Chronicles Dead Water, Dead Sand

In a recent study by the Asian Development Bank and World Bank on South Asia Urban Air Quality Management, Delhi has been named as the second most polluted city in Asia. Just a year earlier it had won the US Department of Energy’s ‘Clean Cities International Partner of the Year’. Once again, another winter enveloped in the haze, smog and stench of our great metropolis. All this, despite Chief Minister Sheila Dixit’s hopes of turning Delhi into a ‘truly international city’. Somehow the idea of municipal management as an important facet of planning just doesn’t stick. Today Delhi is one chaotic concrete sewer bursting at its seams, and setting things in order appears to be too gargantuan a task.

But great cities of the world have faced similar or worse trials and have managed to emerge transformed. In 1858 London was reeling from a crisis that The Times called “The Great Stink”. Sewage produced by a population of over 2 million Londoners was pouring unchecked, into the Thames. The monumental pungency of the air eventually drove suffering Members of Parliament from the chamber of the House of Commons; Benjamin Disraeli (then leader of the house) was seen fleeing Parliament with a hanky to his nose. The crisis finally forced the hapless Parliamentarians to undertake measures to clean up the Thames. The illustrious engineer Sir Joseph Bazalgette was entrusted the enormous task to improve London’s primitive sanitation system. His response to this challenge left London with a system of intercepting sewers, pumping stations and treatment works that serve the city to this day, nearly a century and a half later.

Our own politicians are made of sterner stuff, or perhaps have tougher hides. In fact the diminutive Chief Minister did not appear to flinch as she stood at the banks of the Yamuna, a moldering mass of ordure, and forked out great quantities of muck in her well-intentioned but eventually futile Shram Daan. This once-great river is now called ‘dead’ after as it reaches Delhi, as a deluge of 3296 MLD (million litres per day) of raw sewage from the city’s drains meet its waters. Sewage alone contributes 70 percent of pollutants, and industrial effluents add the remaining 30 per cent. The acceptable level of coliform – an indicator of faecal matter in the river – is about 5,000 per 100 millilitres. By the time the river reaches Okhla, coliform levels touch a shocking 450 lakh per 100 millilitres. According to one estimate, 10,000 litres of untreated animal blood from Delhi’s slaughterhouses drain into the Yamuna daily. And all this constitutes the source of 70 percent of Delhi’s water supply. According to the Central Pollution Control Board, as of January 2004, Delhi has only 17 sewage treatment plants, well below the required capacity. Yet, while all this untreated filth pours into the river, 73 percent of these are underutilized and only 10 percent run to capacity.
This is despite the fact that, on November 6, 2001, the Supreme Court had directed the Delhi Government to file an action plan to make the river water potable not later than March 2003, by which time no untreated sewage was to enter the river. Amazingly in 1993 the ambitious Yamuna Action Plan (YAP) had already been launched under the aegis of the National River Conservation Directorate and the Ministry of Environment and Forests with a soft loan of 17.77 billion yen (over Rs. 700 crore) from Japan. The execution of this multi-crore programme is key to understanding the workings of our city.

On offer of the loan various concerned State and Central Government agencies acted quickly and a decision was taken to set up sewage treatment plants, but crucial to solving the problem, it was felt, was the construction of a large number of toilets, which were to be located in slums and resettlement colonies.

After 250 of these toilet blocks had been built, it was found that no attempt had been made to assess potential users while planning, and they had been built at completely inappropriate places where there was no one to use them. Thus, built at the cost of a staggering Rs. 25 crore, 250 toilet complexes were lying vacant and unused. Unfazed by the monumental bungling , the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) worked out a ‘strategic reformulation’. A Public Relations agency was asked to identify the number of pavement dwellers near the clusters of CTCs; where the MCD would now construct night shelters to ensure their ‘utilization’. Worse, some of these CTCs were yet to get water and they all had a conventional flush design which connected to the same drains that flowed untreated into the river. As for the vacant and useless CTCs: officials asserted their construction was ‘an experiment’ demonstrating that various agencies like the Centre, DDA and MCD ‘could come together and complete a project quickly’. Rs. 25 crore quite literally down the drain for this wisdom to dawn! Regarding the STPs, 16 were set up for household waste and 15 common effluent treatment plants for industries — of these, just five plants are working, and that too far below their capacity. In some of the others, though the plants are in place, sewer lines leading from the colonies and industrial areas are not installed.

Despite this colossal waste YAP Phase II was launched in 2001 after negotiating for another soft loan of nearly Rs. 1,500 crore from the Japanese. Over just the past five years, more than Rs. 1,000 crore has been spent under YAP, but, according to experts, pollution levels have actually gone up. Today, well past the Supreme Court’s deadlines, Yamuna remains the sewer it had become. An insight into this massive failure was offered by the Chief Minister, who admitted that no change had come about in the condition of the river. She blamed the “criss-crossing of Central and State Government authorities, resulting in failure of implementation.”

This precisely is what ails all planning in Delhi. With projects that run into the thousands of crores, the crisis lies, not in a cash crunch, but rather in a collapse of thinking, a complete lack of application of mind. There is no place in the world where corruption does not exist, but there could hardly be another so completely inept at planning. Given the multiple agencies that handle Delhi, authorities are permanently engaged in passing the buck. It remains difficult to get any one individual to take responsibility and as long as this situation continues, the problems will persist.

Within all the confusion and incompetence that passes for ‘planning and implementation’ in India’s capital, another multi-crore project, the Delhi Metro, is unfolding. Weaving through the maze of its crowds and its traffic, tunnelling deep within, into its subterranean calm, a new story is being written. Handling the epic proportions of this mission is another great engineer, E. Sreedharan. Perhaps for the first time in the history of this city after Independence, a project has not only kept to its deadlines but even managed to meet targets much before time, adhering to the highest standards in executing the intricate complexities the task demands. The Delhi Metro has demonstrated that, left in the hands of a competent individual, the system can not only deliver but can compete with the best; and that too many cooks definitely spoil the broth.

Chitvan Gill
Published in The Pioneer, December 28, 2004


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