The Yamuna river has always been a central feature of urbanisation and development in Delhi. Though long relegated as the backyard of the city, there have been several attempts to recentre it through recent riverfront and Master Plans. In the city’s recently released Master Plan for 2041, it occupies a central position in its section on environment. Can the Yamuna be integrated into Delhi’s daily life and experience like the Hooghly is to Kolkata?

Kolkata today produces roughly half its vegetables within the city through its wetlands that cover an area of 12,500 hectares. With Yamuna’s floodplains covering over 8,000 hectares, can Delhi imagine a food-secure future, free from sudden shocks such as the one Covid-19 posed for cities in 2020?

In this article, we unpack what has been envisaged for the river and its floodplains over the next two decades, as well as the livelihoods and neighborhoods associated with it.

River-people connect

While the imaginations of the Yamuna in previous Delhi master plans have ranged from building amusement parks along it to creating biodiversity parks, the latest plan focuses on reviving the lost “river people connect” between the city and the river. Taking forward the ecological aspirations of MPD 2021, the new plan identifies the Yamuna as a “green-blue” asset whose upkeep and maintenance will be key to augmenting Delhi’s water supply, boosting green economies and inserting the city within the larger circuitry of eco-tourism.

By describing the Yamuna as an “asset”, the plan reveals its transactional view of the river.

Integrating sustainable ecological strategies with creating public “interactive zones” is the main thrust here. Strategies such as desilting existing wetlands and establishing new ones, planting indigenous species of flora, and utilising treated wastewater to maintain adequate flow in the river aim to revive the ecology of the river.

Public promenades, parks, pathways for jogging and walking, cycling tracks and similar recreational infrastructure hope to convert the region into one of the “city level hubs and networks of public life”.

These are good steps from the point of view of ecological sustainability and to integrate residents whose daily lives are disconnected from the river by building promenades and jogging tracks for them.

But, it needs to be remembered that there are already people whose lives and livelihoods are intertwined with the river – the farmers on its floodplains and its fisherfolk – who have the longest standing relationship with the river and its floodplains. Not only do they sustain through it, they have also helped maintain its floodplains, free from encroachments in the name of development.

Unless the riverfront development integrates them into its future visions, the floodplains face the imminent risk of gentrification. Simply making provision for urban farming without acknowledging and integrating existing farmers and fisherfolk into the overall vision for riverfront development creates an imminent risk of gentrification.

Communities on ground might be dispossessed fully to pave the way for more entrepreneurial or recreational farming, the kind which is coming up elsewhere in the National Capital Region. Delhi needs to retain its existing “connections” with its fishing and farming communities that help make the riverfront a truly enabling, working, thriving space.

Facing eviction

Farmers along the Yamuna have continued to face eviction over the past years due to the phased implementation of the Yamuna Riverfront Development Plan to build parks in place of the farms. The Missing Basti project, an online archive of evictions in Delhi, reports that more than 30 evictions of farming communities along the river have taken place in the last ten years, the latest ones even during the pandemic.

The first phase of the Yamuna Riverfront Development Plan created the Golden Jubilee Park, a city-level public park with large lawns that hardly see any visitors today, even a decade after it was developed. While the riverfront presents several opportunities to create much needed open public spaces for the densely populated areas of Old Delhi and East Delhi, it cannot be done without an integration with the urban fabric of the adjacent neighborhoods and definitely not by taking the route of displacement of its real “river people’’.

Half-steps in the right direction

Of the 17 planning zones, Zone O is the name for the riverine region including the Yamuna, its floodplains, the settlements and land uses therein. Encouragingly, for the first time in the history of master planning in Delhi, this plan proposes to allow agricultural activity “at specific locations” within Zone O-I.

While agriculture as a livelihood and land use in MPD 2041 must be incorporated before these are notified, its inclusion as a permissible activity for the proposed Zone O-I is a welcome step. However, a detailed regulatory framework with stronger intent is required for its substantive transformation from mere words on the page to actual implementation on ground.

A growing corpus of international evidence suggests that urban rivers live and breathe better when allowed to maintain riparian habitats. Seasonal agriculture which farming communities by the Yamuna have been practicing for nearly eight decades is beneficial for both the river and the city.

This has been acknowledged by experts appointed by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, who in a report to the National Green Tribunal in 2014 affirmed that the Yamuna’s floodplains “offer opportunity for seasonal farming”. Alleged unsubstantiated claims of toxicity in the vegetables grown on the floodplains by certain media outlets have been firmly dispelled by the Central Pollution Control Board in its 2019 report to the Yamuna Monitoring Committee.

Green economies

In its larger agenda for green economies, the plan’s vision hinges upon the dual, linked desire to rejuvenate the river’s ecosystems on one hand and monetise them into urban commons for primarily recreational and aesthetic purposes on the other. Urban farming and community gardens are recognised as desirable avenues for the “greening” of the city and advocated for implementation in “vacant private/public lands irrespective of land use”.

