flowed from it has become one of Delhi’s three major sewage canals, carrying the combined liquid filth of west and north Delhi to the river Yamuna.

Even in municipal plans, these streams were not originally designated for carrying sewage. They were meant to be storm water drains, bearing runoff from the rains, just as they had done over the centuries. But the signal failure of the authorities to treat the sewage generated by this city of 14 million has led to the nallahs being hijacked for this purpose. A performance audit by the Comptroller and Auditor General earlier this year reported that the Delhi Jal Board collected and treated only 54 per cent of the 680 MGD (million gallons per day) sewage produced by the city. Almost half of the sewage in the city flows untreated through 350 km of nallahs into the Yamuna, turning this once-beautiful river into a black, stinking sheet of sludge. In theory, Delhi has been building sewage treatment plants (STPs) and now has installed capacity to treat 543 MGD of waste. However, all these plants work below capacity because the Jal Board did not simultaneously build the sewers to carry the waste to the plants. Without these connecting pipes, the STPs are slowly rusting away — a plant in Ghitorni built in 1997 has not worked for a single day, another in Rohini works to 5 per cent capacity — while untreated sewage continues to flow through the nallahs. To this day, Delhi has no comprehensive sewage management plan. In 2008, the Delhi Jal Board launched an ambitious plan to build ‘interceptor sewers’ along the Najafgarh, Shahdara and supplementary nallahs to catch the flow from subsidiary drains and deliver it to STPs but five years and Rs 1,978 crore later, there is little to show for it. Instead, the authorities are steaming ahead with Operation Cover-up.

Tragically, this is being done at a time when cities around the world are waking up to the wisdom of restoring covered streams to life. The Fleet, London’s ‘lost river’, was a sewer with floating carcasses of dead dogs in the 18th century before it was covered in the 19th. After clean-up, it is now being uncovered as an urban green channel. Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon restoration project turned a neglected stream covered by a highway into a popular recreation area, a place where residents and visitors stroll along its cascading channel, ankle-wading in its cool flow during the hot months. Philadelphia has made ‘stream daylighting’ its official policy, bringing waterways that were buried in pipes to the surface, restoring streams to their floodplains and improving their capacity to recharge groundwater. A stream running through a cityscape can be a delight, a cool green tunnel with footpaths and bicycle trails, where birdcalls and flowing water provide a calming respite from urban congestion and cacophony.

Public scandal

This ecological vision is not difficult to realise in Indian cities if we resolve to tackle the challenge of sewage treatment head on. The neglect of sewage in India is a public scandal, one in which all citizens, especially those who live in ‘developed colonies,’ are complicit. Unlike encroachments on lakes and tanks for which we can blame greedy real estate developers, the pollution of water bodies is the direct result of our indifference to the fate of our filth. We flush it away and forget about it. Yet public campaigns to save water bodies in Hyderabad, Bangalore, Jaisalmer and Jaipur have found that it is not enough to protect the lake or tank alone. The streams in its catchment that feed it must also be revived. Only when we stop pouring sewage into them can we start the process of restoring the ecological well-being of urban waterscapes.

As towns grow into cities and cities morph into metropolises, urban ecology seems to be losing ground to urgent demands for improved infrastructure. Covering and concretising nallahs to build roads and parking lots may seem like an improvement. But it goes against the grain of a guiding principle that the New Orleans and Mumbai disasters should have etched indelibly into our memory: cities are embedded in a natural landscape. Artefacts of human ingenuity and organisation they may be, but they can endure and afford a good life to all citizens only when they respect the ecological systems of which they are part.

(Amita Baviskar is an environmental sociologist)

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Amita,

The nallahs are a sulphurous eyesore, besides being conveyors of
plastic that often back-up. A comprehensive look is certainly called
for. Covering them up seemed a little inappropriate to me, too - how
would they be cleaned and de-silted? But, what has been the experience
with those stretches that have been covered - the section below Dilli
Haat, for example?

Mohit

from:  Mohit Satyanand
Posted on: Oct 19, 2013 at 14:33 IST

Well written article. These articles should be forwarded to all those officials involved
in town or city planning. A good planning requires ideas, research and examples.
The precedent quoted here are not to be ignored.

from:  Pramod B Nair
Posted on: Oct 19, 2013 at 11:12 IST

In Nilgiris, the eucalyptus tree is being wiped out on the false notion that it drinks up ground water. Tell me is there any tree that does not drink up ground water? All kinds of lies are perpetrated about the negatives of this tree when in actuality it survives quite well during droughts for several years in Australia. Most of the roots are shallow except a few that dig deep but the water runs off and ends up in dirty water drains and sewage outlets and is unusable anyway. The trees call for rain and since the decimation of eucalyptus the Nilgiris has suffered severe droughts. Beautiful fairy type birds like the bright blue Nilgiri fly catcher which nested in the trunk of this tree have disappeared. The ground which was moist from the fallen leaves is now dry and ready to catch fire. Worst is that the blue mountains have lost their bluish colour as it was the blue leaves of the young eucalyptus that gave the region it's blue aura. And there are stinking dirty streams everywhere!

