With its 16.7 million inhabitants, the Indian capital of Delhi may be the country’s second largest city in terms of population, but in area, it is India’s largest city. Nevertheless, rapid urbanization has crowded the city and expanded its boundaries outward to incorporate surrounding satellite cities, bringing the total population of the National Capital Region (NCR) to over 22 million residents. The NCR faces the typical problems of South Asia’s large metropolises: too many people sharing limited services in an increasingly polluted space.
Traffic congestion and inadequate sanitation has made Delhi a progressively polluted city. In 1985, 60% of traffic flow consisted of cyclists, but today, that rate hovers at 4%. Traffic congestion has become a nightmare with the city’s over six million cars, and every day seeing an additional 1,100 vehicles on the road. With such a high vehicular rate, there is high pollution, as well as an associated mortality rate where near 2,000 pedestrians, mostly children, die every year on Delhi’s roads. The city is also an example of the extent of urban India’s sanitation challenge: sewage systems are poorly designed with 50% of sewage coming into sewers by “illegal” means – from informal settlements and slum communities.
The Historic Nullahs
Given the infrastructural challenges the capital city faces, it is then surprising to learn that its cityscape contains unused land with vast potential. Delhi has over 350 kilometers of natural storm water drains, called nullahs, crisscrossing the city. These embankments are lined with trees and greenery. Over 700 years ago, the ruling Tughlaq dynasty built an extensive rainwater drainage system that includes 18 major passageways and 15,000 sub-branches, emptying into the Yamuna River. Unfortunately in present times, the nullahs are used for untreated sewage, becoming hazardous to public health and the environment.
In the past, the government has proposed covering the nullahs with concrete slabs (especially in preparation for the 2010 Commonwealth Games), cutting down surrounding trees and installing large sewage treatment plants on the Yamuna River. This is not really a solution though: it hides the problem, but does not resolve it. Sewage would still be allowed to freely flow into the nullahs throughout the city before reaching the Yamuna. In 2009, this proposed solution was valued at INR1,500 crore (~US$286m).
A Sustainable Urban Blueprint
Besides the government’s ineffective proposal, there are other, more innovative ideas on how to transform the nullah network. In 2009, Morphogenesis — a New Delhi-based global architecture firm “bridging the boundaries of architecture and environmental design” — launched an initiative to revitalize Delhi’s nullahs. Architect and urban planner Manit Rastogi, Managing Director at Morphogenesis, is the mastermind behind the project. “Delhi needs to wake up and take citizen action. Its residents need to demand and claim what is theirs. The national capital should be a worthy template for the rest of urban India,” he wrote in a 2009 Times of India article.
The premise of the Delhi Nullahs Project depends on two parts: treating the sewage that enters the nullah network, and creating walkways and bicycle paths. Rastogi believes that revitalizing the nullahs will have long-lasting cultural, environmental, health and transport benefits, such as: improving public health; restoring “ancient” aquifers by using small-scale equipment to treat sewage at-source with the help of cleansing organic compounds (e.g., algae, weeds); boosting sports and tourist activities; and easing Delhi’s notorious traffic congestion by encouraging commuters to walk or cycle along the reformed waterways. If the full-scale project is given the green light, it would cost INR1,000 crore (US$214m) over three years – much cheaper than the INR1,500 crore price-tag of building new sewage treatment plants.
Rastogi’s vision for Delhi’s nullahs may be a novel concept for India, but it is not a new one in the international arena. In Asia alone, the cities of Fuzhou and Seoul have successfully experimented with reviving drain networks into usable urban spaces. “In Seoul, an entire stretch of road was ripped away to facilitate the regeneration of a drain,” described Anupam Yog, Managing Director of international consultancy Mirabilis Advisory.
Urban land use has become a highly politicized issue in South Asia, and Delhi is no exception. As explained by Rastogi, the Delhi Nullahs Project seeks to “exploit the hidden potential of these supposed wastelands.” Small interventions throughout the city could effectively convert and update current spaces. The point of the “urban landscape intervention” is to create three new, alternative city networks: a transport network, an environmental network and a cultural network. A renewed transport network involves creating user-friendly pedestrian and bicycle pathways along the 350-kilometer nullah stretch. Such pathways would provide last mile connectivity to public transportation services, decreasing both traffic congestion and pollution if access to such services were made more convenient. The environmental network would use an inexpensive method to treat sewage that enters the nullahs by using aerators and organic reedbeds. This would replenish aquifers and improve public health. In addition, there would be no need to build the expensive sewage plants to treat waste coming from the nullah network, as proposed by the government. Lastly, since most of Delhi’s archaeological sites and cultural venues are situated near the nullah network, integrating the revived nullahs with the existing transportation system would help boost tourism and other urban activities.
