A waterbody board has been fixed outside a pond that has been converted into a park, Shahbad Mohammadpur. Photo: Flavia Lopes
New Delhi: Shahbad Mohammadpur, a village located in Delhi close to its international airport, has two ponds, called johad by local residents. Outside one pond, a board says “Delhi Development Authority Waterbody”. But when you look beyond the board, there is a levelled surface where children play while some older people socialise on park benches. The other pond in the village is dry and wears an abandoned look.
The two ponds are among 61 water bodies in Delhi officially described by a 2014 Delhi government survey as “legally built up” – meaning they have been filled and encroached by the government itself, in this case by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), a Central government agency that owns public land in Delhi. The survey also found that 40 water bodies were “untraceable”.
“A lot of places will have these boards intact but no waterbody to be found,” says Paras Tyagi, founder of Centre for Youth Culture Law and Environment (CYCLE), a non-profit in Delhi.
In 2020, Tyagi’s team inspected 1,009 water bodies in Delhi and found that 302 had been partially or completely encroached by the government agencies and private individuals. Another 100 were contaminated by sewage and garbage, and 345 were dry.
Water bodies like lakes and ponds are an essential part of the city landscape and ecosystem. They absorb flood water, store water for dry months, replenish groundwater, enhance the water quality and support biodiverse habitats.
Data of ongoing land conflicts collected by Land Conflict Watch shows that water bodies across India are shrinking as they are filled up and put to other use by individuals and governments alike. There are examples in Uttar Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Telangana, Kerala, Karnataka and Gujarat. Uttar Pradesh’s capital Lucknow itself has over 10 reported instances of encroachment over village ponds and lakes by private individuals and the Lucknow Development Authority, a state government agency (see here, here and here).
Such encroachment takes place despite laws and court orders in place to preserve water bodies which are necessary to preserve water and avoid scarcity in the future.
The Delhi government is currently implementing its ‘City of Lakes’ project to revive water bodies and build new ones. The Delhi Wetlands Authority has proposed a similar plan.
But research into these plans and interviews with officials responsible shows that there is no coordination between them, and they don’t plan to revive water bodies that have been encroached.
The johad of Shahbad Mohammadpur
As children in the early 1990s, Vipin and Parveen Lamba, neighbours of Shahbad Mohammadpur, would visit the pond with their cattle. “There were mounds of soil surrounding the pond from where they take a dive into the pond,” Parveen, now in his 30s, recalls. The pond was deep, around 30 feet at the centre.
When it rained, water from the Aravalli hill range near Mahipalpur flowed down to the plains and into the ponds of Shahbad Mohammadpur. As a result, the groundwater remained recharged and the water could be found by digging only 30-40 feet.
Then, around 2006, trucks rolled into the village and filled the pond with debris, several eyewitnesses said. This was when the Delhi airport’s terminal 3 was being built, and the villagers suspected the debris was from the airport’s construction. The DDA didn’t stop the dumping, and eventually filled in the pond completely and erected a park on top. The other pond was left bereft of water.
“We tried to file complaints, but a few villagers said the village doesn’t have a park, so let it go,” says Vipin. After terminal 3 came up, the residents saw that the village roads flooded when it rained and there was no way to divert the water or store it. “The airport created its own drains to divert the water, and the flood water in the village would stagnate for days,” Vipin adds.
In 2012, Vipin Lamba organised over 200 villagers to join a collective called People for Development and Progress to protect the water bodies and other commons of his village. They held several protests on flooding in the village. But over the years the collective has fizzled out, although his enthusiasm to save the water bodies remains.
Today, the water level is so low that the village borewells barely find any water underground. In fact, were it not for water from the Delhi Jal board, the village wouldn’t exist today.
“It’s not that they don’t know about it,” says Vipin, referring to DDA’s encroachment of its own water body. In February 2021, a DDA team came to inspect both sites, he says. “Nobody knows why they come or what they do with the information collected.”
Ravinder Kumar, nodal officer for water bodies under the DDA’s jurisdiction, declined to comment saying he isn’t authorised to speak about it. An email to DDA’s public relations department didn’t elicit a response either.
A problem everywhere
Land Conflict Watch data indicates several instances of waterbody encroachments across India. Kanwar Lake, Asia’s largest freshwater oxbow lake, in Bihar has shrunk thanks to encroachment by illegal farming and other use.
The problem is acute in cities. Deepor beel, a freshwater lake in Guwahati spread over 4,000 hectares, has shrunk to 500 ha after a public school encroached on it. The Uttar Pradesh government’s Lucknow Development Authority launched an apartment housing schemes in the city that local residents said was in a pond under the control of the local gram sabha.
According to a recent report in Down To Earth, of the 262 water bodies in Bengaluru, only 10 hold water. In Ahmedabad, 65 of the 137 lakes are getting built up. Hyderabad has lost around 3,000 ha of wetland in the last 12 years to encroachment. The Pallikaranai marshland in Chennai is another example of encroachment by the government: once a bird sanctuary, it is today a giant dumping yard.
In Delhi, a number of cases have been brought before courts about the encroachment of water bodies. A PIL filed in the Delhi high court in 2000 highlighted that there was no data on Delhi’s water bodies until then. That year, the Delhi government passed an order saying “no pond under the jurisdiction of NCT Delhi should be filled up/reclaimed by a person/ organisation/ land owning agency.” In the PIL, the court ordered two surveys to determine the number of water bodies in the city. One survey found 500 water bodies and the other found 900.
In 2011, Delhi’s chief secretary tasked the government’s Parks and Garden Society with mapping and demarcating the area of waterbodies, and classifying them into categories: ‘under-developed’, ‘missing’, ‘dry’, ‘encroached’ and/or ‘legally built up’. The society submitted its report in 2014: the city had 1,009 water bodies, and this remains the most reliable list of waterbodies in Delhi. The society had found that the DDA’s Sheikh Sarai housing enclave in South Delhi had been built entirely on a lake.
