Wednesday, June 12, 2024

When it rains, it pours

Musings by Shekhar Nambiar

When it rains, it pours. That’s what is happening this monsoon.

It has been raining incessantly all across northern India. From the catchment areas of the two great rivers Ganga and Yamuna high up in Uttarakhand to Delhi, UP and the plains.

The rising Yamuna has set the alarm bells going in the national capital. After the rains flooded large parts of Delhi NCR earlier, with Gurgaon reeling under water, the Yamuna – on the banks of which was built medieval Delhi and ancient Indraprastha – has breached its banks at several places. 

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Such is the wrath of the river’s raging fury that the government has had to close at least three water treatment plants along the river, threatening to cut off water supply to several city areas, and relocate people in low-lying areas to safety.

Gurgaon under floods

Delhi under siege

In the next day or so water from Haryana’s Hathnikund is expected into Delhi and threaten the water level to rise even further, leading to more areas being inundated. Already, water has touched the walls of the historic Red Fort and entered Kashmiri Gate and the vital Inter-State Bus Terminal stopping bus services out of Delhi.

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At this rate, water is not far from the inner streets of the Walled City. Water has entered Old Delhi Railway Station and is likely to hamper train services soon.

Among other critical services hit are water supply, traffic disruptions, and schools. The next few days are going to be critical and even more difficult for Delhiites.

old Yamuna brige in flood


Riverfront views

The Yamuna offers a spectacular view of a thriving and ever-expanding metropolis.

Past the heritage and cantilevered Old Yamuna Bridge, the riverfront ride offers a ringside view of Shahjehan’s Red Fort, the walled city and the minarets of Jama Masjid, Jamna Bazar and its quaint MarghatHanuman Mandir, Ferozeshah Kotla, Purana Qila, Akshardham in the distance, and the majestic Humayun’s Tomb.

The Yamuna waterfront has been developed with green belts and picnic spots dotting the riverbank. Attractions include an illuminated suspension bridge at Wazirabad and a road running along the river, and an elevated stretch across and over the river alongside the Old Ring Road, giving motorists a thrilling roller-coaster ride. This can rival the magnificent view of Washington DC from over the Potomacas you drive into the city from Dulles airport, or the view of Manhattan from the East River bridge on the approach from Queens.

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As the gushing water flows in, the rising river could pose a threat to the new and modern structures and the many metro lines and superfast freeways (once called “toll ways” when toll was levied for users) that criss-cross it, ferrying several hundred-thousand commuters in and out of the city daily. 

Flood hit area in Noida

Other Delhi

Were the situation to worsen, the livelihoods of so many people could be at stake, dependent as they are, on the vital connecting links on either side of the river.

Until a few decades ago, the river acted as a wall separating the tony suburbs of south and central Delhi and the poorer East Delhi. Jamna paar was used derogatorily. East Delhi had acquired the notoriety of housing people living in the fringes, of cheats and small-time criminals. The distinction between this part of town and the other Delhi has blurred considerably, thanks to the innumerable development schemes that have had a transformational effect on the ghetto that East Delhi once was.

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The ‘Other Delhi’ has developed into reasonably plush localitieswith fancy apartments and houses, and a satellite city Noida offering immense opportunities for business and employment. No prizes for guessing that the many malls that dot Noida are frequented by East Delhiites.

Kejriwal addressing unprecedented crisis

Living on the edge 

The administration or the government cannot be faulted for the cloudbursts and heavy rains. Or can they be? Kejriwal, no doubt, has a task on hand, a difficult one at that, quite different from his other travails.

There is the immediate need to take those living on the edge in shanties and slums along the river to safer places. Even more difficult a task is to ensure that they are provided food and shelter. And a disease-free environment till things return to normal.

The situation brings back memories of 1978, and personally, the heavy rains and consequent floods in 1973 and the following year.

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Gurgaon was then a little more than an overgrown village. And Sanjay Gandhi’s pet project Maruti Udyog on the Delhi-Haryana border near Kapashera was the only tell-tale sign of a modern industry in an otherwise sleepy rural setting.

On two separate occasions during those years our family got caught in the rains and were stranded in desolate stretches of the Jaipur highway. 

Gurgaon reeling under flood

Gurugram woes

A layman’s understanding is enough to tell that flooding in Gurugram is due largely from the water that flows down from the Aravalli ranges in the south of the new city. It is a south to north flow with floodwaters covering a huge area adjacent to rural Delhi, or Najafgarh.

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Over time, and in the course of the burgeoning city’s development, what must have been overlooked is an efficient way to channel such a heavy water flow and discharge it away from populated areas. It doesn’t look probable that water so discharged is directed to a lake or storage that could then be used for a rainy day (used figuratively) for irrigation or other purposes.

Yamuna hits all time high. Residents of Yamuna Vihar negotiate the floods.

Flood patterns 

The Delhi flooding those days, at least in its eastern and northern extremities, were from the surging waters of the Yamuna, following water being let off by barrages due to cloudbursts upstream or very heavy rains high up in the mountains.

The gushing waters, once they overflowed the embankments, could easily flow, as they have now, into Timarpur, Model Town and Mukherjee Nagar, and then right onto Mall Road, an arm’s distance away from the University.

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Other areas that have been inundated include Bhajanpura, Akshardham, beyond the floodplains and very near Mayur Vihar, Okhla water works, Kalindi Kunj, and the infamous Batla House.

The waters from the Yamuna must flow on. It can be harnessed to a certain extent but any excess flow needs to be let out past the dams and barrages. These can then be productively directed to canals downstream.

For and against climate change

Back to climate change debate

Amid all this talk, the need for debate on climate change action becomes imperative. Media cacophony or not, the destruction and devastation being wreaked from the floods is a reality. While development is good for the people, sustainable solutions are a must to mitigating recurring problems. 

Today’s problems do not need reactive solutions.  Flooding is but a symptom of a larger malaise. Simply put, we need to ask difficult questions and undertake environmental impacts of each and every action we take. Be they our national highway networks now being developed with gusto or coastal and sea links, unless we undertake environmental impact assessments, we’re in for more difficult times with catastrophes waiting to happen.

For our children’s sake, we mustn’t let things get out of hand!

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Shekhar Nambiar
Shekhar Nambiar
Shekhar is a communications professional who has spent a good deal of time in international organizations and in the development sector. As he puts it, it's been an "exciting journey" for him, beginning his working life as a journalist, with some of the best editors and professionals, before venturing into public affairs and then forays in the private sector. He believes "every day brings new challenges, achievements and success, and the key is to play a small part in whatever it is that you're doing". He tries to keep pace with new tech, and learn a new word a day, of course, "Gen Z lingo!"


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