The monsoon rains of August 2020 have brought a soothing smile on the faces of villagers working towards revival of Patodi Johad a traditional water body in Narela, a bustling sub-city in North Delhi.
The greenery, cleanliness created over past one year around the pond with joint effort by youth, women, elderly and children have been now complemented by rainwater flooding the pond making it one of best locations in Narela where native plants, water body, blooming garden is thriving.
The sustained efforts by the villagers have not only brought positive change in society by involving people of all ages, but also leading to rebuilding of lost eco-system and improving micro climate. The biggest benefit is slow but sure improvement in ground water table. This account presents glimpses of how this happened.
Narela The sprawling sub town of Narela borders Sonipat district of Haryana. The city finds a mention in history as halting point (Sarai) for Martha and Mughal forces marching for epic battles of Panipat. But today, the city surroundings are conglomeration of unauthorised colonies, thousands of unoccupied residential flats, densely populated slums, large scale industrial activities and a market hub for dozens of villages on Delhi-Haryana border.
After independence, the area became famous for farm produces particularly of Chilly. The city is also known widely as landmark of Asia’s largest food grain mandi. First establishment of industrial pockets in and around Narela started 1970s. Massive housing projects were taken up by Delhi Development Authority (DDA) from 1980 onwards. These have transformed the area from simple countryside village into hub of unplanned development.
About the water bodies in and around Narela There are five small and big water bodies still physically existing in Narela including Patodi Johad, Dharani Johad and the largest one a Mughal era Tank known as Talab. While, these water bodies were harvester of rainwater enriching the groundwater, the Patodi Johad and Mughal tank were also connected with network of water channels of Western Yamuna Canal (WYC).
The changes in land and socio-economic activities over the decades also led to breaking of the cultural and recreational connection between rural life and water sources, including wells and water bodies for activities like bathing, swimming, feeding cattle and as a point of socialization. Thus making the once cherished water bodies prone to all sort of encroachments and abuses.
By 2010, some of these water bodies were filled with solid & liquid waste, others dried and were encroached by public as well government’s projects. Couple of them have been filled and levelled making them untraceable on ground. Around 10 wells have been filled with debris.
Scores of villages around the Narela have ponds but all of them stand encroached as parks, sports facilities or are filled with sewage and solid waste. SANDRP article in May 2017 covers the issue in detail, see here.
Patodi Johad Spread over 2.5 acres of land, Patodi Johad is located at Ramdev Chowk in Mamurpur. The water body receives run off water from over 25 hectares of thickly populated area of Narela. In olden time, the pond was the centre of recreational and social activities. Villagers remember that a large area around the water body used to be flooded forming a huge wetlands. There were times when big iron pan were used to row across the water body. On occasions part of the WYC distributary in the area was manually breached to facilitate draining out of storm water.
On the western side of the pond, there were two wells serving as source of potable water for the rural population. The introduction of overhead tank and hand pump based drinking water supply resulted in villagers distancing themselves from wells and ponds.
Later on, with the advent of flush toilet scheme under Yamuna Action Plan (YAP) around 1990, the pond became recipient of sewage water. For about two decades it remained filled with sewage waste. Around 2005 the filth was drained out. Sewer lines were laid in the city. The drains falling in the pond were diverted to other storm water drains.
Gradually the pond catchment land was used to construct residential and commercial buildings. Post 2013, the DDA began beatification drive of the pond area. Primarily focusing on sale of residential flats overlooking the area. In the process the large part of the pond area was filled with earth and construction debris to develop a park and only less than an acre of bowl shaped pit was left in central part for collection of water.
The DDA work was halted following a legal dispute with villagers over size of pond area. The case is still sub-judice in Delhi High Court. Meanwhile, the expansion of urban areas, real estate projects, rehabilitation of slums, industrial development, increase in authorised colonies, the extraction of groundwater increased manifold resulting in sharp decline of water levels.
