Unless We Clean Our Drains, Delhi Will Soon Drown in Its Own Filth

This is not an alarmist scenario. Unless we de-concretise all our streams, start to recycle all our sewage and learn to keep our storm drains clean, we are just waiting for a really heavy downpour.

In part one of this piece, we had talked about the basic reason behind water-logging on roads and elsewhere in Delhi, and had suggested that the underlying problem was haphazard construction post-1947 without taking into account the natural slope of the land.

Even when the period of unavoidable confusion leading to compulsive construction to house the human deluge had subsided, the unplanned nature and bad engineering decisions were not discarded, in fact, they seem to have been institutionalised.

One example of this is what we have done to tributaries of Yamuna through the several Delhi Master Plans.

From Badarpur and Tughlakabad in the southwest to the central Delhi Ridge, there were almost a dozen streams big and small that eventually merged into the Barapullah stream before joining the Yamuna near a place where the Nizamuddin station was to come up later.

Beyond the Delhi Ridge all the way to north-west Delhi, there were another half a dozen streams that merged into Sahibi, and a couple of others that joined the Yamuna through the stream that flows through Burari.

On either side of these streams were large tracts of agricultural lands that were gradually built over, through the expansion of the villages located amidst farms, through changing land use – mostly done through the agency of land mafias and later regularised by amending the master plan as has been done recently through permitting commercial activity in residential areas.

The primarily agricultural lands, that sloped gently from either side towards the streams, were built over the next few decades without any civil works like drainage and sewerage systems being laid. The wastewater from tens of thousands and later hundreds of thousands of houses located in these ‘unrecognised, irregular colonies’ flowed into the streams, polluting them, killing them and eventually clogging them.

These streams were not only the natural aquifers of the city, replenishing the water table during monsoons, they were also the carriers of runoff during the monsoons and of regular drainage of clean water from the Aravallis into the Yamuna.

These tributaries of Yamuna have now become the largest pollutants of the river and because we believe in brushing all our dirt under the carpet, we have concretised them. Because they are now concretised and because we have built roads on top of them, we do not know what is going on beneath these swanky roads. What is really going on in the deep recesses of these carriers of filth is something that we will return to in a little while.

We will come back to these drains because we need to connect a few more dots to complete the gory picture. The storm water drains that flank each road and street in Delhi are one of the dots, in fact a filthy streak that runs through the city.

Storm water drains and the city’s filth

The idea of these storm water drains is to drain all the rain water and carry it to the river. All our footpaths are built on top of these drains. There are openings every 20 or 30 metres on the footpath, known as manholes, that are supposed to be covered with metallic lids, and openings that connect to the storm water drains along the platform berm. Many of the manhole covers are missing. This is a clever device invented by our civic authorities to keep the burgeoning population of the metropolis in check. The open holes are used regularly by the citizenry, including the sanitation staff, for disposing off their waste.

Throughout the year, dust, paper, plastic, bits of tyres, packaging material, rags, discarded shoes and sandals, styrofoam, nails, rusted tins and all manner of waste finds its way into the storm water drains. This happens because there is no check on keeping them clean and free of the waste that modern civilisation thrives on. It is because of this neglect that the storm water drains are chocked and so every year a frenzied flurry of activity precedes the arrival of monsoon in Delhi. Everyone – the NDMC, the three MCDs, the PWD, the CPWD, all the MLAs MPs and cabinet ministers from Delhi declare that all drains have been desilted and the city is ready to face the monsoons.

A view of the swollen Yamuna river following incessant rains. Credit: IANS/Twitter

In fact, what is done is that the accumulated filth of the drains is dug out and piled on the roads. It is not removed and taken to the rubbish dump and there are many reasons for this. Those who pile up the dirt and those who have to remove it are two separate departments. So much like our society, there are those who generate the filth and there are those who were born to remove it. Convenient isn’t it?

We do not have enough trucks to remove this filth. Since the rubbish dumpers are unable to remove the trash generated by the city on a daily basis, where is the time and where are the dumpers to remove this additional load, and finally, where is the place on the rubbish dumps for this added filth? So it is allowed to be spread evenly on the entire surface of the roads under the tyres of the millions of vehicles and eventually, no one can see it, till the arrival of monsoons that is. And when the rains come, this sludge flows back into the storm water drains and clogs every road once again.

The fourth factor contributing to the clogging of our roads is the fact that a large number of residential areas, many in the irregular colonies, and many of our urban villages are not connected to the sewer system of the city and so every so often when their septic tanks get clogged, the filth is pumped out and poured either into the storm water drains or into what used to be the tributaries of the Yamuna and are now the single largest pollutants of the river.

All this also eventually blocks the channels, because filth does not flow as easily as water, and when a heavy shower hits the city, all our storm water drains fill up and clog our roads.

The day is not far when we will get the kind of rain that had recently hit Kerala.

Global warming, before it dries up all the rivers and melts all the glaciers, is going to bring in torrential rains. When that happens, the nallahs, that would have all been concretised by then, will not help replenish the water table, all the water will rush into the river and if Haryana opens up the gates of Hathnikund and Tajewala barrages due to a heavy downpour upstream, and the level of the Yamuna rises suddenly as it had in 1978, we are most likely to have a reverse flow in the drains, in our sewer system, that also drains into the Yamuna, and in our storm water drains, not all over the city but in all the low-lying areas, all the residential complexes built in the floodplains of the Yamuna and along the streams.

This is not an alarmist scenario. Unless we de-concretise all our streams, unless we start to recycle all our sewage, unless we learn to keep our storm water drains clean, we are just waiting for a really heavy downpour.

That is it.

We will have our flush systems bringing in all the filth of the city into our homes and the city will drown in its own filth.

Sohail Hashmi is a filmmaker, writer and a heritage buff.