Tracing the trajectory of river Yamuna in the national capital Delhi, we are choked by class conflict, skewed political interest, the dominance of the elite and exclusion of the marginalized. As the Delhi Master Plan 2041 leaves out the poor in how it imagines the city, we follow the trail of the Yamuna to understand the exclusionary patterns hidden in the plan.
River Yamuna has always been central to Delhi’s public policy. Preservation of its floodplains has been discussed in Delhi’s master plan since 1962. Often referenced with London’s Thames, Yamuna has featured in the imagination of Delhi as a world-class city. In the main city of Delhi, Yamuna flows over an area of 22km spanning from Wazirabad to Okhla. Though this stretch covers merely 2% of the river’s length it accounts for 76% of its pollutants. While in the upstream of the Wazirabad barrage the Yamuna has an adequate floodplain area, it is severely bottlenecked at five locations in the main city. Out of these 5 locations, the flow of the river is particularly disturbed at Shastri Park and Yamuna Bank Metro Station where the width of the floodplain is reduced to less than 1 km. The presence of concrete infrastructure in these regions makes it flood-prone.
The Delhi master plan of 2021 divided Delhi into 15 zonal areas and designated the entire floodplain area along the 22km stretch of Yamuna to zone O. A report on the floodplains published on June 2nd 2022, says that about 56 bastis, comprising 9350 households, roughly 46750 people, are living in zone O. Most of the residents here are migrants from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana, Jharkhand and West Bengal. While about half the households practice farming, others rely on daily wage work, fishing, nurseries and animal herding.‘The report notes that this region supports a large variety of nature-based livelihoods with low ecological footprint yet they’re being evicted in the name of ecological rejuvenation.’
Delhi master plan 2041 further bifurcates zone O into zone OI and zone OII in which the latter includes structures like Akshardham Temple and Commonwealth Games Village.
While no construction will be permitted in zone OI, regularized construction will be allowed in zone OII.
It must be noted that both the Akshardham temple and Commonwealth Games Village occupy more spaces along the floodplains and use far more groundwater yet the Delhi master plan 2041, would allow for regularized construction at these sites. To sum it up, the master plan of Delhi 2041, rests on the exclusion of the marginalized.
While the unauthorized colonies of the rich will be regularized, the poor will have to bear the brunt of bulldozers.
The question then arises: How did the floodplains of Yamuna become the centre of these settlements?
Which of these settlements are to be declared illegal?
Who occupies these ‘illegal settlements?
Where will they go after being evicted?
Who stands to gain and who loses in this process?
History of River Yamuna in the capital
The river Yamuna has a long-standing history in the capital. Mughal cities of Firozabad and Shahjahanabad were built on the banks of this river. The city of New Delhi built by the British also exploited the vantage of the river. Delhi developed around it. It served as a source of water and its floodplains became both a home and a means of livelihood. Agriculture on the riverbed was common, most notably the growing of melons during the dry summer months. Floriculture too was practiced on the floodplains of the river. There was some fishing too, especially at Okhla on the southern edge of the river.
Settlements along Yamuna Pushta
Settlements along the riverbed, particularly in the stretch of Yamuna Pushta, started after independence. In the aftermath of partition, slums along the Yamuna Pushta have been home to refugees from western Punjab. To meet the growing demand for electricity, soon after a thermal power plant was constructed here. The power plant required manual labour to operate which led to an influx of migrant workers from UP, Rajasthan, and Haryana. During the emergency period, when the civil rights of the people were suppressed by then prime minister Indira Gandhi, Delhi witnessed one of the largest eviction drives, where over 18000 jhuggies were removed and resettled in 16 colonies outside the city.
According to the Shah Commission report, around one lakh fifty thousand structures were demolished during the emergency period by various government agencies. This repression during the emergency received severe backlash, resulting in a temporary suspension of such eviction drives. But things were to change in the following decade. India hosted the Asian Games in 1982 which transformed both the infrastructure and image of the capital. Famous stadiums, auditoriums and a number of the city's important roads and flyovers were built around this time. The government required cheap manual labour to build these structures, drawing in thousands of migrant workers from the neighbouring state.
But where were these workers to be accommodated?
No formal housing was available for these migrants, and as a result, they had to build temporary shanties at the construction sites. Even after the construction work for which they had migrated was over, prompted by their survival needs and the livelihood that the capital offers, they remained in Delhi and eventually had to settle for cheap housing at the Yamuna Pushta slums. The failure of the state in accommodating migrant workers after having exploited their labour, has escalated the problem of housing in the capital. It was in the late 1990s when the process of eviction restarted on a massive scale.
Liberal market reforms and the Yamuna
1991 marked the year of liberal market reforms that led to profound economic and social restructuring. The economy was transforming into a capital-intensive one, and Delhi was being re-designed as an emerging global capital. Prominent Economist Thomas Piketty explains that in the 1990s the share in the total income of the top 10%, particularly the top 1% rose sharply while that of the middle 40% fell to historic lows. It was symbolic of the shift in the power dynamic between the poor and the rich. Remittances by NRIs and the flow of foreign funds caused an unprecedented real estate boom, resulting in the production of gated colonies and segregated spaces.
