Over many fair summers, a group of gangly children would splash around in a water body. If they slipped, there were reeds to hold on to, and the eldest child would keep an eye out for the younger ones. Sometimes, they would see a snake near the shore and odd, long-legged birds would visit in the winters. My mother was in that group of kids, jaunting in the waters of the Yamuna in Delhi.
Over just one generation, I was taught I could never enter the river—now a putrid, sour-smelling ribbon of water lying listless under a haze of mosquitoes. In two decades, it had been so dirtied it wasn’t even fit to be touched. It had devolved from a place to an un-place, like the dark, sticky corners you don’t venture into at night.
There are a maze of numbers for life in Delhi. There’s 999, a figure the city’s Air Quality Index often crosses with audacity. Fifty: a car’s speed limit for most roads. Twenty-two: the number of drains that fall into the Yamuna as carelessly as teenagers throw tantrums. In July, a new number joined our collective imagination. Two hundred and eight. That was the number of metres the Yamuna water touched, breaking a 45-year record. This caused a flood of huge and shocking proportions Delhi is still reeling from. Thousands have been displaced. The Ring Road became a river, reclaiming its old flow between Red Fort and Salimgarh Fort. For those who had forgotten the shallow stream that is the Yamuna—just another thing Metro stations are named after—it seemed like the river was flexing itself, channelling outrage. Suddenly the drain-like worm had become a multi-headed serpent whose head and tail were lashing.
For the rest of the year, the river doesn’t exist for us. Birdwatchers value it when migratory birds visit (in winter). The religious-minded go to the banks a few times (for festivals). Children dive in for coins and treasures following this. At other times, the river lies in the fog of being forgotten. Researchers have pointed out bottlenecks which have narrowed the river’s floodplain (the zone that actively floods and helps recharge the area). These have been identified as the Shastri Park Metro Station, Yamuna Bank Metro Station and Commonwealth Games Village. Constructions at these sites have reduced the floodplain and its ability to soak water into its buffer zone. Bridges across the river shorten the span too, squeezing the river into smaller places.
Being in a capital city can be a curse for its natural features—both the Aravalli mountain range and the Yamuna are not just hills and river but also real estate. This can, however, also be a showcase: an opportunity to create biocultural cities with tens of thousands of people per square kilometre and a vibrant green and blue zone. Since we cannot build unlimited recreational areas, we can restore our existing natural features so that more people can access them, safely and regularly.
First, the destiny of the Yamuna can be changed, from being an un-place to a place of safety, peace and discovery. Restoring the floodplain to a biodiversity reserve with marshland, grasslands, native tree cover and regulated walking paths will help the river and people meet on an amenable footing. The thumb rule has to be to restore native systems, with minimal construction, in a way that encourages the floodplain to flood during the monsoon but be a walking zone the rest of the year. This is far from the model of “river front development” that has cascades of concrete stairs and the idea that concrete banks are neat areas. We can create a different kind of “land”—reed land, marshland, wetland, riparian forest land. This will encourage people to experience not just the river but also its banks, so integral to the way the water body shapes itself in its bends and curves. In a time of climate change, this is also a nature-led solution for carbon sequestration.
About a decade ago, I visited a nature reserve in Pyeongchang in South Korea. Slim wooden benches had been placed next to the river. The seating areas were surrounded by reeds—a golden, solemn world, both still and shimmering—like an ocean viewed from a distance. One couldn’t look through the reeds into the river. The point was to just sink into that quiet spot, where plants felt like water.
A vision of how this immersion is possible is present at Wazirabad, the place where the Yamuna enters Delhi. The water is clean, with a translucent quality. Pebbles on the banks are flecked with little organisms. Elegant Spot-billed ducks fly past and squawking Striated babblers frolic on reeds. The river seems real, living and gleaming with a myriad possibilities. You can look metres into the distance, at nothing at all—just stretches of water and the shore. The presence of the river is also an absence of noise and clamour. Not far from the actual channel of the river lies the Delhi Development Authority’s Yamuna Biodiversity Park, a restored area full of grasses, trees and shrubs. This is not a dense forest—it is instead a gentle and scientific reconstruction of Yamuna habitats. One small amphitheatre and many walkways have been made but the area embraces a kaccha (deconstructed) quality.
Second, we need a hydrogeological mapping of the entire river, to find out where natural underground aquifers exist and where they need to be replenished. A pilot project of water replenishment was started at Palla by the Delhi government through the building of a pond in 2019 and it has marked the rise of water levels by 1.3-2m following “flooding”. This could be continued in larger stretches of the floodplain.
For the rest of the river, degradation is real and everyday. There are some feathers between the phosphates of detergent foam—some birds arrive, others stay, most leave. Over the years, thousands of crores have been spent on cleaning the Yamuna. But this has missed out on building a relationship with the river, and, along with treating the water, that is the need of the hour. Nature-led restoration with minimal construction does not need large investments; it does, however, need time, scientific input and political will. Let the active floodplain of the Yamuna in the great city of Delhi be a restored nature park with walking trails, nature guides and lookout spots. No more depots, buildings and flats. Let a deconstruction approach that privileges plants, not plaster, be adopted.
In April, a colony of Indian skimmers was found in the Yamuna at Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh (UP). The Indian skimmer is an endangered, striking bird, and, like the gharial and river dolphin, we know it once frequented the Yamuna. This July, a dolphin was found in the Yamuna in UP (and poached and eaten). Given a chance and some restoration, wildlife will return. Meanwhile, by creating wild spaces people can actually visit, we can try to build a greater citizenship for the Yamuna.
Neha Sinha is a conservation biologist and author of Wild And Wilful: Tales Of 15 Iconic Indian Species. Views expressed are personal.