The plan also recommends compulsory Environmental Impact Assessment for all new projects of any kind to be launched within the “eco-sensitive” zone along the Yamuna, installing “large-scale storm water capture projects’’ in the floodplains, and instituting a dedicated Green Fund as an innovative mechanism to finance these activities.

This time, taking cognisance of the diversity of claims and land uses within this region, the draft MPD 2041 also proposes a bifurcation of Zone O into Zones O-I and O-II, that is, active floodplains and regulated riverfront. This provides certain relief to the residents of unauthorised colonies who have faced the threat of eviction for long, by demarcating the active floodplains as a separate zone.

However, it is only a half-step since the plan suggests that urban regeneration policies and development control norms as formulated for unauthorised colonies in the city will not apply to Zone O. This needs to be remedied on an urgent basis and a regulatory framework provided for the unauthorised colonies that find themselves within the regulatory boundaries of Zone O.

Of its run from the Yamunotri glacier to the Ganga, it is in the 22 km stretch of the river through Delhi where it becomes the most polluted, treated as the capital city’s drain. Residents of Delhi need to remember that their city came about because of Yamuna, and indeed it is not Delhi’s Yamuna but the other way around. What is the responsibility that the authorities and people have towards Yamuna’s Delhi for 2041?

In espousing the language of sustainability, the draft MPD 2041 creates a timely momentum to take bold steps for the future. However, the Delhi Development Authority, which implements these plans, can do much more to realise its stated vision of inclusive and holistic development of the city. One of the first steps in making Delhi more self-reliant and more resilient against systemic shocks will be to strengthen its food security. This can only be achieved by enabling existing agrarian practices, so that farmers and fisherfolk are able to carry on their professions without fear of eviction and harassment.

Instead of seeing these communities as encroachers, it is necessary to recognise their long histories of habitation and livelihood and acknowledge their vital contributions to the city’s human and natural ecologies.

Cuba is a well known case study of achieving self-sufficiency in food production through urban farming, with 3.5% of its urban land under agriculture producing 90% of its fruits and vegetables. Similarly, cities across the world are fast adopting urban farming as a sustainable practice.

Re-imagining the riverfront

Can Delhi draw up a bold plan for 2041 such that at least half its food production can be met internally? Not to tap into this opportunity would be a huge loss that the city cannot afford in the face of pandemics such as Covid-19. Drawing not just upon global best practices but also its own rich pre-existing institutional legacies, the Delhi Development Authority could easily reimagine the proposed Zone O-I as a hub of self-sustaining agriculture with the active participation of farming communities on ground, fully integrated with the recreational aspirations of the city.

The Delhi Development Authority must also tap into people’s knowledge and wisdom to create in-situ, flood resilient housing for the farming communities. Various bastis, big and small, must be mapped and surveyed and area-specific developmental norms created to facilitate construction of safe, durable and liveable housing stock for the region’s residents.

In the majority of cases, all that basti residents need is an enabling governmental ecosystem which supports their habitat and livelihood: people’s ingenuity and resources are usually able to do the rest.

The Master Plan for Delhi 2041 holds great potential to create innovative benchmarks for participatory planning by reorienting the notion of riverfront as a socially just urban commons. Recreational spaces cannot be created at the cost of livelihoods, nor can the floodplains be prevented from damage by CCTV surveillance and erection of boundary walls.

A real “river-people connect” will only be possible if the people who actually know the Yamuna, know it deeply as one only knows home, are appreciated as its natural guardians and incentivised to maintain it as a social, cultural, and economic asset. The Delhi Development Authority must not let go of this opportunity to create a truly inclusive, participatory Plan which creates a lasting impetus towards bringing Delhi closer to the Yamuna.

Anubhav Pradhan is an Assistant Professor with the Indian Institute of Technology, Bhilai. Swati Janu is an architect and Founder of the interdisciplinary practice Social Design Collaborative. They are a part of the Main Bhi Dilli campaign, a citizens’ group that combines the experience and vision of over 40 organisations as well as independent researchers and activists.

This is the second of a five-part series on the draft Delhi Master Plan 2041. Read the entire series here.

All the authors are writing in their individual capacity but also as part of the Main Bhi Dilli Campaign. The Campaign, a network of individuals and organisations based in Delhi had been engaging with the drafting of the Master Plan since 2019 with a focus on informal work, housing and inclusive planning.

As a campaign, they consider their work to be on-going until the final plan is published. Therefore, their hope with the series is offer not just critiques but propositions, suggestions, revisions and changes to the Draft Plan. All the suggestions offered here have also been filed as official submissions within the planning process’ suggestion and objection mechanisms. The articles have been put together by Gautam Bhan and Mukta Naik on behalf of the Main Bhi Dilli campaign.