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Ville et fleuve en Asie du Sud

Harit Joshi
Anne Viguier

Delhi's Changing Riverfront: Bourgeois Environmentalism and the Reclamation of Yamuna's Floodplain for a World-class City in the Making

Les transformations des berges de la Yamuna à Delhi : la conscience écologique bourgeoise et les visées sur la plaine inondable de la Yamuna dans une ville globale en formation

Delhis Flussufer im Wandel: bürgerliches Umweltschutzbewusstsein und die Umnutzung der Yamuna-Aue für eine Weltklassestadt von morgen

Alexander Follmann


Avec l’ouverture et la libéralisation de l’économie indienne depuis le début des années 1990, le projet de faire de Delhi une ville classée parmi les villes de statut mondial a transformé le paysage urbain de la mégalopole de multiples façons. Ce chapitre analyse les conséquences de cette ambition en étudiant l’exemple de la Yamuna et de sa zone inondable. Dégradée en un canal malodorant par les eaux d’égout non traitées de la ville, le large lit du fleuve est resté longtemps une marge délaissée de la mégalopole. Cependant, il y a aujourd’hui l’espoir que cette zone peu employée ou à l’abandon joue à l’avenir un rôle pivot dans la fabrique d’une ville de statut mondial. Aujourd’hui, l’état de la rivière Yamuna jure avec l’image souhaitée d’un environnement urbain propre et vert, jugé caractéristique d’une ville de statut mondial, mais la rivière est devenue, pour les dirigeants et les aménageurs de la ville, une nouvelle frontière de la transformation urbaine. Ce chapitre décrit le lien étroit entre la logique de l’écologie bourgeoise et la perspective mondialisée en analysant les changements récents qu’ont connus les rives.

Texte intégral

The research presented in this chapter is part of my PhD project, funded by the German National Academic Foundation. I would like to thank Boris Braun and Kavita Ramakrishnan for reading various versions of this chapter and providing valuable feedback. I am grateful to the organizers and participants for their valuable comments during the seminar in Paris. Any remaining mistakes are my own.


1The Delhi Development Authority, the city’s planning authority, has an ambitious vision to transform India’s capital into a “world-class city” by the year 2021. Interlinked with the opening and liberalization of the Indian economy since the beginning of the 1990s, these developments aim to convert the megacity, with its population of more than 16 million, into a globally competitive city that attracts global capital investments. Modern infrastructure, high-end residential projects, exclusive shopping and entertainment multiplexes are emerging and a new image-building process has promoted a clean and green city (Dupont, 2011).

2Jennifer Robinson (2002-2006) has shown that, as analytical concepts, the “world city” (Friedmann, 1986) and the “global city” (Sassen, 1991, 1994) have guided urban development policies around the world and that the implementation of such policies often leads to negative consequences for the majority of the urban population – especially for the urban poor. In the case of Delhi, Dupont (2011) argues that the new world-class-city agenda has led to intensified socio-spatial polarization, slum demolitions and overwhelming negative consequences for the urban poor.

3Research on the urban transformation in India has mainly focused on socio-economic inequalities and the deterioration of the living conditions of the urban poor. Surprisingly, relatively little research has been done on the environmental consequences of this dynamic urban transformation for urban ecosystems, and existing work in this field has primarily focused on the environmental and ecological threats to human health (Aggarwal and Butsch, 2011). In this critical gap, my work analyzes the recent transformation of an ecologically sensitive space within the rapidly changing city, by looking at the example of the River Yamuna in Delhi.

4With a total area of about 97 square kilometres, the floodplain of the River Yamuna is the largest remaining natural feature and a crucial life-supporting ecosystem of the megacity. Degraded to a foul-smelling drain by the city’s untreated sewage, the wide riverbed has been a neglected backyard of India’s capital for a long time. However, the perception of underutilized or wasted land has transformed into the promise of the pivotal role that the river’s floodplain can play in the city’s “world-class” makeover. Analyzing the contradictory changes along Delhi’s riverfront with respect to environmental protection of the riverbed, this chapter charts the broader vision of making Delhi a world-class city. Elaborating on the notion of bourgeois environmentalism (Baviskar, 2003, 2011a, 2011b), the chapter contributes to a better understanding of urban environmental change and the role of environmental activism in India.

World-class city-making and bourgeois environmentalism

5John Friedmann and Saskia Sassen introduced the concept of “world city” (Friedmann, 1986) and “global city” (Sassen, 1991) to distinguish “cities that are strategic sites in the global economy” (Sassen, 1994, p. 154) from “ordinary” cities. While Friedmann emphasized that his world-city hypothesis “is neither a theory nor a generalization about cities”, and that his intention was to use it merely as a “framework for research” (1986, p. 69), urban planners across the world have nonetheless tried to convert his world-city hypothesis, and Sassen’s notion of the global city, in particular, directly into urban development policies. Robinson (2002, 2006) has pointed out that these formerly analytical concepts have over time become “the aspiration of many cities around the world” (2002, p. 548).

6In India, these developments are closely interlinked with the opening and liberalization of the Indian economy since the beginning of the 1990s. Batra (2010, p. 17) observes that “the transformation of major metropolitan cities into ‘world-class’ cities has increasingly come to be the very raison d’être of urban development policy in India”. Major cities like Mumbai and Delhi have been promoted to become global metropolises and world-class cities.

  • 1 I borrow the terms “hard-wiring” and “soft-wiring” from Truelove and Mawdsley (2011, p. 411–412). (...)

