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Happy Dussehra and Diwali to all Readers.          November 2019 Edition of Power Politics is updated.
Issue:June' 2019


Riverfront project may impinge on
Delhi's ghats

Anuradha Dutt

Benaras Ghat Muslim men beside sadhus at Nasik Kumbh Mela, 2015

Po l i c y m a k e r s ’ preoccupation with developing riverfronts for tourism purposes seems to have stemmed from the development of London’s Thames riverfront and Paris’s Seine front.

Sabarmati riverfront - this Gujarat river replenished with water from the Narmada - hosted the Chinese President but Gomti riverfront development, former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav’s project, is being probed for money laundering. The Delhi Development Authority is reported to be awaiting Central clearance for its ambitious project to develop the Yamuna banks in order to create a biodiversity park, cycling tracks, walkways, water sports facilities, food and shopping outlets and the like.

Conservationists have opposed this plan, their foremost objection being commercialisation of river precincts, which would damage the fragile eco system.

Further, the Yamuna, like most rivers in India, is monsoon-fed, prone to flooding and tumultuous when in spate. The scheme’s implementation would require hemming in the flow, which is already constricted by concrete encroachments into the river bed and flood plains such as Commonwealth Games Village and Akshardham temple, both spread over 100 acres, metro depot, bus depot, unauthorised colonies and other structures. Almost 30 percent of Delhi’s water is sourced from the flood plains, groundwater recharge area.

Narghat in Mirzapur Sadhu ascends Sarayu Ghat in Ayodhya

Numerous ghats, part of the city’s heritage, line the Yamuna. These harbour thousands of poor migrants and homeless, temples, and ashrams and Delhi’s oldest cremation ground, Nigambodh Ghat. It derives its name and sanctity from the belief that Dwapar Yug, preceding age, ended when Brahma forgot the four Ved, Nigam scriptures, but bodh or knowledge of the Ved was restored to him at this site.

Followers of Baba Balaknath, one of the legendary 84 siddh and contemporary of Baba Gorakhnath, believe that he performed penance in the waters, the river changing course as he moved. A small shrine dedicated to him stands on the other side, opposite Nigambodh Ghat. The imperial grandeur of the Mughals’ Shahjehanabad and Lutyens’ Delhi loom nearby.

Kudesia and other ghats frequented by bathers extend to the left of the crematory. Majnu ka Tila harbours Tibetan refugees, food outlets and shops. Sanyas Ashram Ghat and Ram Ghat lie beyond. More ghats stretch to the right. People who stay in the fragile homes atop the river banks move out during the monsoons when water rises and overflows the banks. They engage in diverse work: sell vegetables, fruit, toys, clothes; supply milk and paper bags; wash clothes, ply rickshaws and hand carts. Some are ragpickers and menials in offices and homes.

Gotakhor, divers look for offerings, coins and remnants of puja images immersed in the filthy waters after festivals. The former are also deployed by the police to retrieve bodies of persons who go missing. Vagrants and lotus-eaters too find refuge here.

The cosmetic makeover would result in space for the destitute shrinking further. The idea surfaced a few years before hosting of the Commonwealth Games in 2010 when the city government, headed by the late Sheila Dixit, considered commissioning a study on the lines of London riverfront development.

This was in sync with DDA’s Delhi Master Plan 2021 which recommended "a strategy for the conservation/ development of the Yamuna River Bed area in a systematic manner".

The beautification drive before the games, bolstered by a Delhi High Court order to clear encroachments on both sides of the river bed, spurred evictions from February 2004 by civic agencies in Yamuna Pushta, embankments along the river.

Most slums - jhuggi jhopri colonies - were on the western side. Those who had means to deposit a nominal amount were relocated to resettlement colonies in outlying areas. The rest swelled the ranks of the homeless. Studies of thousands of school children were disrupted. Over 18,000 shanty clusters were effaced.

If riverfront development commences, there will be further evictions of impoverished people, mostly migrants from rural backwaters and refugees from Bangladesh. It is linked to a Central plan for creating a channel for seaplanes to land, as on the Sabarmati, with water level to be sustained via a barrage at Agra.

Baba Balaknath shrine across the Yamuna ghats in Delhi Drains that currently empty into the Yamuna will be made to run parallel to the river, sewage to be treated at a single plant outside Delhi; banks contoured and water made fit for boating and recreation. The scheme, unveiled in March 2018 by Delhi BJP chief Manoj Tiwari as Yamunosa, will further deplete the river.
Much of the Himalayan river’s waters are diverted via Dakpathar and Hathnikund barages into canals for irrigation, hydroelectricity generation and civic purposes in Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana.
About 22 km of the river’s flow between Wazirabad and Okhla along its 1,376 kilometre stretch is most polluted. Industrial effluent and human waste are discharged into the river by numerous drains as it flows through the capital. The biggest of these, Najafgarh Nullah, originates as the Sahibi river in Rajasthan, but is a stinking sewer through Southwest Delhi.

The Yamuna and its precincts are so closely linked to Delhi’s hoary past that riverfront development needs to be circumspect. The plan to locate a common sewage treatment plant outside the city is commendable. At present, the Yamuna, Ganga and most heavily polluted rivers that are India’s lifelines depend on annual monsoon rains to wash away debris, toxic effluents, garbage and sewage.

Imperatives of riverfront development need to be tempered by humane concerns, and conservation of Delhi’s ghats that have been witness to momentous events through the ages.

Traditions linked to rivers

The essential requisite for any civilisation to flower is ample rainfall and water sources which sustain forests and lush vegetation, wildlife and human settlements. Disappearance of Indus Valley Civilisation, its emergence dated to about B.C. 3,000, is ascribed to drying up of water sources and shifting of rivers, with inhabitants forced to migrate out. Vedic lore alludes to the Saraswati as a goddess and as a river, which is no longer visible.

In religious belief it flows underground to merge with the Ganga and Yamuna in a sacred confluence, Prayagraj Sangam where a dip on days considered propitious for the purpose confers liberation. There is a huge turnout of bathers on these occasions.

The Ganga’s flow, as of its tributaries, from its source in the high Himalayan reaches, is obstructed by dams and diversions, and severely polluted. Benaras’s ghats are always crowded. Since dying at this place, most dear to Lord Shiv, is believed to confer liberation, bodies burn day and night at Manikarnika Ghat. Harishchandra ghat is the other cremation ground. Ashes and half-burnt remains are immersed in the Ganga but do not deter bathers.

Enroute to Prayagraj, MIrzapur’s ghats are more serene and have fewer people. Wide steps lead up to the revered Goddess Kali shrine at Narghat. Mirzapur is the entry to Vindhyachal, centre of Shakti worship. And at Ayodhya, the Sarayu, into which Lord Ram descended to return to his resting form at the end of his earthly sojourn, flows tranquil.

Ghats across the country provide venues for periodic hosting of events in the Hindu calendar, such as the annual Magh mela in Prayagraj from midJanuary to mid-February, and Kumbh Melas, held by rotation, in Haridwar near the Ganga; in Prayagraj at the Sangam; on Godavari ghats in Nasik; and alongside the Shipra in Ujjain over a 12-year cycle that recurs. Kumbh Mela is now in UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage of humanity list as it attracts tourists from around the world.

Pushkaram is held near revered southern rivers in accordance with the planet Jupiter’s transit in a 12 to 13-year cycle. These fairs that attract people from diverse parts serve both to boost folk culture and the rustic economy, and mark continuity of traditions linked to rivers.