Manu Bhatnagar, principal director of the Natural Heritage Division of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage observes that in this period the number of unauthorized colonies spiked in Delhi and as the city had no proper sewage network to manage the population boom, the waste was dumped in the Yamuna. Urban planning centred on the proposal to remake Delhi into a world-class city but at the expense of whom? What has this economic transition meant for the urban poor in Delhi?
The 61st round of NSS (2004-05), a national-level government survey of citizens in India, shows a fall in real wages for the lowest income group in Delhi, and a decline in the state's provision of essential goods, including food items, healthcare, electricity, and water.
As the upper class became resourceful and assertive, the economically weaker ones were losing their bargaining power. This shift in power dynamics between the rich and the poor had its bearing on the judiciary as well. In slum eviction cases prior to the 1990s, the courts not only acknowledged the failure of the state in urban planning but also empathized with the slum dwellers and ensured that proper care was taken in the resettlement process. However, post-1990s, both the language and tone of the courts changed dramatically. The courts now, not only exhibited indifference towards the slum residents but went onto label them as encroachers. This apathy of the judiciary is reflected in the case of Yamuna pushta slum dwellers as well, where the court turned a blind eye to the eviction and displacement of hundreds of thousands of people.
Demolition of slums along Yamuna Pushta
On March 3rd, 2003, The Delhi High Court in the Wazirpur Bartan Nirmata Sangh versus Union of India case, ordered the demolition of the Yamuna Pushta settlement. It is interesting to note that the petitioner had only asked for the removal of slums from industrial areas and had nothing to do with Yamuna Pushta. But the High Court arbitrarily brought up the issue of Yamuna pollution, suggesting that the Pushta dwellers were the main contributors to the river’s pollution.
Without verifying this or giving the residents the right to be heard, the high court directed the concerned authorities to remove all jhuggies and other structures on the Yamuna Bed and its embankment within two months. Though the local community resisted for the following eight months, eventually the judgment was exercised. In December 2003, Mr Jagmohan who had earlier led a number of demolition drives in Delhi and came to be known as the demolition man proposed a tourist hub for the area and the court allowed the government to move forward with its plan. By the end of April 2004, the entire Pushta barring two clusters, Bela gaon and Moolchand Basti, which had predominantly BJP supporters, was cleared. About 150,000 people living in 40,000 homes were forcefully evicted. After securing bits of economic stability, the Pushta residents had to yet again struggle from scratch. Meanwhile, the vicious circle of migration, homelessness, slum creation, forced eviction and displacement goes on in an endless loop.
The displaced residents of Pushta were relocated to Bawana, Holambi Kalan, and Madan Pur Khadar areas of the city, all of which are on the outskirts of the city. The state not only denied space to the urban poor but further made no arrangements to ensure their accessibility to the main city. While men stayed behind to keep their jobs women were rendered jobless.
And the demolition continues
Moving forward to the year 2020, the National greens tribunal directed the DDA and the South Delhi municipal corporation to remove illegal encroachment on the Yamuna floodplain in the Okhla region. Consequently, on September 24th 2020 the DDA bulldozers arrived at the dhobi ghat slums near Batla House’s Khalilullah masjid and bulldozed about 100 homes. Residents in the area complain that they were not given notice prior to evacuation or reasonable settlement options henceforth.
The question arises, should the residents of these slums alone be held responsible for polluting the Yamuna? In the year 2016 Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's Art of Living was found guilty of damaging the Yamuna floodplain by constructing the world cultural festival on it, and an expert panel later established by the NGT recommended a fine of Rs. 42 crores for the flood plains' physical and ecological repair. But the NGT had charged them merely 5 crores as compensation based on an earlier assessment. It was a classic case of pay and pollute.
Who is to be held responsible?
Manoj Misra, convenor of the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan notes that industries located on the banks of the river along with non-operational sewage treatment plants are primarily responsible for polluting the river. Untreated domestic sewage accounts for approximately 80% of Yamuna's pollution load, with industrial pollutants accounting for the remaining 10–20%. In 2012, as per the NGT’s orders in the case of Manoj Mishra v/s Union of India & Others, an expert committee was formed and it warned against any construction on the floodplains. It noted that the area proposed for the Yamuna Riverfront Development Plan is within the embankments of the river and is flooded frequently.
Yamuna Riverfront development plan
Under the Yamuna Riverfront Development plan, DDA had proposed to develop the stretch of the Yamuna for recreational activities, public facilities, and biodiversity parks. But, despite the recommendations of the committee, the floodplains are being concretized with the construction of walkways and cycling tracks. These recreational areas are also open to commercial activities which will further affect the topography and pollute the river.
Who will be left out?
The trajectory of Yamuna forces us to introspect the linkages between the environment and social justice. For decades now, the Yamuna and its floodplains have been home to communities that practiced agriculture and helped preserve biodiversity. Yet many of those displaced are the ones that belonged to these communities and were original inhabitants of this land in East Delhi. Now they remain at the mercy of DDA to claim their ownership on this land. As ‘encroachers’ are evicted to ‘beautify’ the riverbank, Yamuna remains as polluted as ever. Furthermore, the Delhi master plan 2041 in its attempt to save the Yamuna will pave the way for gentrification. While the polluting industries will continue to operate undisturbed and the Yamuna riverfront development plan will ensure access to the river to the elite, urban poor and marginalized with little social and political capital will be left out.