7In the case of Delhi, the ambition to transform the city into a global city has directly found its way into the Master Plan 2021 (DDA, 2005), and, as per this document, the vision is “to make Delhi a global metropolis and a world-class city, where all the people would be engaged in productive work with a better quality of life, living in a sustainable environment” (DDA, 2005, p. i). The Delhi Development Authority (DDA) and other participating state agencies have tried to transform Delhi’s physical urban landscape, the city’s “hard-wiring”,1 to a world-class standard – howsoever that standard is defined – and to customize the city’s “soft-wiring” in such a fashion that it attracts (foreign) business investments and economic elites –India’s new urban middle class(es) in particular (see, for example, Baviskar, 2003; Fernandes, 2006; Truelove and Mawdsley, 2011).

8Delhi’s rising population and the city’s vital economic growth have already resulted in high development pressure on the remaining vacant land in the megacity. The ambition to make Delhi a world-class city adds to this pressure, and, rather than declaring land owned by the central government as “development area” and developing it (as had been done for decades by the DDA), the “centrally planned land management was replaced by the neoliberal mantra of public–private partnerships” (Baviskar, 2007). Similarly to many other Asian cities, this increasing role of the private sector is manifested in the urban landscape of Delhi through infrastructure mega-projects. On the other hand, this shift has dramatic social consequences and it seems that the poor have no right to exist within the new world-class city (Baviskar, 2007; Batra and Mehra, 2008; Bhan, 2009; Dupont, 2008, 2011). Thus, raising Delhi to global standards within a short time frame has resulted in an urban restructuring, where underutilized or barren land has become promising for future major urban development. These former “unclaimed spaces” – niches settled by the poor along highly polluted railway lines, drains or the River Yamuna – have become the “new enclosures” for a redevelopment of the city (Baviskar, 2007). Additionally, many of these unclaimed spaces, like the wide floodplain of the River Yamuna and the forests of the Delhi Ridge, used to form the last remaining larger natural features within the megacity. Both are considered to be the green lungs of the megacity, but are instead being targeted for urban development.

9Delhi’s world-class aspiration is closely linked to city beautification movements (Baviskar, 2007, 2011a, 2011b; Ghertner, 2011a, 2011b), and the desires of an emerging urban middle class for a clean and healthy living environment play an important role (Mawdsley, 2004; Véron, 2006). The conflicting outcomes of this middle-class-centred environmentalism have provocatively been categorized as bourgeois environmentalism by Baviskar (2003, 2011a), clearly distinguishing this form of environmentalism from India’s commonly known environmentalism of the poor (Guha and Martinez-Alier, 1997), which entailed social-environmental movements fighting against deforestation or large hydro-power dam projects. For Baviskar (2011a), bourgeois environmentalism is defined as the self-contradictory logic of the increasingly affluent lifestyle of the middle-class, resulting in environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity on the one hand, and the primarily middle-class-rooted conservation agenda (protected parks, sanctuaries for wildlife) and beautification movement (clean and green urban spaces) on the other. We therefore find a close relation between the logic of bourgeois environmentalism and the vision of making Delhi a world-class city. Using Baviskar’s notion of bourgeois environmentalism, McFarlane (2008) reviews contemporary and colonial sanitation discourses in Mumbai. He underlines that the “temporal logics of bourgeois environmentalism and the world city are rapid change, characterized by large-scale demolition and rebuilding, and a global exchange of ideas, images, commodities and people” (2008, p. 429). In the case of the Yamuna, as this chapter will elaborate upon, the general tendency to borrow concepts from abroad is apparent both in the pollution abatement discourse as well as in the riverfront development discourse. Furthermore, in the context of demolition and large-scale rebuilding in Delhi, Ghertner (2011b, p. 280) has suggested that the legality of any urban space is not based upon whether it actually conforms to the existing Master Plan or other existing (urban or environmental) regulations, but rather depends on an aesthetic judgement. He states that “if a development project looks ‘world-class’, then it is most often declared planned; if a settlement looks polluting, it is sanctioned as unplanned and illegal” (Ghertner, 2011b, p. 280).

The Yamuna River

From its origins to Delhi

10The River Yamuna originates in the glaciers of the Mussourie range of the lower Himalaya, near Yamunotri in the state of Uttarakhand. It flows for 1,376 kilometres almost parallel to the Ganges River before merging with the Ganges at Allahabad city in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Yamuna’s catchment area makes up about 40% of the entire Ganges basin and covers about 10% of India’s total landmass (CPCB, 2006). Today, more than 130 million people live in the river’s catchment area (Rai et al., 2012, p. 176). Being the daughter of Surya, the sun god, and the sister of Yama, the god of death, the Yamuna is considered to be a holy river in Hindu mythology. The River Yamuna is also connected to Lord Krishna and his incarnation (Rai et al., 2012, p. 13f); it has therefore been worshipped “as an aquatic form of divinity for thousands of years” (Haberman, 2006, p. 1). However, the Yamuna has lost its natural glory due to high levels of pollution, resulting especially from the discharge of untreated domestic sewage produced in the megacity of Delhi. The stretch of the River Yamuna within Delhi is about 48 kilometres long (22 kilometres in the urban area), from Palla in the north to Okhla in the south.

  • 2 Figures vary by year, season and source. In March 2008, the total water resources of Delhi were 74 (...)

11The Yamuna is a perennial river fed by glaciers and precipitation. Its natural flow varies and is greatly influenced by the Indian monsoon, which implies that the major rainfall is absorbed between June and September (Rai et al., 2012, p. 27ff.). Outside the monsoon season, the River Yamuna suffers from inadequate flow of water and an extremely high degree of pollution. The Hathnikund Barrage, about 250 kilometres upstream of Delhi, is the “key barrage responsible for turning the Yamuna into a virtual sewer drain” (Misra, 2010, p. 78), by diverting the river’s flow into a canal system supplying water to Haryana (Western Yamuna Canal) and Uttar Pradesh (Eastern Yamuna Canal) for irrigation, domestic and industrial purposes. In the north of Delhi, at the Wazirabad Barrage, the river’s water is tapped for the drinking water supply of the megacity. About 40 to 45% of Delhi’s drinking water is taken from the Yamuna (Delhi Govt., 2011).2 In total, about 94% of the river’s water is used for irrigation, while 4% is designated for domestic use and 2% for industrial use (CPCB, 2006, p. 14). Since 1954, a water-sharing agreement has allocated the waters of the Yamuna to the different states, and in 1994 a memorandum of understanding was signed between Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi, regulating the allocation of flows of the river up to Delhi. However, inter-state water disputes remain omnipresent.

