Yamuna Cleaning Cell: Delhi government takes another measure to treat polluted river

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Express News Service

Over the past 30 years, numerous attempts have been made to clean the Yamuna. Delhi government has yet again launched a plan to clean this tributary of the Ganga to bathing standards by February 2025. 
After Yamuna Action Plan (YAP) entered Phase 3 in 2012 and has not borne any fruit since then, the Arvind Kejriwal government proposed a six-point action plan; this time the primary focus being sewage treatment.

To formulate the plan on ground, the CM announced Yamuna Cleaning Cell (YCC) on November 25 that will work to fulfil the six-point action plan. The cell will ensure new sewer treatment plants (STPs) and connections for slum clusters are created and increase capacity of the existing ones. Desilting and rehabilitation of old sewer systems will also be done. The Delhi Jal Board (DJB) will also take over operations and maintenance of Common Effluent Treatment Plants (CETPs) to prevent industrial waste from falling into the Yamuna.

Troubled waters
The Yamuna flows through from Palla to Badarpur – 54 km of Delhi territory. However, the 22-km stretch between Wazirabad and Okhla – less than 2 per cent of the length of the river from Yamunotri to Allahabad, i.e. 1,370 km – accounts for about 76 per cent of the total pollution in the river.

During the dry season that spreads over nearly nine months, the river has no fresh water downstream of Wazirabad, and the only flow available is treated and untreated sewage – both flowing through 22 drains that join the Yamuna in Delhi. 

Delhi generates around 720 MGD (million gallons per day) of sewage treated at 19 STPs having a cumulative treatment capacity of 597 MGD. The river at present not only receives large volumes of domestic sewage and industrial waste, but also lacks the basic supply of fresh water as most of the river water is diverted for various consumptive uses like drinking, agriculture and industries at the Hathnikund barrage. About 57 million people depend on the Yamuna as it accounts for over 70 per cent of Delhi’s water supply.

During Chhath Puja last month, the river was veiled by a sheet of pollutants that looked like foam. The white sheet signifies an ecologically dead river, primarily due to the release of inadequately treated water or untreated sewage from areas not connected to the city’s sewerage network that precipitates frothing. The toxins hurt the river and citizens as well. Jyoti Yadav, who celebrated Chhath in the river, says she fell ill the very next day. “My skin was burning for the whole day, and I had a high fever.” 

The wastewater inflow has aggravated water quality problems, which has adversely affected the biodiversity and aquatic ecosystems. A number of projects have been launched to clean the river but so far have not yielded positive results. 

The first YAP signed in 1992, had aimed for “the improvement of water quality conservation in the river, and a hygiene environment in the cities in the river basin”. However, the project has remained in Phase 3 since 2012. As per a study conducted by TERI School of Advanced Studies, YAP could not see desired results despite shelling out Rs 6,000 crore. 

Why past plans failed
Environmental activist Manoj Mishra notes that all attempts to clean the Yamuna will continue to be in vain as there is no flow of water in the river. As per a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the basin states of the Yamuna, a minimum flow of 10 m3/s (volume of water flowing per second) is required throughout the year for ecological purposes. Due to excessive drinking water, irrigation and industrial demands, this minimum flow could not be maintained.

The ecological flow not being maintained in the Yamuna is a political issue which state governments need to resolve with Haryana and Uttarakhand, says Mishra. According to environmentalist Vikrant Tongad, the poor implementation and wrong estimation of the growing population has been a reason behind the failed attempts to clean the Yamuna. 

“Illegal construction and industries have increased to an extent that the government has no idea. The government needs to make plans in sync with the growing illegal construction and industries which are the prime source of pollution in the Yamuna. For this, the government must install more CETPs as the current ones are not enough. The government is focusing more on domestic sewage but industrial wastewater is the primary reason behind the ‘dead’ Yamuna,” Tongad adds.

