Dams · Yamuna River

Yamuna restoration & livelihoods of floodplain farmers can co-exist

Migrant workers and farmers are among the worst affected sections of population in the ongoing pandemic and restrictions including lockdown. With staggering increase in infections, spread and deaths on daily basis the crisis is far from over yet.

Amid all this, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) has resumed eviction drive against farmers and migrant workers eking out livelihood through cultivation of vegetables and plants in nurseries on Yamuna floodplain in Delhi.

On August 18, 2020, DDA team accompanied by Delhi Police personnel landed at Yamuna floodplain near Common Wealth Games (CWG) Village and crushed large part of crops, plants in nurseries using JCB machine.

On August 18, 2020, DDA team accompanied by Delhi Police personnel landed at Yamuna floodplain near Common Wealth Games (CWG) Village and crushed large part of crops, plants in nurseries under the JCB machine. As per famers, in total harvest standing on about 20 acres of land has been destroyed mercilessly at the location.

As per famers, in total harvest standing on about 20 acres of land has been destroyed. Seeing the police, machines and officials, farmers and nursery workers could do nothing but helplessly watch the destruction of their produce and livelihood. They fear that they will suffer same fate on Aug 21-22, when official would return with bulldozers, as they heard from some officials. 

According to DDA official the drive was launched to clear 120 ha (300 acres) of floodplains for compensatory plantation of trees by the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI).

In a tweet response to SANDRP, DDA also revealed that it has undertaken ten projects for Rejuvenation of river Yamuna floodplains by creating wetlands, planting riverine flora in close coordination with Yamuna Monitoring Committee (YMC) appointed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT).

DDA said that four floodplain restoration projects are already under progress and further evacuation of encroachment, agricultural farming, nurseries etc. will be taken up in phased manner as per Project Action Plan of river Yamuna.

DDA officials say that the action is being taken following, the Sept 2019 order by NGT under which the floodplain of Yamuna in Delhi has to be demarcated and rejuvenated in form of bio-diversity park. The order also prohibits cultivation of crops, encroachments and dumping of malba in floodplain among several other directions. 

While through several field visits based blogs since February 2020, SANDRP has highlighted the many public, private agencies namely Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC), NHAI, Public Works Department (PWD), Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC), Signature Bridge construction company have encroached and abused riverbed and floodplain significantly.

Moreover the construction debris dumped by most of these agencies have not been fully removed and floodplain, riverbed is still choked with the malba in open violation of the same NGT order. Many of these powerful bodies continue to illegally use the Yamuna floodplain.

Moreover, the DMRC has been spreading concrete layers, raising riverbed, conducting pre-construction activities in riverbed at Wazirabad barrage without any permission.

Yamuna Floodplain: Historical background

The total floodplain area of Yamuna in Delhi is 97 sqkm. As per farmers, the entire floodplain of Yamuna in Delhi was originally a riverine forest back in Mughal era and British rule. They say that in 1948, it was leased out to them for a period of 99 years. In 1957, DDA was formed as land development agency in Delhi. Farmers also share that till 1972, they kept paying their lease rent to DDA but could not renew it afterwards. This became root cause of legal dispute between farmers and DDA after 2000.

“For years, we have been pleading DDA to renew our lease but it has never considered our pleas. We have never obstructed any public welfare project be it railway line, road projects, bridges, power lines, drinking water pipelines or any other public utility. But we have been termed as encroachers by the DDA”, says Baljeet Singh Chauhan, President Delhi Peasants Multipurpose Cooperative Society (DPMCS) who have fought legal battle for the floodplain farmers.

Indeed, after 2000, several large scale public private projects have taken large chunk of floodplain in violation of norms but were authorized later by the system.

“Today, concrete structures are standing on more than 500 hectares of Yamuna floodplain including Akshar Dham temple, CWG Village, Yamuna Bank and Shashtri Park Metro Depots but these encroachments though detrimental to the characteristic of floodplain yet have been legitimized by bending the rules with full support of political dispensation. Then another 20 hectare of Yamuna floodplain has been encroached by Millennium Bus Depot at Kale Khan and has not been restored back to the river despite Supreme Court order”, reveals Diwan Singh, a Yamuna activist and convener, Natural Heritage First.

आगरा में यमुना सत्याग्रह - Puri Dunia ...
Master Baljeet Singh Chauhan of DPMPCS during Yamuna Satyagrah. (Image source: Puri Duniya)

As per Diwan Singh, the four years long movement Yamuna Satyagrah led by scientists, activists, floodplain farmers, students and NGOs around 2006 that successfully prevented several of such destructive projects including hotels, malls, helipads planned on floodplain for preparation of Common Wealth Games 2010 and they have been protecting the land but now finds no place in restoration projects of DDA.

“Yamuna has been polluted by industries and sewage from Delhi and Haryana, there is hardly any fresh flowing water in the river in lean season but for all the failures of government now farmers and farm workers are being blamed and evicted without any compensation or livelihood security”, adds Kishori Lal, a floodplain farmer. He further says that the farmers have been serving the city with vegetables, flowers & nursery but wrongly labelled as encroachers.

