Author: Gunraagh Singh Talwar
Editors: Soumya Singhal and Riya Singh Rathore
Water Seekers’ Fellow 2021 – SPRF India and Living Waters Museum
In the North of Delhi is one of its largest water bodies in the form of a horseshoe lake. However, the lake today has little resemblance to its former glory, having shrunk by 58%. What was once a thriving wetland ecosystem is now a polluted water body “fighting for existence” (Kumar 2019).
Being far-flung from its development centres and home to a dumpsite, Bhalswa had little presence in the city. The horseshoe lake gave Bhalswa new vigour in 1991-1992, with the union sports ministry opening it up for water sports (Kumar 2019). A popular site for tourism, the lake’s western bank was developed as a lakefront with public amenities and a boat club.
A decade later, the Delhi Development Authority took the initiative to develop the lake’s eastern front further. While preliminary ideas involved the redevelopment of the lakefront and creating a public park and resort bordering it, pressure from the then Lieutenant Governor, Tejendra Khanna, led to the development of the Bhalswa Golf Course (Munshi 2014). However, the three-turned-nine-hole golf course had little appeal to its context. The surrounding areas of Bhalswa, Jahangirpuri, and Burari do not produce many golfers. At the same time, players in the south of the city find it too far to have any appeal (Munshi 2014). The report also elucidated on residents complaining about perennial water scarcity while the golf course has water pumped in for regular maintenance of its green cover. The existence of the golf course to cater to the elite few is a remark on the prevalent inequity in the city’s planning systems and zoning. Of late, the development authority has appointed Gold Design India to extend the course and tabled its conversion into open public parks (Humphreys 2020).
Public space development has been limited to the lake’s eastern front. However, incoming pollution from the western front and dense formal and informal settlements of Bhalswa have led to the dismal state of the lake’s waters and ecologies.
Bhalswa lakefrontA closer understanding of the area’s hydrology provides insight on leachate-rich water percolating from the dumpsite to flow along with existing settlements and finally into the lake. The lake, as a reservoir, also acts as Bhalswa’s waste sink. The answer to this contaminated water is in the only existing infrastructure – through drains and streets. In the process, the toxic water mixes with faecal matter, solid wastes, and ultimately dung from Bhalswa dairy. Eventually, nitrate-rich waste and stormwater reach the lake’s western front, contributing to a loss of biodiversity.
This study highlights several pain points along the landscape in response to why this waste is not being managed. First, the lack of a water separation layer at the dumpsite leads to the overall contamination of any rainwater. Leachate contaminated rainwater moves through the dumpsite’s boundary wall into Bhalswa’s stormwater drainage.
Moreover, in the absence of waste management and sewage networks for most informal settlements, solid wastes, including household waste and faecal matter, end up in the drains. Public sensitisation towards proper waste disposal begs credibility when the population is subject to living by a dumpsite. Nevertheless, infrastructure provision is the one stop-gap solution to the concern. Since the settlements’ unplanned and organic nature may not allow for regular infrastructure provisions, the adoption of decentralised faecal sludge and septage management systems [FSSMs] is recommended (Bassi 2021).
At the Bhalswa dairy farms, with no facility for proper disposal of cow dung, the dung ends up in the drains. The National Green Tribunal, in its sanctions, has often penalised dairy farmers for allegedly polluting the lake. This begs the question: should the dairy workers be fined, or should alternative methods be recommended as compensatory frameworks until needed infrastructure is developed?
Dung from the dairy farms can be purchased and deployed into dung-to-log machines, producing an upcycled product with considerable economic value. These can also be carried out in cooperative arrangements with the communities, endowing waste-management sensitisation and supporting local economies. Long-term solutions include developing biogas plants to cater to untapped solid waste. Still, though approved in 2018, they are nowhere to be seen even in the development phase (Singh 2019).
Finally, waste-laden water is dumped directly into lake water at the lake’s west end with waste management infrastructure. This interface, although sensitive, has the potential to be a vibrant public space much like its eastern counterpart. By designing the waterfront and not fencing it off, a significant edge of the lake can be activated. This, in turn, can dignify living for resident communities and serve as much-needed public spaces. A future lakefront on the west finds itself at the intersection of infrastructure development, public space creation, and mobility planning. The three elements together provide an opportunity for a quintessential urban insert.
A larger part of the lake is teeming with life during festive seasons. The lake edges experience great footfall during Durga and Ganesh visarjan, making the lake susceptible to further incidental pollution. Herein, careful planning carried out for the 2021 Chhath Puja (HT Correspondent 2021) is an excellent precedent to action. Not only did the administration curate spaces for the experience, but it also assumed cleaning responsibilities post-event. This proactive planning resulted in the event not contributing to significant waste at the riverfront.
In addressing the state of the lake’s supporting ecosystems and biodiversity, the lakefronts show a substantial decrease in surrounding green cover and plantation, especially during the development of the Bhalswa golf course. Today, despite severe pollution levels and interference from all directions, the lake is still a haven for several species of migratory birds. This is a significant sign of the potential of its rejuvenation. While the Bhalswa lake may seem disconnected from the surrounding supplementary drain, its northern edge is integrated into the drain through a network of smaller drains. If rejuvenation is in order, an understanding of the extent of this connection is also in order.
While today, the Bhalswa lake may be edging towards destruction, a holistic understanding can show a path towards the lake’s rejuvenation. Recent policy considerations of the lake’s notification amongst the city’s wetlands with prohibitions on surrounding development show promise but must also create a dialogue with ongoing infrastructural development. Herein, they risk being isolated policies pertaining to only the lake, where what might be required is the consideration of the ecosystem at large.
Bassi, Drishti. (2021). “Resolving India’s sanitation issues with decentralized solutions”. Times of India, 21 December 2021. Accessed 03 February 2021 https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/voices/resolving-indias-sanitation-issues-with-decentralized-solutions/.
HT Correspondent. (2021). “Delhi: AAP MLAs to oversee arrangements for Chhath at 800 temporary venues”. Hindustan Times, 10 November 2021. Accessed 03 February 2021, https://www.hindustantimes.com/cities/delhi-news/delhiaapmlas-to-oversee-arrangements-for-chhath-at-800-temporary-venues-101636467547532.html.
Humphreys, Richard. (2020). “Delhi Development Authority appoints GDI to extend Bhalswa course”. Golf Course Architecture, 18 June 2020. Accessed 03 February 2022, https://www.golfcoursearchitecture.net/content/delhi-development-authority-appoints-gdi-to-extend-bhalswa-course.
Kumar, Ajay. (2019). “Delhi’s Bhalswa lake, once famous for water sports, fighting for existence”. India Today, 18 November 2019. Accessed 3 February 2022, https://www.indiatoday.in/mail-today/story/delhi-bhalswa-lake-fighting-for-existence-1619928-2019-11-18.
Munshi, Sahas. (2014) “People to decide golf course fate.” Times of India, 1 June 2014. Accessed 22 February 2022, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/delhi/people-to-decide-golf-course-fate/articleshow/35859766.cms.
Singh, Paras. (2019). “Delhi: Citizens take up cudgels for dying Bhalswa Lake” Times of India, 14 October 2019. Accessed 22 February 2022, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/delhi/citizens-take-up-cudgels-for-dying-bhalswa-lake/articleshow/71571542.cms.