12Vast areas of the Yamuna riverbed are still used as agricultural lands to grow vegetables as well as flowers for the local market. Tree nurseries along riverside roads sell various types of plants on site. Cattle graze along the river’s edge and bathe in Yamuna’s polluted water. However, while all these activities operate in the very heart of the city, they remain informal and semi-legal in the absence of any clear legal framework regulating agricultural and livestock activities.

Floods in the city

13The history of Delhi is closely related to the river. The fertile alluvium soil of Yamuna’s floodplain and its reliable source of water have allowed Delhi to flourish since ancient times. However, floods of monsoonal rivers can also be a destructive natural force, and are difficult to control. Even when floods and flood-affected areas are very much a “known risk”, it is still challenging to mitigate floods, since they occur at irregular intervals and intensities (Wisner et al., 2004, p. 205). Furthermore, it seems that humans often tend to underestimate – if not forget – the known risk of floods due to high pressures on land markets and seemingly “cheap” land in the floodplain.

14Delhi has experienced a series of severe floods in recent history (Figure 1). The highest record in available historical data occurred in 1978, when the Yamuna reached 207.49 metres, breaching a newly constructed embankment protecting north Delhi and flooding residential areas (IFCD, 2010). Reliable data is not available for years prior to 1963; however, it is known that serious floods occurred in 1924, 1947, 1955 and 1956 (IFCD, 2010).

Figure 1

Figure 1

Yamuna floods in Delhi: Annual maximum water level at the Old Railway Bridge in metres above sea level (danger level: 204.84 m; warning level: 204.00 m; dry-season level: 202.00 m)

Source: Draft by author based on Irrigation & Flood Control Department (IFCD) data, Government of NCT of Delhi (New Delhi, 2013).

15By September 2010, the Yamuna had already crossed the danger mark of 204.84 metres several times that year, before the monsoonal floods of the Yamuna peaked at 207.11 metres at the Old Railway Bridge on 22 September 2010. The rail-cum-road bridge, which was constructed in 1866 by the East India Railway to connect Delhi with Kolkata, was closed to road and rail traffic (Figures 2 and 3), and Delhi was facing its most serious floods since 1978. The Irrigation & Flood Control Department (IFCD) even expected the river to cross the 207.3 metre mark, putting the bridge at risk of being washed away. The floods of 2010 were a chance occurrence due to heavy rains in the foothills of the lower Himalaya combining with heavy downfall in the Delhi region.

Figure 2

Figure 2

The Old Railway Bridge in the dry season (water level at around 202 m). The riverbed is used as parking space for cycle rickshaws serving the adjoining roads of Old Delhi (13 December 2009)

Source: Photograph by author

Figure 3

Figure 3

TV channels reporting from the Old Railway Bridge during the Yamuna floods of September 2010, only one day before the peak water level of 207.11 metres (21 September 2010)

Source: Photograph by author

16Besides this natural coincidence, the floods of the River Yamuna are to a great extent man-made: the amount of water released at Hathnikund is an important factor for the flood intensity in Delhi, and major floods in Delhi occur especially when high volumes of water are released. It takes about 48 to 72 hours for the water to reach Delhi from the barrage. In summary, the history of floods in Delhi shows that the city is highly prone to flooding in the monsoon season. Having outlined the characteristics of the river, we now turn to the plans for channelization and riverfront development.

Channelization and riverfront development

The earlier schemes

Rivers in the major metropolitan cities of the world like Thames in London and Seine in Paris have been channelized, providing unlimited opportunities to develop the river fronts. The possibilities in respect of river Yamuna have been studied in depth and indications are that it could be channelized within 550 m width and an area of about 3000–4000 ha could become available for riverfront development.
Delhi Development Authority, 1999

17For decades, models of modern European riverfronts dominated the planning ideology surrounding the River Yamuna. The above quotation from the second Master Plan, notified by the central government in 1999, explicitly proposed channelization to contain the river in a designated bed by embankments and concrete walls and thereby enable the development of prime riverside real estate. However, these plans did not progress beyond idea form and until now the Yamuna has had little in common with the appearance of European urban riverfronts.

Figure 4

Figure 4

The Master Plans of Delhi with perspectives for 1981, 2001 and 2021

Source: Delhi Development Authority (DDA)

18In the first Master Plan for Delhi, prepared by the DDA in 1962, the riverbed remained outside of the envisaged development (Figure 4). Though the plan left out the riverbed, the connectivity across the river was given great importance for the development of East Delhi and, as a result, three new bridges were proposed. The 1962 Master Plan also envisaged the strengthening of the existing embankments in the east. With respect to recreational needs, the DDA proposed a park at the riverfront, south of the Old Railway Bridge (DDA, 1962).

  • 3 On the basis of the Delhi Development Act of 1957, the DDA has divided Delhi into 15 zones for whic (...)
  • 4 Information based on interviews with various stakeholders conducted by the author in Delhi (2010–20 (...)
  • 5 This must be viewed in the context of the creation of the central Ministry of Environment and Fores (...)