Efforts by youth to revive the Patodi Johad In June 2019 a group of youths from the Mamurpur who were already engaged in cleanliness and green drive in their locality, became worried over rapidly falling groundwater levels. Sunday, June 09, 2019 marked the first meeting of the group formed by about a dozen youths. To consult and reach out to more people, the next meeting on June 16, 2019 was held at the pond itself. The common action plan they could chart out included plantation of native trees in and around pond area, removal of solid waste and invasive vegetation, channelization of rainwater runoff into pond and correspondence to relevant authorities regarding rejuvenation of the Johad.
Thereafter, they devoted morning hours to assemble at water body and started planting native trees on vacant land and weed covered area. “During earth filling DDA had buried construction debris around the pond, adding some soil cover on the top. Creating pits of sufficient depth and width for the plants allowing spread of roots underground in initial phase required hard work, causing blisters and sores in our hands. Sometimes, we ended digging up huge boulders underneath and sometimes leaving the pit half dug on account of irretraceable and embedded pieces of construction debris”, says Ashwani Khatri, a member of the group.
For the next couple of months the plantation drive continued. They planted over 80 trees of native species including Peepal, Banyan, Seesham, Neem, Gulmohar, Jamun, Arjun, Dhak, Jungle Jalbi, Amaltas, Kachnar etc. apart from protecting about a dozen native trees of Mulberry, Seesham, Berry, growing naturally in the pond area. The group voluntarily purchased the plants and mobilised own resources for tree guards.
“After planting saplings we ensured protection with tree guards adding organic manure for growth followed by watering them twice a week. As the area is visited by stray animals due to broken boundary wall, we ensured social fencing, and fixing thorny bushes around the tree guards for safeguarding the growing saplings”, shares Rajendra Saini, an elderly person assisting the campaign.
One of the big problems the group faced while cleaning pond area was that the entire area was littered with plastic and solid waste. Nearby residents had been throwing household waste in and around the water body for long. The pond bed was also filled with debris and pieces of broken glasses.
“Seeing the waste littering every corner of pond area, we thought it would be very difficult to make the area free of plastic and other waste but we had no way left except to go for it. It began from one corner steadily covering the entire area. We involved kids, other likeminded youths and even passer-by who happily joined. People throwing garbage were requested to stop on the spot. The residents and visitors also supported us and appealed to garbage throwers to give up the habit”, explains Gaurav Bhardwaj another member of the group.
After plastic and solid waste, the group turned to invasive shrubs and weeds growing thickly on large part of pond area. In a matter of about three weeks the pond area was free of waste and weeds adds Gaurav. The group remembers removing over 50 sacks of plastic waste and over 500 kg of construction debris from the Patodi Johad area.
When the people living around witnessed the positive impacts, they began contributing in their own ways. Group of kids continued maintaining cleanliness, elderly protecting the plants, women removing weeds and taking care of flower plants. Soon it became community team work involving people of all ages and thoughts.
All was going well, only one thing was amiss: there was no water in the pond. Despite active monsoon season the water body was parched dry providing children opportunity to turn it into a playground. “On the hand the groundwater was falling due to growing extraction, on the other the monsoon was failing for past many years. We were expecting rains but in vain”, describes Ghanshyam Bhardwaj, one of the active members of the group.
“Finally the first good rain spell hit the area on August 6, 2019. We all rushed to the pond area and began diverting rainwater flowing in nearby drains, digging channels to facilitate flow of run off into pond. We had already placed some pipes and created some jugad provisions for the purpose. There was flooding on one side of pond area. Ultimately the pond got the water for which it was meant, making it a water body in true sense”, Ghanshyam recalls.
But the knee deep water percolated in a couple weeks bringing things back to square. The run off had filled the area with solid waste necessitating resumption of cleaning drive.
The group looked for solutions to bring more water into the pond by next monsoon season including deepening of the water body. They also planned to approach government with the proposal of installation of bio-remedial plant to treat the domestic waste water flowing in adjoining drains and fill the water body with treated water.
Meanwhile the local people kept taking care of plants and developing gardens in the corners of the pond. With time, participation of elderly, women and children in maintaining the pond area only became more visible. “We saw our kids working tirelessly to turn the pond area green. Many women have found this place perfect for sitting and socializing in evening hours as an outdoor activity and supported the efforts by taking care of plants and garden as and when required”, says Roshini an elderly woman who has been mobilising other women to join the initiative.
