Amid mention of bullets, Pakistan, anti-Citizenship law protesters and the Central government’s decisions, BJP leaders have hit out at the Aam Aadmi Party-led Delhi government over its promises to clean up the Yamuna. Home Minister Amit Shah has even dared AAP chief and Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal to take a dip in the river if he believes it is clean.
Ever since the Supreme Court took cognizance of pollution of the river in 1994, a number of measures have been taken and action plans drafted to control its degradation. However, more than a quarter of a century later, bringing the river back to its “natural state” in the capital still remains a challenge.
Cleaning the Yamuna has found a mention in the manifestos of all three parties as well as in speeches by leaders. In an interview to The Indian Express, Kejriwal said one of the things his government will focus on if it returns to power is cleaning the river.
At a public gathering in Matiala last month, Shah had said: “PM Narendra Modi and UP CM Yogi Adityanath have cleaned the Ganga; the new BJP government of Delhi will certainly clean the Yamuna too.”
In its 2015 manifesto, AAP had promised to revive the river by prohibiting discharge of untreated sewage and industrial effluents in it. Since then, more than 1,100 km of new sewage lines have been laid and over 370 km of defective or old lines replaced as of September 2019. In the present manifesto, it has again promised to revive the river and work with the Centre to develop a “beautiful riverside” along its banks.
The BJP, in its manifesto, has promised to constitute a ‘Delhi Yamuna Vikas Board’ to ensure “clean and uninterrupted flow of Yamuna and development of its adjoining areas”. The Congress’s manifesto promises to launch a “water restoration mission” to rejuvenate, accumulate and protect Delhi’s water bodies.
Tackling pollution in the river, however, remains an uphill task.
In January 2015, the National Green Tribunal had delivered a landmark judgment with a revitalisation plan for the Yamuna based on a petition filed by Manoj Misra, a retired Indian Forest Service officer, and Madhu Bhaduri, a former Indian Foreign Service officer.
Misra, who is also the convenor of the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, said the condition of the river, in some measures, has worsened since the Tribunal’s directive: “Until and unless dilution of water is done, by restoring the flow back in the river, it would continue to be a sewage pond for nine months in a year.”
Of its total length of 1,370 km, the Yamuna flows for 54 km in Delhi, between Palla and Badarpur. Water drawn from the river for supply to the city is taken before the Wazirabad Barrage. After this, a 22-km stretch between Wazirabad and Okhla — roughly 2% of the river’s total length — accounts for a major share of pollution of the Yamuna, as per authorities. During non-monsoon months, the river has no fresh water downstream of Wazirabad. The only flow is from sewage, both treated and untreated, through a number of drains that join it.
Figures show there has not been a marked difference in the quality of water in the river over the years. Samples taken by the Delhi Pollution Control Committee on January 6 show that the biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) at Palla was 3 milligram per litre, as is the standard, but began to deteriorate after the Wazirabad Barrage and reached as high as 65mg/l near the Agra Canal in Okhla.
BOD is a measure of organic pollution in a water body — in polluted water bodies more organic matter means more BOD, and less available dissolved oxygen for aquatic life.
The dissolved oxygen level was 7.3mg/l at Palla, against the standard of 5mg/l or more. It, however, began falling after the Wazirabad Barrage and was ‘nil’ at six locations until near the Agra Canal at Jaitpur. Only at Nizamuddin bridge, it was 1.9 mg/l.
One of the main problems that authorities are trying to tackle is controlling flow of untreated sewage in the river. The Delhi Jal Board (DJB) supplies a little over 900 million gallons per day (MGD) of water to the city, of which around 720 MGD is converted into sewage.
However, Misra believes the actual figure of sewage generated would be higher as the DJB hasn’t accounted for a number of unauthorised borewells extracting groundwater in the city.
At present, the DJB treats around 512 MGD of sewage. The rest is either being released into the river or other water bodies, as per authorities.
To tackle this problem, the water department has been working on an Interceptor Sewer Project which would trap sewage flowing into stormwater drains and divert them to sewage treatment plants (STPs). However, officials said, more than half of the DJB’s 36 STPs are treating sewage as per old quality standards. In the future, the department plans to upgrade all STPs to meet revised standards.
A monitoring committee set up by the NGT to clean the Yamuna has said that even after commissioning of the interceptor project, around 204 drains would still be left untapped and continue to pollute the Yamuna.
It is believed that unless more fresh water is released into the river to maintain a certain flow during the dry season, chances of improvement in water quality is low.
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