19Prior to the second Master Plan, the DDA had been working on channelization schemes for the River Yamuna since the late 1970s so as to better integrate the river into the city. Furthermore, the central government declared the riverbed a “development area” under Section 12 (1) of the Delhi Development Act in 1989 and thereby legally authorized the DDA to plan and develop the riverbed. In March 1998, the DDA circulated a first draft of a Zonal Development Plan3 for the river zone (DDA, 1998). While acknowledging the “special character” of the river zone “in terms of being a flood-prone natural feature” (DDA, 1998), the DDA paradoxically aimed to install a legal document to develop a financial district, convention centres, stadiums, theme parks, etc. on the riverbed, by means of the Zonal Development Plan. However, the DDA’s ideas were strongly criticized in public meetings and discussions about the river’s future.4 In summary, it can be stated that government agencies, especially the DDA, and private developers have been calling for channelization and the development of the banks of the River Yamuna in Delhi since the late 1970s (see Batra and Mehra, 2008; Jain, 2009), but none of the schemes has ever been approved. The reasons are manifold: in the early stages, unclear technical feasibility, followed, later on, by elusive financial viability prevented the channelization schemes materializing along the banks. Additionally, since the mid 1980s environmental concerns have gained importance5 and the multiplex ecological effects of channelization, its expected negative runoff, and flood impacts on the upstream and downstream areas have prevented the plans’ realization.

20The current Master Plan, approved by the Ministry of Urban Development in 2007, describes the Yamuna as a major natural feature and ecosystem of Delhi (DDA, 2010, p. 114). The Zonal Development Plan was finally approved by the Ministry of Urban Development in March 2010 – around 12 years after the first draft had been circulated. It is noteworthy that, in contrast to the second Master Plan, river channelization is neither envisaged in the current Master nor Zonal Development Plan. Instead, actions for the rejuvenation of the Yamuna are outlined.

A new approach: “Cleaning” up the banks of the river

  • 6 The Indian BJP politician Jagmohan (Jag Mohan Malhotra) was already a major figure behind the slum (...)
  • 7 The term “jj-cluster” is also referred to as “jhuggi-jhompri”, “jhuggi jhonpri”, or “jhuggi jhopri(...)

21In the early 2000s, a riverside promenade in front of the Red Fort was pushed to the fore by the Ministry of Tourism and Culture under the then leadership of Jagmohan,6 who wished to create a new tourist destination as well as to clear the riverbed of settlements of the urban poor (for details, see Bhan, 2009; Bharucha, 2006; Dupont, 2008; Menon-Sen and Bhan, 2008; Batra and Mehra, 2008). Dupont (2008, p. 79–80) has estimated that around 3 million people used to live in about 1,000 squatter settlements across the city, accounting for approximately 27% of the total population of Delhi in 1998. Analyzing government data for the year 2000, Bhan (2009, p. 132) indicated that the so-called jhuggi jhopdi (jj) clusters, which is the term generally used for the unauthorized huts of the urban poor in Delhi, had a population of about 2 million.7 Even if absolute numbers differ and the figures might be only rough estimates, their growth has been a result of the lack of low-income housing, which the DDA in particular has failed to provide. The urban poor were therefore forced to live in precarious conditions, building settlements on land that was highly exposed to noise, pollution and natural hazards such as floods. These spaces were chosen only because they remained unclaimed by formal developments.

  • 8 For a detailed description of the development of the settlements on the riverbanks, see Batra and (...)

22The banks of the river used to be home to hundreds of thousands of poor people (daily-wage labourers, rickshaw pullers, rag-pickers, domestic workers, etc., and their families). Some bought the land from farmers and cleared it of bushes and trees, or reclaimed swampland. Often they had to bribe government officials. The land was either owned by government agencies or was under lease by farmer societies, and thus the urban poor technically had no legal entitlement to the land.8

  • 9 The Hindi term pushta means bund or embankment, but is also referred to as riverbank (Bhan, 2009, (...)
  • 10 The number of families and affected people varies depending on the sources. Menon-Sen and Bhan (20 (...)

23In early 2004, the Delhi-based non-governmental organization (NGO) Hazard Centre reported that about 300,000 people had been evicted from the Yamuna riverbed (WOAT, 2004). However, it is almost impossible to estimate the total number of affected people living along the river. Nonetheless, these figures show the large-scale evictions and demolitions occurring within just a few months (Dupont, 2011, p. 14). The first massive demolition drive along the river took place between late February and early May 2004, during which close to 40,000 houses were demolished in the Yamuna Pushta slums9 and approximately 150,00010 people were displaced (Bharucha, 2006, p. 7). Only a minority of the displaced families were allotted plots in resettlement colonies like Bawana, located more than 40 kilometres away on the very outskirts of the city. Bhan’s (2009) thorough and incisive analysis of the underlying paradigm shifts leading to the evictions of the Yamuna Pushta slums is a useful guide to how slums were reconceived in a city aiming to be world-class:

These evictions were not the result of planning directives or actions initiated by either municipal or city level state authorities. They were instead the final result of several public interest litigations (PILs) filed in Delhi courts by non-poor resident welfare and trade associations (Bhan, 2009, p. 128).

24The following section will utilize this literature in reviewing the role of public interest litigations (PILs) and the courts in opening up the riverbed.

  • 11 For a detailed description of the emergence of Public Interest Litigations (PILs) and its problems (...)
  • 12 Supreme Court of India, 1985, Olga Tellis v. Bombay Municipal Corporation.

25Public interest litigations have gained prominence in India since the 1980s.11 PILs were intended to be especially helpful in upholding the rights of people who are in a socially or economically disadvantaged position and who are not able to demand their rights on their own. PILs therefore offer the opportunity for a “third” party to seek justice through the courts on behalf of these groups and in the public interest. Paradoxically, in a considerable number of cases, a tool which was designed with the intention of ensuring participative public justice has instead “been the vehicle for effecting large-scale demolition of the dwellings of the urban poor” (Dupont and Ramanathan, 2008, p. 337). Analyzing verdicts dealing with slum evictions since the mid 1980s, Bhan (2009) has shown a paradigm shift in the courts’ decisions, moving from a stipulation of “the right to livelihood” as an “important facet of the right to life”12 to the judgments of the early 2000s. The slum dwellers in the latter cases are merely viewed as encroachers on public land (Bhan, 2009; Dupont and Ramanathan, 2008), while the court overlooks the failures of the state in both providing sufficient low-income housing and implementing the Master Plan regulations (Bhan, 2009, p. 135).