Restoration and livelihood can co-exist

The struggle of the farmers has raised serious issue of social justice and inclusion of dependent people into restoration project. “To secure our livelihoods, we have agreed to switch to organic farming and chemical free floriculture and horticulture which would reduce our negative footprint on floodplain and river. However, the issue has not drawn any attention of courts and DDA”, shares Dalbir Singh, an office bearer of DPMCS.

He also mentions that in December 2019, they have lost legal battle in Supreme Court for continuation of their lease on the ground that the Public Premises (Eviction of Unauthorized Occupants) Act, 1971 was formed much later than the time of lease allotment.

Now, the farmers have filed petition in Delhi High Court regarding fair compensation and livelihood security. The case was to come up for hearing August 20, 2020 but they are not much optimistic.

As per Dalbir Singh there are approximately more than 2000 farmers and farm workers earning livelihood from farming and nursery activities on Yamuna floodplain. The chain of dependent and livelihood activities further covers several hundred people. But due to prevailing apathy of system, they all stand to suffer silently.

“There has been a history of social injustice in beatification of river fronts. The developmental activities in urban areas across the country offer several glaring examples of this. In Yamuna case also, in past slum dwellers and farmers were beaten mercilessly and chased away to facilitate construction of Akshar Dham temple. The city planners, regulating & monitoring agencies must understand that for some the beautification drive is recreational activity but for others its question of survival”, says Vikrant Tongad, renowned RTI and legal activist and founder of Social Actions for Forest and Environment (SAFE).

He further says that the cities cannot be developed only for rich and influential people, the planners and agencies must address the question of survival and livelihood of marginal and weaker society in developmental and restoration projects to protect their rights to earn livelihood.

Floriculture turning riverbank colourful (Image credit: Juhi Saklani)

“There is huge demand of vegetables, fruits, flowers in the city. The chemical free harvesting of these products is a win-win situation for all city dwellers as consumers, policy makers and farmers. Then the Biodiversity Park plans on floodplains as prepared by Professor C R Babu has huge scope of manual work initially and maintenance task afterwards so these affected farmers and farm workers deserve to be engaged and employed in these activities”, says Diwan Singh.

According to him, the farmers and farm workers have maintained greenery and served the Delhi people in multiple ways for past many decades. They have the requisite experience, skills and can contribute greatly in floodplain restoration projects being proposed by DDA. 

One of the successful examples of inclusion of livelihood of dependent people in addressing the environmental issue is from BIOME Trust Bangalore. The trust has recognised the efficacy of Bhovi, the traditional well diggers’ community and incorporated their role in the digging and maintenance of rainwater harvesting wells to address the water scarcity in the city areas. The initiative has not only provided dignified livelihood to Bhovi community but has also led to improvement of groundwater table at several places in Bangalore.

“Livelihood approach is best approach for the ecological security. If small farmers are growing right crops using treated waste water, they are actually benefitting the environment and also helping city address its food security”, says S. Vishwanath, the founder of BIOME Trust. Vishwanath is disappointed with the negligence and continuous exclusion of marginal people in urban development projects.

Another expert, familiar with DDA’s work culture says that DDA is a giant organization with huge resources at its disposal and multiple arms functioning with complete lack of coordination with each other. He also adds that  even the relevant divisions of DDA dealing with floodplain restoration have no clue as to who has allotted; how much part of floodplain land to which agencies, for what period of time and on what terms and conditions.

Then there is basic difference between actual restoration and ornamental beatification of floodplain, where the agency is groping in the dark so far. So the livelihood issue of floodplain farmers, farm workers cannot be addressed unless DDA comes up with a holistic approach.

Way forward

There is no denying that the floodplain of Yamuna river has to be protected, restored & rejuvenated. However there are umpteen recent examples where big violators either have legalised their encroachments or have managed (this goes on as we write) to escape the legal scrutiny whereas the floodplain farmers, marginalized farm and nursery workers have been victims and losers of inhuman official actions.

The eviction drive is happening at a time when ongoing pandemic has tremendously hit the farmers, among other marginal sections of the society. Crushing down their livelihood and employment under JCB is inhuman and insensitive and would only drive them into extinction from the very city they have been serving. Complete absence of social justice is writ large all over it.

Farmer Rajpal Ji of Palla getting some farm fresh turnips for visitors (Image Credit: Praveen Kumar)

There is enormous scope to include them in restoration work and generate livelihood opportunity for the deserving lot. Instead of criminalizing their profession and chasing them away, they must be made an important stakeholders in the rejuvenation of Yamuna.

So, DDA must first prioritize removing encroachments and dumping of malba by bigwigs like DMRC, NHAI, PWD, and Delhi Transport, among others. It has to stop displacement of poor farmers till the pandemic is fully resolved and provide alternative employment to them first. After all, social justice must be seen in every action of DDA and Yamuna Monitoring Committee, as also for every government and official agency.

Bhim Singh Rawat (bhim.sandrp@gmail.com)

Also see SANDRP’s recent blogs to understand the entire issue in detail:-

Despite NGT order and Yamuna Monitoring Committee-CPCB-DDA responses, action awaited about dumping on Yamuna floodplain

Yamuna river, floodplain Abused in Delhi

DDA visits Yamuna with SANDRP

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