from:  angela alvares
Posted on: Oct 18, 2013 at 21:00 IST

The environmentalist has projected his point of view well but has not given
alternate immediate solution which is acceptable to the people living on the banks
of these nuallahs . A feasible solution is make a reinforced concrete nallah to the
same width or even less but holes in the sides and at bottom very closely to
absorb the water but keep the muck . An improvement can be made to the bottom
surface by giving a slope to the middle so that most of the muck will accumulate
in the middle which can be cleaned periodically and the muck can be used as
natural fertilizer . There is no need to cover the nalla which will be very expensive
and very difficult to de silt. This will also work like rain harvesting system .

from:  sbalaraman
Posted on: Oct 18, 2013 at 20:51 IST

Very good article ,briefly describe about ganda nallas struggling society in india...

from:  Shakti Singh
Posted on: Oct 18, 2013 at 20:51 IST

Very thought provoking. Also tragic to hear that Delhi (in contrast to many other
metros) actually has almost enough capacity in its STPs to handle all the sewage
produced daily.

The responsibility of the citizens towards preventing spread of filth in their cities is
however paramount. I once saw a documentary about a small town in Japan which
went the same course, covering and concretizing its drains until the ground
started to give as the regular flow of groundwater was apparently necessary to
maintain structural stability. The city council then decided on an ambitious course
requiring every citizen to stop dumping their household waste into the river which
succeeded spectacularly in a city which was no more than a maze of thousands of
canals. The town called Yanagawa is now famous for its canals which are very
clean now of course.

We need infrastructure and good planning but without civic sense, nothing will
work.

from:  Vivek
Posted on: Oct 18, 2013 at 19:59 IST

Well-written, thought-provoking article. Hope decision makers take
notice, and keep these points in mind.
I guess some compromises will have to be made, because we aren't a
particularly rich city/country yet. We might have to do what London did,
i.e. move to covered drains before making them eco zones when we can
afford to.

from:  Aditya
Posted on: Oct 18, 2013 at 17:06 IST

This is a good informative article and just touches the tip of the iceberg or the top of a skyscraper. In the west on this article there would be 10000 comments. 1. Each multistory apartment must have its own biogas plant which inputs its daily sewage and outputs fertilizer and biogas.2. Each apartment must have a built in solar cooker.3. The apartment must have its own water treatment plant and find uses for the treated water. .The apartment complex must separate its trash into wet and dry. It must put the wet organics into the biogas plant. The town must only line up all these into the housing scheme and limit the nmuber of inhabitants to the ecological carrying capacity. People must use bycycles and their muscles for their daily routine and limit automobiles that output benzene vapour which give them blood cancer and reduce diesel fumes which give them also cancer.
I was going round Vashi and Mumbai and the refuse thrown wildly all over no wonder is causing dengue!Sewerless God!

from:  R. Ashok Kumar
Posted on: Oct 18, 2013 at 16:07 IST

Really an insightful article.The issue jas sensitized my ethos.

from:  Harshit Sahai
Posted on: Oct 18, 2013 at 15:24 IST

Very good article on maintainence of our drainage system. Hope it will be heard over and some concrete action can be expected in this regard in the near future by all of us.

from:  Divya Alok
Posted on: Oct 18, 2013 at 12:24 IST

Being an ardent supporter of covering up nallahs/drains. The article is
an eye-opener. Amused and enlightened by the article above. The benefits of covering drains are indeed a serious curse to society in disguise of blessings.
The ecological soundness as described by author out do the shortcomings,if any. And these shortcomings can be well averted by >proper planning and execution.
Heart-felt thank to The Hindu and Writer. Hope to see many more good Lead.

from:  Aditya Abhinav
Posted on: Oct 18, 2013 at 12:08 IST

Effective underground sewer systems could take 15-25 years to develop in our large cities. Covering the storm drains is therefore not such a bad idea as it avoids stench and disease spread. How long can one live surrounded by a bad smell and filthy sights ? Also, in many places, the installed slabs will be the only footpath available to the pedestrian, who would otherwise walk on the roads We can look at things flexibly as in London / Seoul, and uncover these channels as and when they become charged with cleaner water. The removed slabs can be reused in other projects.

from:  S Nityananda
Posted on: Oct 18, 2013 at 09:01 IST

Thanks Hindu and Amita for the article.This is also the case in bangalore where many river streams are converted(now) into drains, we need a national policy of bringing the rivers back with proper planning and foresight.

from:  Narendra
Posted on: Oct 18, 2013 at 07:11 IST

Thanks to Amita Baviskar for writing on an important subject rarely covered by the popular media. Her appeal that we take a comprehensive and an ecology sensitive approach to managing the liquid filth that we produce is both appropriate and necessary if we want to act in concert with nature. It is the only way to go if we are concerned about long term sustainablity of our actions.

from:  Virendra Gupta
Posted on: Oct 18, 2013 at 04:06 IST
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