Ministry of Water Resources

River Yamuna through the Prism of Political Manifestos in Delhi

Deteriorating health over the decades of river Yamuna in Delhi is a perfect example of an abject governance failure. All grandiose plans to restore the river to its past glory have been in vain. Yamuna Action Plans (YAP) implemented since 1993 with a consolidated spent of around Rs 1500 crores have succeeded (sic) in only taking the river closer to its demise in the city-state. 

River Yamuna in Delhi
River Yamuna in Delhi

So, it is but natural if one is tempted to search for a long awaited redemption for the river, at least in terms of vision (if any) and promises (action plan) made in the manifestos of the three key political parties seeking to gain a popular mandate in December 2013 to govern the city-state of Delhi.

Releasing a political party’s ‘manifesto’ in advance of a state or national election for membership to legislative assemblies or the Parliament has become routine. Of late in this age of 24×7 news coverage these have become a newsworthy event.

Experts from Congress Manifesto on Yamuna
Experts from Congress Manifesto on Yamuna

The manifestoes for the upcoming Delhi Assembly elections were released on 20 November 2013 by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the Indian National Congress (INC) and on 26 November 2013 by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). These three political parties, AAP being a rookie, claim to be the key contenders for political power in Delhi.

A comparative assessment of the three manifestoes reveal none too hopeful picture for the city’s life-line river, Yamuna. Let me explain.

Is there a vision?

Creation of a ‘vision’ shall pre-requisite a holistic understanding of the issues involved. Prima facie, notwithstanding pious words, such understanding is conspicuous by its absence.   

While both the AAP and the BJP do swear by river Yamuna being the life line river of the city-state and a national heritage respectively, for the INC it is no more than a source of water and dumping ground for sewage.

This vast difference of understanding between them is exhibited by AAP and BJP manifestos devoting at least a chapter to the river, while by the INC the river finds mention in a chapter devoted to the Delhi Jal Board, with a suffix titled ‘making every drop count’. For the INC to adopt the ‘business as usual’ approach in the matter is most perplexing  since clearly it is this very approach that has seen the health of the river in the city go from bad to worse during its (INC) 15 year long reign since 1998.

During Monsoon Yamuna Waters Reaches the Colonies Built on its Flood Plains
During Monsoon Yamuna Waters Reaches the Colonies Built on its Flood Plains

Is there a viable action plan?

Ironically, there is one which could help the city bid a final good bye to the river. For if the INC had its way then the final nail in the river’s coffin – in form of its revived channelisation [one thought that the ghost of river channelisation had been buried with its disapproval in the current MPD (Master Plan of Delhi) 2021] and planned construction of dams upstream – is ready to be hammered.

On the contrary, BJP has been bold enough to commit itself to “Dirty water, flowing through nullas will NOT AT ALL be allowed to be deposited in Yamuna. Instead, it will be recycled and used for public parks, industries and also for toilets.” (Emphasis provided in the manifesto document itself). And yet, presumably with Akshardham standing in the flood plain like the proverbial mill stone around its neck, the party has failed to make any commitment on how it plans to deal with flood plain encroachment/s. It is not clear if it understands the importance of protecting the floodplain. Even as far its claimed objective is concerned, BJP has not shown how it aims to keep untreated sewage out of Yamuna.

With what purpose does BJP plan to constitute a ‘Delhi Yamuna Development Authority’ (while a PM appointed and LG chaired River Yamuna Development Authority already exists) remains unanswered? Although inclusion of this sentence with its belief on river Yamuna being a national heritage seems to suggest that the said authority might have a heritage angle to it?

Moreover, BJP’s press release (dated Nov 26, 2013) announcing the publication of its manifesto, strangely mentioned, “Beautification of Yamuna like Thames and Sabarmati rivers”. To put it most charitably, this also shows its short sighted vision. Yamuna is so unlike Thames, the very comparison shows how limited is its (BJP) understanding. As far as Sabarmati is concerned, the water that is seen in it, in the limited stretch within Ahmedabad is actually Narmada waters, meant for the drought prone Kutch and Saurashtra, illegitimately being used in Sabarmati. And downstream from the city, the river Sabarmati remains as dirty as ever!

The AAP scores most points here. It not only provides a preface to its action plan but devotes two para to keeping the city’s sewage and industrial waste away from the river. It also boldly commits itself to stopping encroachments in the river’s flood plains.    

High Rises in the Flood Plains:  Akshardham Temple and Commonwealth Games village both were built in Yamuna flood plains
High Rises in the Flood Plains:
Akshardham Temple and Commonwealth Games village both were built in Yamuna flood plains

The problem as we see in these manifestos?

Bold statements apart, that “clean river is a revived river” imagery underlies all the three manifestos. This we see as one of the key problems with the approach taken.

A ‘revived’ river is not just a ‘clean’ river. It is also a river which if perennial (like river Yamuna) then it must flow round the year; whose flood plain is secure; which floods in a regular and natural manner and where biodiversity is thereby thriving. We find an absence of such inter-related allusion in all the three manifestos.

Yes, indeed river Yamuna is the city’s key supplier of water, but can that dependence justify it (river) being put on the line, as a living natural entity of unimaginable antiquity? If only there were efforts made to manage the water demands of cities, industry and irrigation, it is not impossible for the river and its dependent humans to co-exist in a state of mutual harmony and health. 

Is there no silver lining?                     

There are quite a few. There is talk of rain water harvesting and grey water re-cycle to meet non potable water needs. Improved sanitation is another welcome objective.  

The fact that perhaps for the first time ever, river Yamuna finds conspicuous mention in all the political party manifestos is a welcome beginning. 

But if only, one of the root causes of the river’s ills, namely the impugned inter state MOU (which has enabled a total drying of the river in non monsoon months) on sharing of river Yamuna water signed in 1994 had been understood and addressed for its rectification in any of these manifestos?

The Yamuna Manifesto

Incidentally, a different, The Yamuna Manifesto has just been published. A bilingual (Hindi and English) publication, combining the views of activists and artists, blurring boundaries between fact and the imaginary, it is an attempt to widen ideas around ecology, to re-territorialize it, and to move beyond binary narratives of catastrophe and untouched nature, to one of multidimensional reframings. The political parties can possibly benefit from it. For copies, write to the author.

Manoj Misra (