26Shifting our focus to the environmental dimension, it is important to review the role of PILs in environmental activism through the courts in Delhi. Numerous PILs have been filed challenging environmental degradation and the depletion of natural resources since the 1980s, and Delhi has clearly had a strong history of environmental activism through the courts. Struggles for better air quality (Véron, 2006) and solid-waste disposal, the rejuvenation of urban water bodies, the protection of the Delhi Ridge and efforts to clean the River Yamuna and safeguard the riverbed were all driven by court orders responding to PILs filed by environmental NGOs. Reacting to PILs and in particular acting suo motu entirely on their own initiative, the courts have transformed themselves into arenas of battle on the political, social and environmental front (Rajamani, 2007). However, PILs – whether environmentally concerned or not – can result in highly different outcomes than those primarily intended by the petitioners. This has been especially true of the judgments of the courts with respect to the River Yamuna in Delhi. While the evictions were initiated by the court acting upon PIL verdicts, the original petitions did not even mention the River Yamuna; instead, the court shifted its focus within the case “from unlawful allocation of public land” to pollution caused by encroachments along the River Yamuna (Dutta, 2009, p. 55). Without going into details of the court proceedings (see Bhan, 2009; Dupont and Ramanathan, 2008; Ghertner, 2011a), it is remarkable that the High Court arbitrarily turned its attention to the pollution of the Yamuna in 2003, thereby transforming the case into one of the landmark cases of jurisprudence relating to the River Yamuna:

  • 13 High Court of Delhi, 3 March 2003, Wazirpur Bartan Nirmata Sangh v. Union of India and Others and (...)

[The] River Yamuna which is a major source of water has been polluted like never before. Yamuna Bed [sic] and both the sides of the river have been encroached by unscrupulous persons with the connivance of the authorities. Yamuna Bed as well as its embankment has to be cleared from such encroachments. Rivers are perennial source of life and throughout the civilised world, rivers, its water and its surroundings have not only been preserved, beautified but special efforts have been made to see that the river flow is free from pollution and environmental degradation [sic]. … In view of the encroachment and construction of jhuggies/pucca structures [huts] in the Yamuna Bed and its embankment with no drainage facility, sewerage water and other filth is discharged in Yamuna water [sic]13 (Dutta, 2009, p. 54).

27The High Court of Delhi “simplified” the complex problem of river pollution “into the visible presence of a degraded population living on the banks of the river” and came to the conclusion “that slums had destroyed the natural beauty and ecology of the river” (Ghertner, 2011a, p. 146). However, due to their limited water consumption in general, slum dwellers contributed minimally to the pollution of the river (see Hazard Centre, 2004). Instead, the major reasons for the pollution of the River Yamuna are – besides the relative lack of dilution due to the low flow – rather inadequate sewage-treatment capacities, non-functional sewage-treatment plants and deficiencies in the sewage-collection system of the whole city. These real reasons were actually well known from earlier proceedings of the Supreme Court responding to PILs concerning minimum flow and pollution of the river since the early 1990s (see Dutta, 2009), as well as from reports by state agencies such as the Central Pollution Control Board (see CPCB, 2004). It therefore becomes clear that in the above case the court did not base its verdict on any scientific rationale but rather used an aesthetic criterion, which suggests that slum dwellers are visible polluters of the river even though the reasons for the pollution of the Yamuna are far more complex (Ghertner, 2011a, 2011b). Since the court had clearly indicated that the agencies involved had not been able or were not willing to clear the encroachments on the riverbed, the court instituted the Yamuna Removal of Encroachment Monitoring Committee to directly oversee the implementation of its orders. Established in November 2005, the committee placed pressure on the agencies to act, resulting in particularly brutal evictions.

  • 14 The YSC was set up by the Central Water Commission in 1961 to oversee the safety of physical struc (...)

28Already in the aftermath of the devastating floods of 1978, the Yamuna Standing Committee14 (YSC) had decided that “the minimum spacing between future embankments on the banks of the river Yamuna should be 5 km” and that the space between any new embankment and “the active river edge” should be at least 600 metres (YSC, 1979). In Delhi, however, the distance between the Yamuna Pushta embankment in the east and the urban area on the west bank varies between 3.5 kilometres and 800 metres. The width of the riverbed in Delhi is therefore clearly narrower than this postulated width of 5 kilometres. In the eyes of the convener of the environmental NGO Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan, this “shows that safety norms [concerning flooding] permitted no further compromise as far as its remaining flood plain in the city was concerned” (Misra, 2010, p. 81).

29When clarifying the tasks of the Yamuna Removal of Encroachment Monitoring Committee on 8 December 2005, the High Court of Delhi, however, did not follow the guidelines set by the committee, but rather defined its own protective corridor for the River Yamuna:

  • 15 High Court of Delhi, 8 December 2005, WP(C) No. 2112/2002 and WP(C) No. 689/2004.

We direct the Committee to take up in right earnestness and on day-to-day basis the task of removing encroachments upto [sic] 300 meters from both sides of River Yamuna in the first instance. No encroachment either in the form of jhuggi jhopri clusters or in any other manner by any person or organization shall be permitted. Yamuna has to be redeveloped in such a manner that it becomes the habitat for trees, forests and center [sic] for recreation. We are making it clear that no structure whether it pertains to religious, residential or commercial or any other purpose shall be allowed to exist.15

  • 16 See, for instance, newspaper articles from this time: “DDA has grand plans for Yamuna banks”, Time (...)
  • 17 The minutes of the Yamuna Standing Committee have been accessed by the environmental NGO Yamuna Ji (...)

