Yamuna stagnant despite third Action Plan
by Sandhya Jain on 15 Nov 2016 4 Comments

Although some strides have been made in cleaning the Ganga due to personal scrutiny by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Yamuna, lifeline of Delhi, Haryana and parts of Uttar Pradesh, remains stagnant and wholly dependent upon the monsoons for annual cleansing. This year’s phenomenal rainfall diluted some of the cumulative pollution of the river that is closely associated with the frolics of the cowherd-god, Krishna, and his brother, Balram, who is credited with pulling the Yamuna towards Mathura with his plough, when the once mighty Saraswati began to dry up.

After two plans and Rs 2700 crores down the drain, the Yamuna Action Plan-III, launched in 2013, had not taken off by the end of 2014; its current status is ambiguous. The reasons for the failure of the previous two plans need forensic analysis; it is hoped the NDA government will do this.

Although the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) agreed for loan extension to complete the river cleaning and Delhi Jal Board was appointed executing agency under the National River Conservation Directorate and Union Ministry of Environment and Forests, things have moved at snail’s pace. In 2015, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) was given overall charge of cleaning the Yamuna. The NGT roped in the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, Delhi Development Authority, Irrigation and Flooding Control Dept., Upper River Yamuna Board, Delhi State Industrial and Infrastructure Development Corporation Ltd. and the States of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana.

Initially, three infrastructure companies (AECOM, NJS and TTI) won the bids to execute the engineering component of YAP-III, that is, the Okhla, Rithala and Kondli sewage treatment plants, at a cost of Rs 1656 crores. They were also to tackle the river’s biological oxygen demand (BOD) levels, drains, installation of interceptors, and so on. The NGT felt that the pollution caused by JJ (jhuggi jhonpri) and unauthorized colonies was the least part of the river’s pollution, and would be tackled by the sewer network under the capital’s master plan, Delhi-2031.

But there are two major lacunae. First, the chemical industry has not been booked for discharging untreated effluents into the river. Second, it has failed to involve universities and technical institutes to handle the public awareness, and relies on NGOs and public relations /marketing agencies to disseminate “Save the Yamuna” messages at higher cost.

Private management consultants have been hired, who have engaged the retired chief engineers and senior staff of government agencies. Possibly, it was far more cost effective and efficient for government agencies to execute the projects themselves by giving the retired experts a fair remuneration.

This is pertinent because it has been alleged that the contract documents of private consultants are sometimes manipulated during the course of the project. Experts who are officially on the rolls do not report for work at all, but are marked as present. It appears that their names and qualifications are used solely to win the bids. At times, whistleblowers are replaced by staff with no experience of sewage sector interventions.

All this is worrying in the light of the abject failure of YAP-I and YAP-II. The Yamuna Action Plan began in 1992 as a bilateral project of the Government of India and Government of Japan with special assistance from the Japan Bank of International Cooperation (JBIC). A Need Assessment Report by the National River Conservation Directorate stressed that the most potent pollution came from populations inhabiting the riverbanks on the Delhi stretch that lacked sanitation infrastructure. The Report made no mention of industrial effluents from chemical factories.

YAP-I focused on sewerage-related interventions, constructing 1146 sanitary connections for the urban poor along with five mini Sewage Treatment Plants and 10 Micro Sewage Treatment Plants. A decade later, in 2003, far from nearing completion, the project was in dismal state.

The then Minister of Environment and Forests informed Parliament that the growing populations in unauthorized colonies and JJ clusters on the Yamuna Ghats were burdening the river with additional solid waste and even the enhanced capacity of the waste water treatment plants could not maintain the desired BOD levels. Clearly, the main cause of pollution had not been tackled. Despite an expenditure of Rs 1200 crores, the Yamuna is little more than a sewerage drain which sees dilution only during the monsoons.

Then came YAP-II (Rs.1357 crores), which included some new towns of Uttar Pradesh that were polluting the river’s upstream. As YAP-II ended by 2009, only 30 per cent of the engineering works were complete. Amidst allegation of corruption and wasteful expenditure, experts pointed to the three draft plans and said that management of sewage, storm water and industrial waste must be tackled collectively.

The Center for Science and Environment examined the detailed project report of the interceptor plan prepared by the consultants appointed by the Delhi Jal Board and called it a “complete waste of money”. For long, the Delhi Jal Board permitted citizens to throw ritual remains into the water on festive occasions, in non-biodegradable polybags. Though barriers and grills were later installed on Yamuna bridges, mass awareness about the menace such pollutants posed to the river remained haphazard.

A post-project evaluation of YAP-II by the Indian Institute of Mass Communication noted lacunae at conception stage. The public toilets constructed during its first phase were not user-friendly - not every user could afford to pay Rs 2/per visit. The number of toilets was also inadequate, so people used the open drains. The aged and invalids found the floor-level pits (as in Sulabh) difficult.

The National Commission on Water for the year 2051 has indicated that 30 to 50 per cent of water is wasted in conveyance and distribution, through treatment plants and pilferages; this must be reduced to 15 per cent. But for the full health of the river, the Commission (and also the Supreme Court) has directed that a minimum of 3.60 cusecs (cubic feet per second) of water must be maintained throughout the river. But, the flow downstream is just 1.60 cusecs, which too gets consumed before it reaches Delhi.

Such are the challenges facing YAP-III. Extravagant fines levied on an organisation that held a cultural festival on the floodplains cannot hide the fact that three years of YAP-III have passed without tangible progress. It is truly tragic that decades of cynical neglect have made people forget that the Yamuna, daughter of the sun-god, Surya, is a sacred river that deserves to be restored to her pristine beauty. 

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