To create awareness about the importance of water body and groundwater among locals and children the group has also organized collective activity in pond area during Independence Day, Gandhi Jayanti, and Diwali in 2019.
Chhath, Waterbody and Groundwater The biggest challenge the group faced was that for past few years the pond area was being used for organizing Chhath event where the water body was flooded for days with a nearby tube well to facilitate the celebration.
“The tube well was meant to supply potable water to the village. It was used to fill the pond without thinking about the impact on groundwater table. Additionally the large footfall during event had affected plantation work undertaken previously”, says Ashawani Khatri.
This year, the event was scheduled for Nov 2, 2019. Local political figures were not ready co change, fearing vote bank backlash. The group was not against Chhath Puja, but was worried of resultant impact of groundwater and greenery in the pond area.
They approached the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) officials and local representatives describing the issue to them. They were assured that tube well water would not be used for the occasion. But in the morning on October 30, 2019, the tubewell supply was diverted to fill the pond leading to water problems in the village. The villagers and women strongly objected.
The group initiated dialogue with the organizers present at the location explaining the problem of groundwater and the impact of event on plantation. “We were not against the event but were worried over disruption of village water supply and misuse of groundwater. Surprisingly the organizers understood the issue and after the discussion we arrived at an amicable solution”, narrates Ghanshyam. As per the consensus arrived at, the organisers agreed to forego groundwater extraction, restrict impact of footfall on greenery and undertake cleaning drive after the event.
“We acknowledged the concerns raised by the people as we have been also seeing decline in groundwater table. So we decided to dig up ditches around inner circle of water body, laid plastic sheet there and filled the ditches with tanker water privately outsourced. Thus we were able to avoid the impact of our event on groundwater and greenery to a great extent”, states Dhananjay Yadav, member of Chhath organising body.
It was pleasant experience for the group that sincere communication for the right cause can resolve complicated issues without disturbing social harmony. They also offered their assistance to the organizers and participated in the event.
Correspondence with Government The group has also sent written submission to relevant agencies including the State Wetlands Authority (SWA), DDA and Delhi High Court panel on water bodies. So far no step has been taken by these institutions which the group sees as setback for overall rejuvenation of the Patodi Johad.
“We have sent three letters so far to the concerned departments. The Executive Engineer and Junior Engineer of DDA visited the pond area in August 2019 but showed inability to undertake any revival activity unless the legal dispute is resolved”, shares Kuldeep Bhardwaj a member of the group. He adds that during lockdown when people were not able to visit the pond for about two months, some new encroachments and abuses have taken place and they have again approached SWA, DDA to take action but there has been no positive response so far.
“It’s very unfortunate that youths have been taking active step to protect the remaining area of pond, however the government has been reluctant to act, which might undo the efforts made so far”, fears Harish Khatri, a member of the group.
Rains Aiding the Pond Revival Late in 2019 and in first quarter of 2020 there have been few good rainfall spells filling up the pond area. The pond has been holding water for the past nine months after many years.
“After many years, Narela has seen adequate rainfall during winter, pre-monsoon season. Whenever it rains our aim is to channelize maximum run off towards the pond. But during heavy rainfall as happened in August 2020, the storm water naturally reaches the water body and we have to do nothing except removal of solid waste and maintenance of plants”, says Ajit Khatri of the group.
The youths are happy that this year there would be no problem regarding celebration of Chhath there. They also observe that trees, garden and water in pond is leading to birds, butterflies, dragon flies, and several insects around the water body.
Seeing the Patodi Johad filled with water, the group has a sense of satisfaction. Their efforts are helping recharge the groundwater. They have also been actively engaging locals in saving water and trees. They wish to begin similar initiative for other water bodies in Narela. However they feel that unless the concerned government departments complement and support their efforts, these efforts would not sustain long. They request SWA and DDA to initiate official action at the earliest for the overall rejuvenation of Patodi Johad, the only living water body as of now in Narela.
Bhim Singh Rawat (firstname.lastname@example.org)