The Delhi Nullahs Project is not the first proposal regarding the revival of the nullah network and to clean the Yamuna River. There have been attempts to do so over the last 25 years, but it is not a priority for the seemingly shortsighted government. “This has to be seen as an opportunity to seek a long-term solution that uses traditional technology embedded in the city for centuries,” Yog has said. “We have been using outmoded methods for too long.”
The Nullahs Today: What Happened?
In 2009, Morphogenesis pitched the Delhi Nullahs Project to the city’s authorities, and the Delhi government approved. Rastogi had the support of 69 fellow architects for the project mission. The Lieutenant-Governor of Delhi asked Morphogenesis to launch three pilot projects along the nullahs with estimated completion by the end of 2010. Rastogi identified the pilot sites, but the implementation of the project stopped there. The government did not follow-up on project implementation, bringing Rastogi’s vision to a grinding halt.
Even though the government gave the green light to three pilot schemes, it was overall bad timing. The capital city was gearing up for the 2010 Commonwealth Games: all major resources and energy were being directed into efforts to ensure the Games were successful and that Delhi shone in the international spotlight. For this reason, the pilots of the Delhi Nullahs Project did not move forward. And even now, a couple of years after the lackluster Games, the government does not seem to have any plans to make the Delhi nullahs a priority on its docket. This does not mean that the project is shutdown completely; Morphogenesis continues to do research on the nullahs and speculates that until government buy-in and funding are more robust, the project will be on hold.
According to Morphogenesis, it took over one year of negotiating with the government to see value in the project. Part of this process was convincing the government of why merely covering the nullahs with concrete slabs was not a sustainable solution. Environmental and health concerns would still remain even with the covered up nullahs. One positive outcome and triumph for Morphogenesis and the city of Delhi, then, is that the government was convinced of the high negative costs of slabbing and the practice is no longer allowed.
Where 2009-2010 had forward-looking stories regarding the revival of the nullahs, today’s media coverage is very limited. The most recent reports show that a negative externality of urbanization is the potential extinction of Delhi’s water bodies. An irrigation department official recently said about Delhi: “The drains which carried rainwater to [water table ponds] have been blocked due to encroachment [by informal settlements and slum communities]. Buildings have come up on nullahs and all natural drains have been blocked.”
Questions about Inclusive Planning
Though the future of the Delhi Nullahs Project is unknown, the initiative is an important lesson in developing “a sustainable model for Indian cities centered around its citizens.” Reviving the nullahs would have positive effects for all of Delhi’s residents, including the poor. Neglected, polluted areas of cities often become the homesteads for the most marginalized denizens. As both the country capital and largest city in northern India, Delhi sees thousands of rural-to-urban migrants each year. These migrants are forced to live in informal settlements or slum communities if they wish to capitalize on urban economics.
One significant by-product of the Morphogenesis project is the proposed improvement in overall public health. The urban poor living by the nullah network become primary targets of disease stemming from unclean water and inadequate sanitation. There are numerous other benefits, as outlined in this article, but there is a critical, unanswered question. Assumedly, if the Delhi Nullahs Project – or its like – were to be implemented, how would the result affect the cost of living? If the nullah network revival is successful, for instance, areas alongside the drains would become much more attractive. Would the urban poor be able to reside along the nullah network affordably, or would they be pushed out to other, less developed areas?
Delhi’s nullahs are just one example of a larger problem regarding space and social exclusion. The modern problems of urbanization are without precedent in India and require creative solutions. The government seems to be waking up to this fact: in 2011, for example, New Delhi’s government asked architects and universities to design city wards “keeping in view the needs of their residents.” This is an interesting way to approach future challenges, but still, a key question remains. Can India’s urban planning practices be more inclusive of its most marginalized peoples? If innovative projects are proposed and allowed to be implemented, the answer to this question would become clearer, no doubt spurring further debate and ideation on how to make India’s, and the world’s, major cities more inclusive despite the challenges of urbanization.