Most of the times, he says, the STPs do not discharge treated water as per parameters. To save electricity, the norms are bypassed and the water is not treated correctly. Meanwhile, apart from the 
domestic sewage, a lot of industrial waste is being generated from inside these 33 legal industrial clusters in Delhi. Out of this, the wastewater from only 17 industrial clusters goes to 13 CETPs. Out of these 13, only six CETPs comply with Delhi Pollution Control Committee standards. 

Under the YCC, drains that do not direct wastewater to CETP, would be tapped in the sewer line at different places and sent to CETP to be cleaned. The government also announced that the DJB will take over the operations and maintenance of CETPs to prevent industrial waste from falling into the Yamuna.
After announcing the plan, Kejriwal added that all industrial waste will be diverted to CETPs, and any industry that fails to comply with this will shut.

Environmentalist Manoj Mishra says that the river does not want treated water from sewage or industrial effluent. “In the lockdowns, when the factories were shut and no industrial waste was discharged into the river, it automatically cleansed itself,” notes Mishra.   

Mishra, who is a member of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, contends that whether it is the YAP or YCC, the formation of STPs and CETPs are a part of the urbanisation process which every government does. The challenge before the government lies in the fact that it needs to understand the biological aspect of it and focus more on wetlands along the floodplain of Yamuna river. 

Environmentalist Dr Faiyaz Khudsar says that the river does not only need an engineering but also a biological understanding. “We have to see the river in totality. Both biological and engineering inputs need to be considered not just STPs. We have to see how many floodplain wetlands can be restored. During floods, the Yamuna floodplain wetlands will retain enough water and act as nursery and for aquatic animals and plants, so when the next flood comes these can come down in the main river. Through constructed wetlands, sewerage is allowed to pass through pebbles, roots, which eventually clean the sewage water,” he adds. 

While the government is all set to construct STPs, the challenge ahead is to bring in stakeholders such as farmers and fishermen who know the river better and at the same time generate employment through it. Another burning concern that Tongad points to is underground water extraction. “In areas near the Yamuna floodplains, a massive underground water extraction is underway. This is primarily floodplain water being extracted by borewells due to which the river goes dry in summer and winter,” observes Tongad. 

Need for collective approach 
The onus is not just on the Delhi government but also on the surrounding states to clean the Yamuna. However, the situation does not appear to be so. DJB Vice-Chairman Raghav Chadha recently held the Uttar Pradesh irrigation department – in-charge of the Okhla Barrage – responsible for the river pollution. He also accused sugar and paper mills in Meerut and Shamli of releasing untreated wastewater into Hindon Canal at the Yamuna barrage.

According to an National Green Tribunal (NGT) report published in 2020, UP was not releasing `35 crore for the Yamuna Flood Plain Rejuvenation plan for the Yogi Adityanath government’s side of the river. The NGT report further slammed the UP government for disobeying the directions of the Yamuna Monitoring Committee (YMC). “When YMC officials visited impugned drains that were discharging effluents in the Shahdara drain and even showed the filth to the District Magistrate, it got a positive response but this never got converted into action,” the report further added. 

Even the Haryana government was criticised for squeezing the Yamuna’s flow to the capital. In July, Haryana reduced the water supply into the river by 120 MGD that decreased drinking water production in Delhi by 100 MGD. It later released 16,000 cusecs of water in the river from the Hathnikund Barrage in Yamuna Nagar district post, which the shortage in the capital was resolved.

Decoding the mess ailing the river

22 km stretch between Wazirabad to Okhla accounts for about 76% of the pollution in the river.

720 MGD (million gallons a day) of sewage is generated in Delhi.  Nineteen STPs having a cumulative treatment capacity of 597 MGD treat this sewage.

6 CETPs comply with Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) standards out of existing 13.

6-point plan to clean Yamuna

  •  New sewer treatment plants are being built
  •  The capacity of existing plants to be increased
  •  Technology of old treatment plants to be changed
  •  Waste from Jhuggi Jhopri clusters to be merged into sewers
  •  Sewer connections in areas where people don’t have it at nominal charges
  • Desilting and rehabilitation of sewers



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