30The High Court of Delhi framed the 300-metre zones on both sides of the River Yamuna without any scientific consultation. Reviewing the discussion about the river in the months after the High Court judgments, media reports16 and the minutes of the Yamuna Standing Committee17 reflect that the judgment had actually opened the door to the development of the Yamuna floodplain in Delhi, since the Yamuna Standing Committee had adopted the 300-metre zone as a benchmark for granting no objection certificates for developments on the floodplain (YSC, 2008).

31This discussion highlights the contradictory decision to solely remove squatter settlements following the orders of the High Court of Delhi. Indeed, other existing structures on the riverbed have not been seriously challenged. As a result, the High Court’s orders have come to benefit landowning agencies, giving them legal backing to evict the slums from prime land in the centre of the city. Furthermore, new urban (infrastructure) mega-projects like the Delhi Metro depots and the Commonwealth Games Village have not been stopped by the courts, but rather given final approval. For Baviskar (2011b, p. 50), the court’s “selective targeting of poor squatters while letting more powerful polluters and encroachers off the hook” reflects “the environmental vision of Delhi’s well-to-do citizens” and the brutality of bourgeois environmentalism on the ground. She describes the cleared riverbed as a “terra nullius”, merely waiting for investments to become a world-class riverfront.

New icons for a “world-class city”: Delhi Metro, the Commonwealth Games Village and a biodiversity zone

  • 18 The DMRC was created as a joint venture between the Government of India and the Government of the N (...)
  • 19 In a forthcoming article I will outline the details of the environmental clearance processes of the (...)

32The wannabe world-class city of Delhi, which was (and still is) struggling with increasing private automobile traffic and worsening air pollution levels, was desperate for the smooth development of a high-quality public transport network. The Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC)18 was able “to construct a positive image that would galvanize public support” for the development of a high-end public transport network (Siemiatycki, 2006, p. 281), even though metro rail operations are associated with the bulky infrastructure of lines, stations and depots. In this context, Siemiatycki (2006, p. 277) observed, that “officials in Delhi have moved mountains in making the metro a reality”. Indeed, this can be taken literally, since the DMRC created two metro depots and stations by filling up the Yamuna riverbed with the excavation materials from the tunnelling of underground lines as well as with toxic fly-ash from nearby power plants. By developing an information and technology park and residential quarters in the riverbed, the DMRC has violated the Master Plan and acted against orders from the Yamuna Standing Committee and the Delhi Urban Arts Commission. Furthermore, the DMRC has been exempted from any environmental impact assessment of its lines, depots and operational infrastructure. For its property developments, the DMRC needed environmental clearances; however, the DMRC either did not apply for these clearances (residential projects close to the Yamuna Bank depot) or the Ministry of Environment and Forests gave these clearances without serious enquiry. Instead, the ministry’s staff based their judgement solely on the DMRC’s overall positive image (its IT park at Shastri Park).19

  • 20 The DMRC has been recognized as an emissions reduction project within the Clean Development Mechani (...)

33The overall support for the Delhi Metro is clearly based on the perceived “overdue modernization” of the city’s transportation infrastructure to enhance regional and global connectivity (Uppal and Ghosh, 2006, p. 22; Dupont, 2011, p. 544) and its overall green and clean appearance, thus bringing world-class infrastructure to Delhi. Furthermore, all this has been delivered through a rigid timeline without any evidence of corruption. The high esteem accorded by the public at large and the venture’s green branding20 have resulted in the sanctity of the Delhi Metro, to such an extent that any public criticism has become almost impossible. The court has never challenged the DMRC’s projects in the riverbed, and its legality has never officially been doubted.

34The case of the Commonwealth Games Village has been quite different. Covering about 59 hectares, the village has been developed through a public–private partnership by the DDA and the Dubai-based real estate developer Emaar MGF. It was built to accommodate about 8,000 athletes and officials during the Commonwealth Games in October 2010. The village is located on the remaining land adjacent to the Akshardham Temple complex; the latter was built on reclaimed land on the left bank of the River Yamuna through the construction of a new embankment, the Akshardham Bund, in 2002, without any environmental impact assessment at all. After the games, the residential zone has transformed into one of Delhi’s most expensive gated communities.

  • 21 Supreme Court of India, 30 July 2009, Civil Appeal Nos. 4866-67 OF 2009.

