Having spent 20 years in Delhi I decided in 2016 to keep away from it at least during the winter months when it becomes, to parody a popular Bollywood song haanikarak (threat) to sehat (health) of anyone living here.
But it wasn’t always so. Delhiites were actually proud of its winter and Dilli ki sardi (winter in Delhi) was much sought after by non Delhiites. Alas! No more. Both air and river in Delhi turns toxic soonest monsoon bids a farewell to the NCR (National Capital Region) by late September or early October.
So what has gone wrong in and with Delhi for Delhiites to suffer insufferable pollution of its air and water, year after year with little or no respite despite even the Supreme Court being seized of the matter and several studies and plans made to remedy the situation.
Cities are often identified as a living organism with a complex system. They can age and wither and even die if not handled with care. Delhi it seems has begun to wither and the reason it seems is too many and clueless cooks or doctors mishandling its ailments. Let me explain.
As a living entity Delhi can best be compared with the elephant of ‘the elephant and blind men’ parable. But with a twist! Here it is the elephant and not the men which is blind and is being pulled in different directions by men whose eyes are tainted with the tunnel vision of respective jurisdictions, priorities and agendas. Result is an ailing city sans a remedy.
Come winter and then it is either high ammonia in water and frothy river or charts bursting levels of PM10 and PM2.5 in ambient air that dominate the headlines. Excuses are made and blame game indulged in between agencies and states without any respite for Delhiites.
As an example I talk of river Yamuna but the elements shall apply equally well to Delhi’s poor air quality and other ailments that it suffers from time and again.
But first a description of the maze called Delhi.
There are at least 3 Dillis within Delhi. As the national capital it hosts the Central Government. Then there is the Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi (NCTD) as a hybrid state, actually a glorified municipality with no jurisdiction over either land or the law and order machinery which are handled by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) and the Union Home ministry respectively. DDA reports not to the Chief Minister but to an executive Lt Governor who represents the central government. Then to further confuse the matters there are five municipalities with elected representatives. These is NDMC (New Delhi Municipal Corporation), MCD (North), MCD (South), MCD (East) and the Delhi Cantonment Board. With overlapping jurisdictions and even roles it is a perfect recipe for mis-governance.
We first approached the then newly formed National Green Tribunal (NGT) in 2011 with a prayer to rid the Yamuna floodplains of humongous amount of dumped debris and municipal waste. Later in 2013 we challenged a proposed covering of a portion of a major storm water drain, a tributary of Yamuna meant to be developed as another Dilli Haat (Shopping complex). The NGT in its wisdom tagged the two and heard them together. The respondents included representatives of at least 13 different agencies including the states of UP and Haryana. The hearings went on till the judgment titled
“Maily se Nirmal Yamuna project 2017” was delivered on 13 January 2015. A clear road map and agency wise responsibilities were fixed to revive the river by December 2017. Notably the NGT continued to monitor the implementation of its directions through frequent hearings and chamber meetings. But finding little or no progress made till the deadline of end 2017 the NGT found it expedient in early 2018 to establish a two person Yamuna Monitoring Committee (YMC) for a day to day monitoring of the implementation of its orders. With an YMC that meant business things slowly began to fall in place till it was suddenly in January 2021 disbanded. Result is the sickening visuals in November 2021 of frothy Yamuna reported widely by the media and the good old blame game in full display.
There is no greater security for a culprit than being one amongst a crowd. The Delhi story is just this. Often left hand does not know what the right is doing and has a ready excuse to offer when things go horribly wrong.
A system works best when there is a clearly defined ‘master’ who has authority, ability and responsibility and does not shirk it when accountability needs to be fixed. But in case of Delhi there are too many ‘masters’, claiming authority and ability but looking sideways when responsibility is searched or accountability is to be fixed. The result can only be a badly stuck system and the ensuing mayhem.
Manoj Misra, a former forest officer is the Convener of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan (Campaign for a Living Yamuna), a civil society consortium.