– by Shruti Syal
The auto launched right towards the highway in front of Panchsheel Park and Sheikh Sarai, so when the whiff of sewage hit our noses and we couldn’t spot anything but the five o’clock Delhi traffic, we halted the auto and cocked our heads out to scan possible gallis to meander through to find our little JJ cluster (jhuggi-jhopdi cluster) and it’s accompanying drain. The map promised a decently long, wide drain, so we could think about a wetland downstream. We had high hopes.
The autowallah zoomed under the highway, taking a U-turn towards Sheikh Sarai and dragging us into a narrow lane right before that cut, promising that would lead us to the drain. The auto drivers bustling along south Delhi know their way about these drains, let me tell you. Even though the minute we entered the lane, the stench disappeared. I didn’t try taking in deeper breaths to catch another whiff, it was too dusty. The foot traffic in Delhi’s JJ clusters will make you wonder whether they beat Delhi’s vehicular traffic or not. And nearly half the shops in all these settlements have construction material- either those long metal pipes for the building skeletons, neatly ribbon-ed into a single loop, or mounds of pale-coloured tiles. As if there wasn’t enough air pipe-clogging material wafting through Delhi’s atmosphere.
After meandering through, and having lost all sense of drain-sniffing ability, we rely on his knowledge as he drops us off at the head of one of dozens of even narrower gallis. Salomi pays, while I crane my neck to see if our treasure rests behind that wall smeared with cowdung cakes and mesh wire. It does.
It’s a gorgeous site. Wide, wide, wide, and stretching long, and notdeep, but just right. No smell either, we’re probably not downwind. And who am I kidding, it’s 6pm on a late-May day in Delhi. Still, hot, particulate matter-filled air. I look for openings in the walls along the drain to get photos.
It’s a site you call beautiful not because it’s conventionally beautiful but because when you’ve been thinking about wetlands and wastewater for over six months, you start to understand what makes the site beautiful is not current aesthetics, but potential ones. I am not trained in landscape architecture, but I get design. The inundating slopes are thronged by green, green trees. And the evening sun does it more justice by slipping through the openings in the tree “stands”. Further upstream there are remains of the constructed walls for the drains, sloping down on a perfect 45-degree angle, and just below, rests a little waterfall. The foliage veils the entry, so from the opposite side it is hard to gauge the source of the water. Well, at least it’s not foaming with surfactants, so cleaning the water will not be a nightmare.
I’ve gone through thousands of pictures on water landscapes in the americas and europe, and linear landscapes are my favourite. It is probably what attracted me to the South Delhi Greenway project (that sadly seems to have had zero updates and zero people manning their email since over a year) as well. The Chirag Delhi site is a gem, and I wonder whether it was considered for the project. It’s a challenge for ACWUS’ tiny budget, and I discover that only as we head out another 500 metres upstream. And no, the feral pigs with perfectly still egrets mounted on top of them are not what I would consider a challenge. It’s that broad garbage bridge plopped across the entire width of the flowing water.
We look down and realize we may as well be standing on the largest mound of garbage ever to grace a residential area. On one side, the lush trees run along the sloping construct, and the other is bare of trees but smothered in garbage, trash, refuse, call it whatever. Salomi cautions me against straining too far to catch a shot, although I highly doubt this 30-odd metre-high pile can give way under me when it has two adult brown cows and a dog chomping away to my right. And then a girl, barely eight or nine, promptly walks two feet ahead of me and dumps the contents of her plastic, lid-covered dustbin onto the massive pile we stand on.
That’s the thing about ALL the sites we visit. JJ clusters have no system of routine garbage collection. I recall my professor citing the example of the residents of Rohini being so dismayed at DDA’s inability to implement their little pilot run of source segregated-garbage collection, that they abandoned their own efforts at doing the same. If DDA residential colonies cannot get the attention they deserve from DDA, it is obvious that no efforts would be made in JJ colonies whose residents are accustomed to high-rise garbage piles. I cannot claim to know much about the administrative woes of garbage collection systems in India by personal experience, but what I do know from my professor’s accounts, and the hundred examples in a World Bank report is that collection, pointedly, sucks. There are examples of cities, Ahemadabad, Hyderabad. and Chennai for instance, where collection for waste in all-encompassing, and at least far more efficient than the open flouting in cities like Delhi and Mumbai.
Garbage and trash, unless routinely removed, will clog the sites. That is currently our biggest concern, and without a resolution, the wetland will cease to function at all. It might be a good idea to get these blockages out as part of the monitoring effort for ACWUS. The college-goers who have more of a grip over lab etiquette could work on the water and soil sampling and testing, while the school-goers could do the routine blockage removal, while understanding the principles and concepts behind wetlands, wastewater treatment, and environmental engineering for urban design issues.
Further upstream we realize that we may not have the gear (namely, rubber boots) to track it’s course. Plus, there’s not too many people further upstream, so we halt our expedition. We’re at a miniature junction where a little stream with an indiscernible source is emptying it’s probably metal-filled contents into the main stream.
The water is black amidst the green, and I spot a CD resting in a little nook. I am reminded of the lack of white foam from surfactants, which shouldn’t technically be a thing to rejoice about since the water flowing down is supposed to be treated in STPs (Sewage Treatments Plants), but that’s another thing about India. You rejoice in small mercies like a job that had to be done, actually getting done. And I say so without sarcasm.