How many of Delhi’s residents have been to the river’s edge or even get to see it, except for the times they cross over by road or metro? In a city that has severed its relationship with its river, it is perhaps only the farmers living along it who still retain a direct link with the Yamuna. If Delhi hopes to retain any modicum of sustainability in the future, it is essential that it retains this connection.

Delhi is unique in its history of farming, which still continues along its river – not only at its periphery but also at the heart of the city. Living with minimal impact on its floodplains for at least seven decades now, these farmers have contributed consistently to Delhi’s food systems. All through the first few months of the lockdown, when supply chains were badly hit and state borders sealed, these farmers ensured a steady supply of vegetables to Delhi’s markets.

Although there are no reliable figures from the census, community members estimate that close to 90,000 people from agrarian families reside in this zone.

The farming communities along Yamuna river have been facing regular evictions over the past years. Photo credit: Kushal Lachhwani

There are several accounts of farming along the river in Delhi from pre-Independence years. The earliest official accounts date to 1949, when farmer cooperatives were given short leases to develop and maintain these tracts along the Yamuna by the Delhi Improvement Trust, a precursor to today’s Delhi Development Authority.

However, the government’s approach has changed drastically since then and the farming communities have been facing regular evictions over the past decade. Even as they struggle to make ends meet during the pandemic, evictions continue.

In recent weeks alone, there have been three demolition drives. Standing crops, ready for harvest, were bulldozed by the Delhi Development Authority to dissuade farmers from growing food on the banks.

In 2008, the Delhi Development Authority drew up phased development plans for the river’s floodplains. The Yamuna Riverfront Development Project envisions biodiversity parks, cycling and jogging tracks and recreational zones to help restore riverine ecology and bridge the missing link between the city and the river.

The gradual implementation of these plans required the removal of the farming communities and practices.

While there is no doubt that these are good plans for the riverfront and floodplains from the point of view of ecology and public access, what we might lose in the process is a sustainable practice of food production, which provides livelihoods to thousands of families.

We aspire to be clean and green, but have been unable to appreciate existing traditional farming practices. Photo credit: Kushal Lachhwani

Urban farming

Cities all over the world are now adopting urban farming to build their resilience to climatic and planetary shocks such as Covid-19. Chinese cities have been looking at developing “agro-parks” in a bid to achieve food security. Singapore and South Korea present global best practices of de-concretising river beds and creating parks integrated with urban farming.

Fortunately, the concretisation of the riverbed and a Disneyland-style amusement park proposed in Delhi’s Master Plan 2001 did not go through. Master Plan 2021 focused instead on ecological restoration and creating accessible public spaces. This sparks the hope that the next Master Plan in 2041 could go one step further in adopting sustainable and inclusive approaches.

The Yamuna and its floodplains in Delhi have been a focus of claims by several groups for a long time. Over the past 20 years, the project of beautifying and gentrifying the banks of the river to create a “world class” city has led to extensive loss of farmlands. In 2000, farms occupied about half the floodplain: now, they occupy just a third of the area.

At the same time, there are fears about pollution. Some environmentalists have claimed that farmers along the Yamuna use pesticides to increase their yield or that the water they use for irrigation is so toxic that it makes their produce poisonous.

These are legitimate concerns, but somewhat misplaced. Pesticides are used by farmers across India. One set of farmers cannot be blamed for following practices followed by their peers elsewhere. To alleviate concerns about pollution, there must be a concerted push from the state to reskill farmers in organic practices and provide them with appropriate incentives to move away from using pesticides.

The Yamuna and its floodplains in Delhi have been a site of contestation and claims for long time. Photo credit: Kushal Lachhwani

Thoughtful city planning

This is one of the abiding paradoxes of the development model India has adopted. It aspires to be clean and green, but has been unable to appreciate existing, traditional farming practices. Why should farmers bear the burden of cleaning up the Yamuna or Delhi’s desire to build a world-class riverfront? Today, when farmers’ lives and livelihoods have reacquired political and cultural currency, it is high time that sustainable agricultural practices are considered to rejuvenate the Yamuna’s floodplains without depriving people of their livelihoods. Does Delhi need to remove farms to build parks and forests? Perhaps it can have both.

If Delhi’s residents are willing to open up the processes of city-making, it just might be possible to reconcile the interests of the stakeholders at a policy level with those on the ground. With the Delhi Development Authority currently formulating the Master Plan of Delhi 2041, residents need to rethink what kind of a city they want and need to create.

Creating accessible public spaces and rejuvenating urban ecology need not mean that the people who already exist on ground should be left out. Alternatives such as a shift to floriculture are possible and are more conciliatory than forced evictions. Not only is it possible to integrate farming practices in this collective vision for Delhi’s future, the farming communities could also be integral for ecological restoration as custodians of the riverbed.

Therein lies a more sustainable model for a “world-class” city, departing from the top-down visions that have dictated the previous Master Plans for Delhi.

Anubhav Pradhan is a researcher in urban planning and land history and teaches at IIT Bhilai. Swati Janu is an architect working in the realm of housing rights and inclusive urban development. The authors are a part of the Main Bhi Dilli campaign, a civil society movement to inclusively reimagine the Master Plan for Delhi 2041.