Each monsoon season, Gyaan Devi and her family of eight carry their belongings to higher ground as the flooded Yamuna engulfs her home. “We make sure to pack all books because kids still have to go to school,” Devi said.
Living on the floodplains in Sonia Vihar comes with the risk, or in this case, near guarantee, of relocation. Devi has lived in the floodplains for four years, and has been temporarily relocated every year.
She said the first warning comes when water begins to submerge their crops, usually around July 20. As water rises to about waist level, the families must be moved to camps placed on the adjacent, elevated road by the Delhi government.
With monsoons expected to hit Delhi in the first week of July, people on the Yamuna floodplains are already concerned about their crops.
On Tuesday, the Chief Minister held a meeting with the Chief Secretary and officials in the Irrigation and Flood Control Department, announcing that an apex committee will be set up to monitor water levels and coordinate rescue and relief measures in case of flooding.
Flood control and rescue operations require coordination between 13 government agencies, including municipal corporations, police, DDA and Delhi Jal Board.
Last year, more than 20,000 people were displaced from their homes, according to data maintained by the Flood and Irrigation Control Department. Residents believe this year will be worse.
“Last year, the officials arrived at 9 pm and told us it was time to leave, without warning,” said Meena, a Sonia Vihar resident.
Up at the camps, those who are displaced are often provided more services than they have at home — food, water, electricity, bathrooms and other basic services. But they receive no compensation for the crops and homes they lose. When it’s time to return home, sometimes more than two months later, their jhuggis made of sand and straw need to be completely rebuilt, and land for their crops can remain damaged for six months.
“People on the floodplains are the most vulnerable,” said K Mahesh, district magistrate of East District, who coordinated the rescue from floodplains last year. He said many people don’t want to leave their homes for the camps, but once there, services they are provided make some of them not want to go back.
But those in Sonia Vihar say that isn’t always the case. “The food is often contaminated with insects, and it causes the children to fall ill with fever,” Meena claimed.
Bhagirath, a resident of Geeta Colony, however said that food at the camps is good, but crops are a constant worry. “The next two weeks are crucial to see if they survive,” Bhagirath said.
He fears this year could see the worst flooding in a while as water is rising in the river already, even as monsoon hit Uttarakhand, where the river originates, only on Monday. “The last time my jhuggi was fully submerged was in 2013, and this year I think it will come up to the roofs again,” Bhagirath said. He expects the first warnings to come from the administration in early July.
Last year, the highest the Yamuna swelled was 205.98 metres on August 31. In 2013, the river reached 207.32 metres, the second highest in Delhi’s recorded history. The highest was in 1978, when the water level touched 207.49 metres.
Nikhil Kumar, secretary at the Delhi Irrigation and Flood Control Department, said they monitor water levels and if it rises beyond a certain point, they alert various relief departments, coordinated by district magistrates, regarding evacuation.
“Evacuation is a need-based activity, the district magistrates take a decision on it… We can assist them in relief operations, for instance in case of waterlogging or using our motor boats for evacuation,” Kumar said.
This year, a control room has been set up behind the DM’s office since June 15 and it gives hourly reports of levels of the Yamuna. “There is really no reason for people to live on the floodplains,” Mahesh said.
Many of the people living on the floodplains of Sonia Vihar come from villages in Uttar Pradesh, but they don’t go home during the floods for fear of abandoning their farms. Mahesh said many residents even want to stay in tents that overlook their farms so they can keep an eye on them.
“They are very much attached to the place, and this is a big problem,” he said.
Birendar Kumar, who has been living on the floodplains of Geeta Colony for 12 years, said he can’t leave because he has nowhere else to make a stable income.
“Every year I lose around Rs 50,000 to the floods,” Birendar said, adding that it’s still better than earning nothing at all.