35After winning the bid for the Commonwealth Games in November 2003, Delhiites awaited the construction of the athletes’ village, but for years hardly anything happened. However, in 2003 itself, a closed-door decision was taken by the DDA (see HCL, 2011, p. 14f.) to locate the athletes’ village on a parcel of land on the riverbed that had already been envisaged for urban development in the river channelization schemes of the 1980s and 1990s. In order to provide a legal background for the project, the DDA had to change the land use from “agricultural and water body” to “public and semi-public” uses as well as “residential” and “commercial/hotel” in the Master Plan (HCL, 2011, p. 15). However, important agencies like the Yamuna Standing Committee (YSC), the Central Ground Water Authority (CGWA) and the Yamuna Removal of Encroachments Monitoring Committee were never informed by the DDA of this decision (HCL, 2011, p. 17f.). The DDA approached the Ministry of Environment and Forests for environmental clearance only in 2006. On 14 December 2006 the ministry cleared the project, on the condition that only temporary structures would be built. Furthermore, the Expert Appraisal Committee suggested an alternative site, since the committee feared negative impacts on the river. The DDA, however, was not willing to shift the location and commissioned a study by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) to affirm DDA’s stance that the site is no longer part of the floodplain. The reason given was that the Akshardham Bund demarcated the new boundary of the river’s floodplain in the area. After the final clearance from the ministry, which ultimately allowed the DDA to build permanent structures, in 2007 two PILs were filed in the High Court of Delhi by environmental NGOs challenging the construction of the Commonwealth Games Village. By overruling an earlier High Court order, the Supreme Court finally allowed the construction, in line with the DDA and NEERI affidavits that “the site in question is neither a floodplain; nor a riverbed”.21 In this case, the Supreme Court has therefore also simplified the complex nature of the ecology of the river to the existence of a man-made embankment. By doing so, the court avoided justifying its decision and bowed to the urgency and national prestige of the project, thereby rendering the petitioners’ well-researched arguments meaningless (Baviskar, 2011b, p. 51). In summary, it can be stated that the legality of the project has been established not on the basis of existing environmental legislation, but rather through the internal government logic of the world-class vision, thus putting enormous pressure on the courts and the ministry, which had to revise the environmental clearance three times. Nevertheless, the controversial discussion, coupled with the serious floods of 2010 and active contestation by environmental NGOs, resulted in the declaration of a no-development zone in 2007. Moreover, recent plans aim at creating a biodiversity zone along the river, focusing on environmental restoration and recreational spaces.

Figure 5

Figure 5

Watering the lawns of the Golden Jubilee Park, with the Old Railway Bridge in the background (17 February 2011)

Source: Photograph by author

36The no-development zone was proclaimed by Lieutenant Governor Tejendra Khanna in September 2007 after public outcry against the Commonwealth Games Village and the constitution of the so-called Yamuna Riverfront Development Authority (YRDA) by the prime minister the previous month. Based on this no-development moratorium, which was also confirmed by the lieutenant governor after the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the athletes’ village, and the recommendations of the YRDA, the DDA prepared a plan for a biodiversity zone along the river. The aim of the zone is to conserve, protect and restore the biodiversity of the river and create recreational spaces on the riverbed.

  • 22 Information based on interviews with farmers in the riverbed (2011).

37The Golden Jubilee Park, a 154-hectare riverfront park on the right bank of the River Yamuna, close to the Old Railway Bridge, is one of the first projects to be implemented (Figure 5). The development of the park draws upon Jagmohan’s earlier ideas to develop a riverfront promenade and tourist destination at this location. After the slums had been demolished, Jagmohan could not realize his vision and farmers took over the barren land. But again their fields and huts were destroyed by the DDA when the implantation of the park began in 2009, a move that was very similar to what they had experienced previously.22

38While developed under the biodiversity zone concept, the Golden Jubilee Park appears to be similar to other public recreational parks in Delhi, with extensive lawns, flower beds and wooden benches. Furthermore, the DDA plans to develop an amphitheatre, exhibition areas, a mythological park and a food plaza. Drawing on earlier ideas and riverfront parks across the world, the Golden Jubilee Park is therefore a perfect illustration of the middle-class-centred vision of a world-class riverfront, and again a new episode in the bourgeois environmentalism at this site. The notion of biodiversity is used here not as an ecological (scientific) concept, but rather as an aesthetic image, which is supported by the urban middle classes because it seems synonymous with the green and sustainable development of the riverfront. Due to its green labelling and promotion, it is very difficult for environmentalists and farmers to criticize developments under this initiative. Ongoing violations of the no-development moratorium by state agencies, on the other hand, underpin the fear among environmentalists that the biodiversity zone is meant only as a diversionary tactic by the state in order to further encroach upon the floodplain.


39The current state of the River Yamuna does not fit with the desired appearance of a clean and green urban environment. Baviskar (2011b, p. 46) rightly views the river as an “embarrassment” for a wannabe world-class city. For the majority of the people of Delhi, the river remains the neglected backyard of the city, but for the city’s planners it has become the new frontier of urban development, accommodating transportation infrastructure (roads, bridges, metro depots), high-end residential spaces and entertainment multiplexes as well as large recreational areas and riverfront parks. All these developments are closely linked to the city’s world-class aspirations. In particular, the poverty of the slums as well as the rural, backward image of farming in the heart of the city does not fit into this vision. Furthermore, the developments along the river in Delhi once again show the tendency to ignore known flood risks, as high development pressures demand that apparently “cheap” land in the floodplain be developed. Delhi might have had a fortunate escape from mass flooding, but given that the floods of 2010 were far from being a once-in-a-hundred-year flood event, it is very doubtful that the city’s embankments can protect the city against the forces of a mighty river, which is believed to be the sister of the God of death.

40By not acting on the real reasons for environmental degradation, and instead blaming the urban poor for the pollution of the river, the courts and the city’s managers are responsible for environmental injustice in its purest and most repulsive form. The distinctly anti-poor character of bourgeois environmentalism is deeply rooted in the ambitions to make Delhi a green and clean world-class city. However, the work of active environmental NGOs on the river has shown a very different kind of environmentalism – clearly distinguishable from the institutionalized bourgeois environmentalism of the state. Activists have joined forces with the farmers cultivating the riverbed, but as these environmental NGOs are predominantly middle class, they struggle to overcome the dichotomy between middle-class conservation activism and green politics for the poor. Therefore, the contestation around the riverbed in Delhi once again shows that “we cannot make any sweeping generalizations about the nature of middle class environmental activism in India” (Mawdsley, 2004, p. 90).

41Many challenges remain and the essential awareness needed to protect and restore the river’s sensitive ecosystem still seems to be missing among the public at large. Even if the goal of the recent biodiversity zone initiative is to bring nature back into the city and reconnect the city’s population with the river, efforts to clean up the river are still based on a technological-fix approach, drawing on rivers and cities elsewhere. Furthermore, the biodiversity zone again entertains the broader vision of reshaping the aesthetic imprint of the city as it makes its way to becoming world-class. Since the displacement of the urban poor and farmers from the river’s edge is followed by the development of riverfront parks, environmental injustice becomes spatially manifested through the flower beds, lawns and wooden benches overlooking the still foul-smelling drain called the Yamuna.


