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“In search of Yamuna: Reflections on a river lost”, is a book written by Sarandha Jain (New Delhi: Times Group Books, 2011). These are rush notes of her talk dated September 7th, 2011, held at AUD for the students of Urban Development and Human Ecology (UDE) course.

Historically rivers have had pervasive symbolic importances, and in that way have existed as much more than being just water ways or ecological substances. As also they have been substantial sources of livelihood and thus as well greater symbolic attachments. Communities residing by rivers had greater attachments as they turned for everything to the river. In this city of course (Delhi i.e.), the connection is not such the river is marginalized, and majorly a depository of sundry and wastes. However a few decades back Delhi had an importance to it, with near river activities; different river banks were earmarked for pervasive activities and vast diversities of ways in which the river was engaged with.

In forms of attachment (cultural meaning, ritualistic affinities etc.) there would and does exist a sense of identity, and especially so for the hill communities, cultural significance being very high for them (and similarly so for pervasive river side communities). And then also follows the techno-economic interpretation (sense of making meaning) and we use river for dams and barrages and for harnessing all the material gain we can, out of it.

Here is a conflict, and it seems that the impending and relevant question is that of which idea dominates? In the neo-liberal idea, the latter is of dominating nature and the other meanings are faced with a tremendously shrinking space. And what we see is a typical case of state appropriating what once fell in the domain of civil society. And state and market win, but the civil society clearly looses. And there is thus a shrinking ecological democracy. And in the pursuit and consequence we have independent communities becoming dependent on the state, and the market and state being intermediaries in engagement with nature.

The processes causing this are very neo-liberal in nature, and Delhi, being India’s capital looks forward to is representative of country’s policy paradigm, and this is a way in which we can fruitfully look at the relationship with the river, as Delhi tries to move into club of ultra rich high class cities. And inherent of the plan to attract more of FDI is the plan to change the urban form. However it seems as shall see, a blast from the past. When British came, they used the same mechanisms with indulgences in heavy demolitions and dominance of technocratic interpretations.

Before going back to the Raj, prior to Shahjahanabad, settlements in Delhi, weren’t really so dependent on the river. Being in rich forests, they were drained by local streams (now naalas (sewage drains), done so under British). They had a very decentralized water system. In Shahjahanabad, centralized authority providing water, increased the dependence on the river substantially, but not to an extent which can be called ‘exploitative’.

Old Delhi, the last of traditional Indian cities, began to be rebuilt into New Delhi. By this time, the river had shifted its course eastwards, partly because of geological reasons and partly because of human interference. What happened post 1857 was, Delhi began to be seen as a large, diseased, filthy place by the British, revolt having been a crime for the British. Raj came down heavily on civil life, rules were enacted for it, hawkers were removed, demolitions became wide-spread, bathing and direct interactions with the river were prohibited. Analogically and in inheriting the legacy much has not changed in this relevance.

The relevant essence then being

– to privatize public spaces, to regulate public life. It was strange for Indians where the public and private realm were not so separate.
– very limited social congregations, this being seen as rebellious. Quite synonymous to what these days in often experienced at India Gate and police being extremely sensitive to social congregation gathering up. Mindset in that way, reflects heavy colonial legacy.
– A curtailed public civilian life. Direct contact with nature is seen as dirty (on the contrary, same sewage going into river isn’t seen as dirty). Thus in order to sanitize and civilize the city, disengagement with Yamuna, becomes a legitimate necessity and we in such purview, move form communal custodianship of natural resources to the tragedy of commons.
-Flexible character of urban planning gets transformed into rigid Anglo-American culture of zoning, and started with 1911 rebuilding of New Delhi. Thus markets become the sole source of congregation, and Delhi becomes increasingly a commercial caricature.

Ideological dislocation from the rural, is thus an inherent characteristic of such an idea of urbanization (and the conflicts of ideas as well which are above talked about). Where all the resources are coming form the rural hinterland, cities become extractive of rural resources (and in this way the idea expands its breadth). And the poor are being challenged, who are more directly dependent on natural resources [Yamuna Pushta for e.g., a squatter settlement in Delhi, evicted in 2004].

The British built Delhi on North-South axis, sewage was put into rivers as they became drains which then used to fill the Najafgarh lake, and thus a complete ignorance to an neglect of natural ecology and obviously oblivious to socio-economic injustices.

A lot of these processes lead to decline of bio-diversity. Its a gradual destruction of natural ecology. And from being a watershed Delhi turns itself into a thirsty city. This is a paradigmatic shift in urban planning, and the paradigmatic shift is essentially borrowing concepts which are not indigenous to natural habitat. And with everything becoming a factor of production, nature becomes capital, human beings become labor. And thus, us being ignorant to culture, use it to resource our lives and cities are erected by displacing villages.

This systematically instituted shift, is not a river but a modern day canal, for it does not have its own ecosystem, not own flow. The industrial river therefore is fast, straight, dead and not ununiform or alive for every drop of water going into the sea is seen as waste and those dependent do not see themselves as custodians of resource but beneficiaries. Communities who lived on these banks undergo a severe crisis, and sense of their identity or belongingness or the shift in culture is so much that does not even recognize their life style. What are we see in gis not only an ecological crisis, but also a crisis of culture. The urban conception stops merely at pollution or talking about climate change.

Its a feeling of betrayal for these people, by the river and they in turn try to disown the river. its a mess of aspirations, while laying claims by their idea of rivers is dominant (so Brahmins would lay theirs, villagers settled by the British would lay theirs and the agricultural farmers and the boatmen would lay theirs). All of these communities which once co-existed are now competing and barely anyone is going to get it and it is broadly the state (DDA, here: Delhi Development Authority), which will reign over.

Pointers to remember for context {Ecology, State, Society, Markets}

Interesting things to look at: The political fiasco over sewage treatment plants in Delhi, the history behind and the notions of nuisance and relocation