– by Shruti Syal
So we weren’t sniffing our way to this site, which is great, because Okhla’s air probably has several ounces more of particulates than most of Southwest Delhi. Our autowallah was quite a mild guy, bearing with us as we buried our noses into the Eicher maps, aligning it as our auto careened across and under the bold curve on the AIIMS highway, trying to guide him to Jasola Vihar.
We make our way to Okhla and after a few turns we couldn’t understand, we decided to make good use of the phone GPSes, heads shuttling between Google Latitude and Eicher maps. Finally we landed onto the road that runs along Agra Canal, towards where our prospective drain meets the canal. It was tough to make out where we should get off because the roads aren’t level around there, and the only hint we had was the canal we were running along. We asked about, and the auto stopped next to a bridge over the canal. To the left, our eyes found a hint of water in the dusty landscape. But the drain didn’t look too promising. It was supposed to run for quite a distance, but it looked like the industrial colony may as well have swallowed it within 50 metres. The maps were four years old anyway…
We were skeptical of the site, because it was hard to believe that there could be water at such a site. And if the Chirag Dehi site was any indicator, activities such as those we had been observing would easily choke the drain. We convinced our benign driver to stay on for another half hour while we take a potentially dead-end trek upstream to find our drain head, and he kindly obliged, in the 11am heat in that dusty colony. In retrospect, we should have given him a little token. Finding an auto would have been a Herculean task in that place. As it is, we were clearly sticking out like sore thumbs there, more than usual that is.
So we walk up, keenly observing the changes in flow, depth, and debris along the drain. I decide to reserve the photography for the hike back. As we turn in, losing sight of the main road along the canal, the street narrows dramatically, and the slope increases slightly. I tell Salomi I’m glad about these little site visits of ours, because I’ve never seen Delhi like this even in the years I did live here as a child. You walk through the bustling markets of Lajpat Nagar, Malviya Nagar, Alaknanada in south Delhi and you learn of people’s working conditions being far poorer than your own non-AC classrooms and failed generator-led chaarpaai nights on the balcony. But you walk through these lanes- if you could even call it that- and you really learn about urban poverty. Our eyes were on the drain for the most part, but it was a long drain, and I’d let my shielded eyes wander onto new territory. Four-storey constructions jammed into each other, and not even remotely as poetic as the colourful little buildings you see along those wide, wide canals in Amsterdam. The sky is barely visible from the ground up, the sun to bright to allow yourself to raise the eyes up to see the sky through gaps.
We walk past mounds of bricks, bamboo sticks, metal pipes, and thin pipes jutting out of the first floor, dropping a trickle of water into the drain that winds up dispersing droplets of water over the brick walls onto my bare arms. I grab my sanitizer.
As it turns out, settlement or no settlement, the drain hasn’t been swallowed like I thought it would. It runs on and on, before finally leading to a junction of inlet pipes. Three massive four-metre diameter pipes launch their frothy STP-treated water into a spot that may as well have been a recreational spot, what with all the foliage shade, undulating topography and gushing water noises, nestled amidst a mountain of light brown soil. It’s a pretty area. A stone’s throw away there’s a little pond with huts and lush greenery. How much of that is native greenery, I wonder. Only recently did I hear that Sheila Dixit’s plans for Delhi’s green therapy was planting thousands of the exotic Prosopis juliflora all over Delhi. I know the entire Central Ridge has stands and stands of these trees, and the southern tail of the Ridge’s plantation, the Aravalli Biodiversity Park right next to TERI University, has them scattered all over the place.
It’s cool under the shade, and there’s aren’t many flies, but I convince myself to step into the sun and onto a wide pipe transporting still water along the level ground into the drain we just walked along, while the remainder gushes down 15-odd metres along the rocks we stand upon, into a frothy mass below. It’s hard to see where this water goes, but having found our wastewater tri-junction, and keenly aware of the waiting autowallah, we walk back, camera in hand.
It’s hard to categorize these settlements into plain-jane JJ clusters, some structures look like pucca two-storey buildings. There’s a neat wall running along the entire length of the drain, with some sites even sporting lush grasses. It would be interesting to know which species they are, and whether they can serve any purpose on the wetlands we’re proposing for the waterwater cleaning.
At intervals, we spot makeshift bridges across the drains onto the other side of the settlement. And every now and then, there were staircases sharply descending into a tiny cluster of toilet stall-sized homes with plastic sheet roofing and bamboo walls, or a galli leading into more such constructions that were not visible in the darkness of the very, very narrow lanes. Umpteen wires swept along the drain, and across. Some homes were painted a spastic, bright colour, others visibly bleached white under all the wear and tear.
The water flow was never consistent. While changing depth is an obvious reason, the debris was bound to be the other major reason for this. At one spot along the drain, the opposite side sported a high wall with high-rise buildings, some painted in equally spastic-coloured paint. Sometimes, there was no telling where all the water came from. In between the cluster of houses, a wide-mouthed drain not to be found on Eicher’s maps (and certainly invisible on Google Latitude) would suddenly spout out, and expanding and shrinking in its width as it meandered along the drain, just a little distance away. We’d occasionally spot our parallel friend in the gaps between the homes.
We’re stopped twice by residents seeking to understand what brings us there. So we stand, and talk, and ask them how far up the water comes from. Another chap talks about the government setting aside a few crores of rupees to cover the entire length of this drain. We wonder whether he is talking about this one drain alone, and who is source of information could possibly be. He ventures intelligent remarks on our project, on the government’s plans to cover the drain, and the discussion veers onto gas collection from wastewater. I tell the chap about hydrogen sulphide which smells like rotten eggs and how that and methane need to find their way out of the wastewater since our STPs don’t really get around to removing them, and covering the drains will be a problem, unless they keep vents. I avoid terminology, obviously. Salomi supports the plan to cover, she says it’ll reduce our persistent problem of macro-sized garbage finding its way into the drains. Our resident adds that the covering is justified because in the dark evening, many a playing child has been swept away by what seems to be a mild flow. It’s dark, and with the routine concrete bridges across the drain width, I can imagine how a small child could be knocked unconscious and flow right into the canal. I notice that he dabbles surprisingly well in English, and at once feel pangs of both guilt and pride at this discovery. They offer snacks and water, which my GET-prone stomach causes me to politely refuse. One chap sweetly, smilingly offers bottled water. We tell them we’ll be back for water sampling.
We find ourselves back to where we started, the autowallah patiently parking his auto near us so we could spot him. Begging him to hold on for two more minutes, I run across onto the bridge over Agra Canal, to see where our drain tapers off. We’re hoping to set up a wetland right there downstream someplace. Tough luck. Invisible under the bridge, the only remnant of the drain we’ve been tracing all this while ends directly into the canal via three square-shaped holes under a pedestrian overpass.
When I get my eyes off the gorgeous expanse of the canal, I look on either side at HUGE black mounds of…garbage. A wetland in the midst of this canal would require far more than we can afford, but it was a trek worth having. And our claim to return for that bottled water will probably one of many empty promises the settlers will face.
Wanna bet that drain stays uncovered beyond the six month deadline they’ve set for it?