In 2013, in response to a petition filed by the Residents’ Welfare Association of Ekta enclave regarding encroachment of water bodies of the urban villages of Delhi, the city high court held that district administrators are empowered to evict encroachments on water bodies according to the Supreme Court’s judgement in Jagpal Singh from January 2011.
In a separate case in 2016, Diwan Singh, an activist from Dwarka, petitioned the National Green Tribunal to remove encroachments and revive 33 water bodies in Dwarka. He said in the petition that “the area faces a grave water scarcity and therefore identification and protection of water bodies is the need of an hour.”
Similarly, in July 2017, the National Green Tribunal ordered the Delhi government to restore all water bodies in the city. And taking exception to non-compliance of its previous order, the body also asked the Delhi government to explain why silt, sand and other debris hadn’t been removed from a lake despite its directions.
“Diwan Singh judgement was a comprehensive judgement where the court detailed how the water bodies should be maintained, and gave directives,” Rahul Choudhary, an environmental lawyer at the non-profit Legal Initiative for Forests and Environment and who represented the matter, says.
“The court has been constantly pulling the authorities for action, but none of the agencies seems serious about it,” Diwan Singh said in a phone interview. “There was no action taken.”
In 2017, Singh filed a ‘contempt of court’ case against the DDA for ignoring the directions of Delhi’s Department of Environment. The court constituted a committee to monitor the progress.
Choudhary says that earlier, the tribunal would pass orders and they could be executed right away. “Now the court is constituting committees to give orders, but the committees still do not have powers the way a direct order by the tribunal has.”
In 2019, the Delhi government formed its wetland authority under the Wetland (Conservation and Management) Rules 2017, following directions by the National Green Tribunal in a case about encroachments over the Tikri Khurd lake in Narela. “NCR is losing its water bodies, which may have serious implications on groundwater recharge,” the tribunal observed in its order.
The authority has executive powers under the Environment (Protection) Act 1986, including recommending prohibited activities for specific wetlands, defining strategies to conserve wetlands and undertaking measures to increase awareness of the function of wetlands within local communities.
The wetland authority added to the long list of agencies in charge of water bodies. DDA, Delhi municipal corporation and the Block Development Officer own the land under the water bodies. The Delhi Jal Board and the Irrigation and Flood Control Department can implement programmes to revive waterbodies. The Wetland Authority is a regulator.
The regulatory and implementing agencies don’t have powers to remove encroachments; only land-owning agencies can do that. The Jal Board is “helpless” when it comes to saving water bodies that are encroached by private individuals or the government, said Ankit Srivastav, advisor to the board’s chairman and consultant for the ‘City of Lakes’ project. The project was launched in 2018 to revive 155 lakes and ponds in Delhi, but Srivastav says the project covers only those water bodies that aren’t encroached.
“We can’t do anything about the rest that are encroached, missing or legally built-up.” That would include the johad of Shahbad Mohammadpur.
The 2017 Wetland Rules gave teeth to the government, says K.S. Jayachandran, member secretary of the Wetland Authority of Delhi and CEO of the Delhi Parks and Gardens Society. “Previously, there was no institutional mechanism. The Delhi parks and garden society was declared as a nodal point to rejuvenate water bodies, but it had no power as such.”
“The 2017 wetland rules have given a lot more powers to do anything substantial,” he continued. “The wetland authority can pass directions to land-owning agencies to remove the encroachment, whether private or legal.”
However, he added that the wetland authority continues to have no powers to remove encroachments from water bodies on its own, and can only issue directions or authorise action plans to revive water bodies.
In January 2021, the authority submitted a plan to save 278 water bodies. However, it was found that many of these bodies could overlap with the lakes to be revived by the ‘City of Lakes project’.
As it turns out, the board and the Wetland Authority were unaware of each other’s plans.
“The Delhi Jal Board hasn’t given us the list of the 155 water bodies,” Jayachandran said. “So we are not sure if water bodies overlap.”
Srivastav, the Delhi Jal Board consultant for the ‘City of Lakes’ project, said, “We haven’t seen the wetland authority list and we aren’t aware of the wetland authority’s plans.” The board, according to Srivastav, has chosen only those water bodies that fall in Delhi’s jurisdiction.
Water bodies are to recharge groundwater, something cities like Delhi need to do, said C.R. Babu, a professor at Delhi University’s School for Environment Studies. “The government is very keen to revive water bodies now because that is the only way to augment water in Delhi. There is no other way,” he said.
“But while they are trying to revive some water bodies like Sanjay lake, there are several places where encroachment is going on simultaneously, like the Bhalswa lake. Some of the wetlands have similarly been used for heavy construction. Once a waterbody is encroached, it is very difficult to revive it, and this is how we are losing them.”
The government appears to be giving up on reviving water bodies and is instead building new ones. On March 9, 2021, the Delhi Jal board inaugurated a new pond over a seven-acre patch of land in Dwarka’s Sector 16. An official from the Delhi Jal Board said, “This lake is scientifically designed to carry out high-rate recharging of groundwater. More than 50 lakh litres of water have been released daily into the lake for the last three months, which is recharging the groundwater.”
“These are artificial and unsustainable ways of creating water bodies where a wetland hasn’t been identified,” says Tyagi, of CYCLE. “It’s merely a way to show ‘we are doing something’.”
Flavia Lopes is an independent journalist. She conducted research for this article as a fellow with Land Conflict Watch, an independent network of researchers studying land conflicts, climate change and natural resource governance in India.