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1 I borrow the terms “hard-wiring” and “soft-wiring” from Truelove and Mawdsley (2011, p. 411–412). The “hard-wiring” of the city covers its transport, energy, waste, water and sanitation infrastructure, as well as its housing stock, retail sector and leisure spaces. The “soft-wiring”, by contrast, encompasses the underlying “taxation and finance regimes, planning and regulation, policing and security” (Truelove and Mawdsley, 2011, p. 412).

2 Figures vary by year, season and source. In March 2008, the total water resources of Delhi were 740 million gallons per day (MGD): 640 MGD from surface water (Yamuna 339 MGD, Ganges 171 MGD, Bhakra Storage 130 MGD) and 100 MGD from ground-water sources (Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi, 2011).

3 On the basis of the Delhi Development Act of 1957, the DDA has divided Delhi into 15 zones for which Zonal Developments Plans are prepared. Like the Master Plan, the Zonal Development Plans must be approved by the Ministry of Urban Development in order to become a legal planning document.

4 Information based on interviews with various stakeholders conducted by the author in Delhi (2010–2011).

5 This must be viewed in the context of the creation of the central Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) in 1985 and the implementation of the Environment Protection Act (EPA) in 1986.

6 The Indian BJP politician Jagmohan (Jag Mohan Malhotra) was already a major figure behind the slum demolitions during the Emergency Period (1975–77), serving as vice-chairman of the DDA. He was Union Cabinet Minister for Tourism and Culture from 2001 to 2004.

7 The term “jj-cluster” is also referred to as “jhuggi-jhompri”, “jhuggi jhonpri”, or “jhuggi jhopri”. In contrast, the commonly used term “slum” is used for settlements, which are classified as “slums” under the Slum Areas (Improvement and Clearance) Act of 1956. However, in Delhi, the last settlement was classified as a slum under this act in 1973 (Bhan, 2009, p. 131)

8 For a detailed description of the development of the settlements on the riverbanks, see Batra and Mehra (2008).

9 The Hindi term pushta means bund or embankment, but is also referred to as riverbank (Bhan, 2009, p. 127).

10 The number of families and affected people varies depending on the sources. Menon-Sen and Bhan (2008, p. 2) use the figures of “around 35,000 working-class families” and “more than 150,000 people”. All these numbers are rough estimates, since no official and undisputed numbers exist.

11 For a detailed description of the emergence of Public Interest Litigations (PILs) and its problems, see, inter alia, Rajamani (2007); Bhushan (2004).

12 Supreme Court of India, 1985, Olga Tellis v. Bombay Municipal Corporation.

13 High Court of Delhi, 3 March 2003, Wazirpur Bartan Nirmata Sangh v. Union of India and Others and Okhla Factory Owners’ Association v. Government of NCT of Delhi. See also Dutta (2009, p. 54f.) and Ghertner (2011a, p. 145f.).

14 The YSC was set up by the Central Water Commission in 1961 to oversee the safety of physical structures (bridges, embankments, etc.) along the River Yamuna in the case of floods (Misra, 2010, p. 81).

15 High Court of Delhi, 8 December 2005, WP(C) No. 2112/2002 and WP(C) No. 689/2004.

16 See, for instance, newspaper articles from this time: “DDA has grand plans for Yamuna banks”, Times of India, 16 July 2006, and “Years after proposal, Yamuna-Hindon link-up may finally happen”, Indian Express, 26 August 2006.

17 The minutes of the Yamuna Standing Committee have been accessed by the environmental NGO Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan (JYA) through the Right to Information (RTI) Act. The author is thankful to JYA for sharing the accessed minutes.

18 The DMRC was created as a joint venture between the Government of India and the Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi (GNCTD) in 1995.

19 In a forthcoming article I will outline the details of the environmental clearance processes of the DMRC’s projects and the Commonwealth Games Village. A detailed analysis would go beyond the scope of the discussion in this chapter.

20 The DMRC has been recognized as an emissions reduction project within the Clean Development Mechanism.

21 Supreme Court of India, 30 July 2009, Civil Appeal Nos. 4866-67 OF 2009.

22 Information based on interviews with farmers in the riverbed (2011).

Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1
Légende Yamuna floods in Delhi: Annual maximum water level at the Old Railway Bridge in metres above sea level (danger level: 204.84 m; warning level: 204.00 m; dry-season level: 202.00 m)
Crédits Source: Draft by author based on Irrigation & Flood Control Department (IFCD) data, Government of NCT of Delhi (New Delhi, 2013).
Fichier image/png, 32k
Titre Figure 2
Légende The Old Railway Bridge in the dry season (water level at around 202 m). The riverbed is used as parking space for cycle rickshaws serving the adjoining roads of Old Delhi (13 December 2009)
Crédits Source: Photograph by author
Fichier image/png, 393k
Titre Figure 3
Légende TV channels reporting from the Old Railway Bridge during the Yamuna floods of September 2010, only one day before the peak water level of 207.11 metres (21 September 2010)
Crédits Source: Photograph by author
Fichier image/png, 320k
Titre Figure 4
Légende The Master Plans of Delhi with perspectives for 1981, 2001 and 2021
Crédits Source: Delhi Development Authority (DDA)
Fichier image/png, 142k
Titre Figure 5
Légende Watering the lawns of the Golden Jubilee Park, with the Old Railway Bridge in the background (17 February 2011)
Crédits Source: Photograph by author
Fichier image/png, 345k


Institute of Geography, University of Cologne (Germany)

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