Canals can

The over 20,000 nullahs crisscrossing Delhi — if cleaned and beautified — will not only rejuvenate the Yamuna but also provide a 350 km stretch of eco-friendly commute and recreational options to its people. Urban planner Manit Rastogi has been advocating this since 2009

Published - September 14, 2014 08:38 pm IST - New Delhi

Manit Rastogi next to the Green Park nullah Photo: Meeta Ahlawat. Photo: Meeta Ahlawat

Manit Rastogi next to the Green Park nullah Photo: Meeta Ahlawat. Photo: Meeta Ahlawat

After a spell of rain, the walk down a few feet from the concrete road becomes a tad tricky. Mud and wet blades of grass are easy to negotiate compared to the stink raised by puddles of human droppings scattered all around the path. Leading the trail — near Panchsheel Park in South Delhi — is Manit Rastogi, commenting with a chuckle in between, “This is one of the open-air shit pots of Delhi.”

Along the path is a canal, better known as the Green Park nullah, linked to River Yamuna in East Delhi, its grey water carrying with it plastic bags at a pretty good pace. “If you continue to go further ahead, you will reach Sainik Farms through the Jahanpanah forest and the other way will take you to Siri Fort, JNU, Defence Colony, Sarai Kale Khan and finally to the Yamuna bank,” says Manit.

Manit would know better. Since 2009, after studying the interconnect of 18 major nullahs and 20,000 tertiary ones across the National Capital, he and his Delhi-based architecture firm Morphogenesis have been propagating an idea to clean and beautify them which would in turn rejuvenate the nearly dead Yamuna, as these nullahs ultimately fall into the river. The initiative is also geared towards creating an eco-corridor across Delhi that would also provide last minute connectivity from bus and Metro stations and an option for children to go to school by walking or cycling down, besides providing opportunities for recreational activities. It can also provide a walking network to tourists to all the important monuments, museums and stadia of Delhi.

Morphogenesis’ proposal was in news in the run-up to the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi but, like many projects, this one too had been pushed to the backburner after initial interest shown by the authorities. The neglected nullah network — the older part of it dates back to the Tughlaqabad era — therefore, has continued to be so.

Though filth-filled, walking along the Green Park nullah can still offer you a glimpse of the fact that the nullah network is literally the underbelly of Delhi. Pivoted on these nullahs are bridges that connect one part to another and thereby complete the roadways lining the city. Despite the dirt, the areas along the nullahs are still the greener parts of Delhi. Manit points it out, “Most nullahs have a natural tree line.”

At his office in Panchsheel Park, Manit shows this reporter a Power Point presentation he had shown various Delhi authorities. He zooms in on a satellite image illustrating the mess of nullahs that encompass Delhi. “Till 2005 when Google Earth came, Delhi didn’t have readily available satellite imagery; so no government realised the full extent of these nullahs across the city. This imagery shows that no place in Delhi is more than one km from a nullah. Though most of this network dates back to 700 years — Yamuna water was channelled through them to irrigate different places — they degenerated to being filth carriers of the city due to lack of knowledge about their potential,” says Manit. Running the cursor over a satellite image of a wide patch dotted with houses, he says, “This is from East Delhi. The snaky green line that you see meandering through it is the Barapullah nullah, the only green area that survived around this patch. Unfortunately, we have a flyover on top of it now, the construction of which has further damaged its water.”

A personal experience led Manit to the discovery of the nullah network. “In 2008, my 12-year-old son wanted to cycle down from Panchsheel Park to the Hauz Khas Village market. I didn’t allow him, saying it was unsafe. He asked me,

‘Do I then have to always lead my life in a closed environment?’ That set me thinking and I tried finding out what Delhi used to be,” relates Manit, an alumnus of the School of Planning and Architecture.

His findings led him to similar world examples. “Such networks are working in China, Spain, South Korea. Interestingly in Seoul, an elevated highway over a historic stream was razed in 2003 as the authorities realised that it would kill it. After its removal, the area not only became a popular spot for recreation but its temperature also lessened by two degrees.”

So how does one clean these nullahs? “It is simple. Use a system of organic reed beds and aerators to clean the sewage entering the nullahs. This is a well established system and it is both environment-friendly and cheap. This will dramatically improve public health in Delhi by getting rid of mosquitoes, etc., and also help replenish the aquifers. This will also reduce the need to spend large sums on building sewage plants at the Yamuna.”

Morphogenesis submitted the proposal to Delhi Government in 2009. The Unified Traffic and Transportation Infrastructure (Planning and Engineering) Centre cleared a pilot project. “But there are other agencies at play — the MCD, the Delhi Cantonment Board, DDA, the ASI — which have jurisdiction over places through which many nullahs flow. I feel the plan failed to take off because of lack of a common mechanism between these agencies to work together,” states Manit. He underlines, “Morphogenesis is not seeing business here; we only want the idea to be implemented and help restore a valuable asset of common people.”

With the Narendra Modi Government stressing on the concept of smart cities across India, this urban planner hopes its definition includes creation of a liveable city not devoid of its character. “The brief that Nehru gave to Le Corbusier for Chandigarh was, create a city unfettered by India’s past. Chandigarh became a model for a lot of our cities. But where is social equity in it? Because Chandigarh was designed to become an elite city, the townships of Mohali, etc. came up around it. Smart cities should not end up having only luxury homes for few, many of which will remain locked up. One should concentrate on making affordable homes which would increase density and therefore the need for better transport, better water and electricity supply, leading to a liveable city,” states the co-founder of Morphogenesis whose ‘green’ designs have won the firm 54 awards.

It is shocking when Manit highlights the funds spent on cleaning the river through Yamuna Action Plan. While Phase I and II cost the Government over Rs.1500 crores, there is a plan for another phase worth Rs.5300 crore. “And yet Yamuna is dying. To make the nullah network work and save the river from death, it needs only between Rs. 750 and 1000 crores.”

Manit signs off the conversation with both hope and despair. “The idea is not new, it has worked elsewhere but I think it is too cheap to get the attention of our authorities.” Its result is for everyone to see — historic nullahs turning into shit pots of the city.

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