Chronicles Fear Death by Water
In an age in which there is so much easy talk about our ancient culture and ‘roots’, we appear to have lost all rational and organic linkages with any real notion of our heritage and its integral values. Nowhere is this more dramatically visible than in the many and degraded temple cities of North India. It is, perhaps, unique to the contemporary culture of this region that we sully, pollute, deface and defile precisely what and where we worship. The ubiquitous stench and presence of garbage, of open sewers, of ordure and dung in the public street is virtually a hallmark of some of India’s ‘holiest’ cities – including, for instance, Varanasi and Vrindavan. Nowhere in the world does piety cohabit so intimately with unmitigated filth.

A different kind of contempt for the sacred is expressed through the oversize and crass Akshardham Temple that has come up on the floodplains of the River Yamuna at Delhi. This is the river most closely associated with Krishna, one of the principal deities of the Swaminarayan sect that built this temple. The river is conceptualized in Hindu mythology as Krishna’s consort, with ‘the power of sanctifying the whole universe’. In Delhi, however, it has been transformed into an open sewer by the millions of gallons of ordure that pour into it every day from the drains and nallahs that flow unchecked into one of India’s holiest rivers. And yet, there is hope that the river may eventually be cleansed when better sense prevails; when our actions reflect a real respect, not just for what we think of as holy or divine, but for nature and for the environment; and when we have acquired a modicum of competence in managing the affairs of India’s capital city in a manner that reflects somewhat greater intelligence, technical capability and civilization than is currently the case. But once the banks, the floodplains and the catchment areas of the river have been consumed by our greed and stupidity, and been transformed into a concrete jungle, this possibility would vanish permanently.

Instead of helping to restore the purity of this holy river the Swaminarayan sect has chosen to manipulate and bend processes of law, to abuse its influence over particular sections of the political leadership, and exploit its great wealth to grab a large tract of land on the river’s bed and flood plain, in order to build a monument to its own unseeing arrogance. But that is only the beginning of the damage it is doing. In the process, it has justified and set into motion a race to overrun and build on every available acre of the river’s banks, with little concern for the ecological impact of such ‘development’. Since one major project has already been executed – taking fullest advantage of our false piety and the general disinclination to criticize anything ostensibly connected with religion – it will now prove difficult to resist the many other and potentially disastrous projects that are being planned to consume the river front in a frenzy of so-called ‘development’.

Thus, we find that plans are currently being finalized to construct a vast Commonwealth Games Village, stadia, squash courts, and a major housing complex, conference halls, press rooms, dining facilities, restaurants, and a shopping mall, for the participants and officers of this sporting event, all of which are to come up in an ‘international zone’ adjacent to the Akshardham Temple. In addition, virtually the entire 97 square kilometres of the existing floodplain in Delhi (which constitutes just seven per cent of Delhi’s total area) is to be transformed to accommodate multi-storied housing complexes, roads, metro stations and the metro headquarters, power stations, artificial parks and walkways, and golf courses. Among these, parks, walkways and golf courses may look aesthetically pleasing, but they would as irrevocably destroy the natural ecological balance of the floodplain as would a concrete cover. They would require the clearing of many hundreds of acres of land of all natural vegetation and habitat, to be planted with non-native grasses, trees and shrubs, all of which would require substantial quantities of water, fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides to maintain. Chemical use, combined with over-irrigation, would cause further contamination of groundwater aquifers and the river, and native plants and animals would be destroyed or driven out. It is useful to recall, here, that experts estimate that the Yamuna floodplain is home to at least 15 plant species and 97 bird species – all of which are already under extraordinary pressure as a result of degradation of habitat and the pollution of the river.

The utter blindness of the municipal and urban administrators who are planning this catastrophe is incomprehensible. On the one hand, after covering most of Delhi with concrete and brick, asphalt and tar, choking up trees and all available open spaces with unending, impractical pavements and stone cladding, they now lament the fact that there is no ground water recharge, and the water table is plummeting. Hundreds of crores are now proposed to be spent on ‘water harvesting schemes’ that may help recharge ground water and improve the drainage into the river. On the other hand, they are plotting the destruction of one of the last significant and natural spaces remaining in the city, in what can only be interpreted as a frenzy of greed, ignorance and recklessness.

Barely two per cent of the length of the Yamuna lies within Delhi’s confines, but it is here that the river is destroyed. It is widely conceded that the floodplain area is tectonically unstable, naturally prone to flooding, and ecologically fragile, but this has not deterred those who cannot see beyond their immediate and urgent land-lust, those who seek to parcel out this land, build unsustainable structures on it, and then sell these off to hapless eventual ‘consumers’ who will occupy them when the floods and earthquakes come. There are strong reasons that provoked the prohibitions in Delhi’s past Master Plans on any construction between the two embankments – but now this reasoning has been lost sight of in the pure drive for money.

Worse, managing the Yamuna is not about managing its course through Delhi alone. The river – in its brief passage through this city – constitutes the main drainage system for the entire landmass south of the Aravallis. Squeezing it between embankments to limit the floodplain was itself environmentally damaging. The creation of such embankments along rivers has resulted in the greatest ecological disasters all over the country; except for small numbers of people directly protected by such embankments, villagers everywhere now speak of the many adverse consequences, including falling water tables and soil salinity. Building over the Yamuna’s flood plain will either completely and finally kill the river, or will set the stage for an enormous man-made disaster.

Delhi’s newspapers are often full of the laments of the rich, many of which outdo the pathos of the classical elegies for the vanishing sylvan habitat. In our attitudes and practices, however, we appear to have forgotten the fundamental truth that we are essentially river civilisations and keeping our rivers alive is a survival imperative. We are trying to recharge a dying Sabarmati river in Gujarat by bringing waters from the Narmada; but here we have a river that still has some life in it – despite all that we have done to it – and we remain hell bent on destroying it.

The writer is Patron, Urban Futures Initiative

An edited version of this article was published in The Pioneer, June 25, 2005

K.P.S. Gill



The Urban Imagination
The City In:
Myths And Legends