Mushroom and strawberry farms dot North Delhi’s Sungarpur farms, and the lush green of the wheat crop is on its way to turning golden. Located less than 500 metres away from the Yamuna, this is one of Delhi’s more fertile areas. Clashing against one of the wheat fields is a short cement pillar known as a piezometer, an instrument used to measure groundwater. It was installed in 2019 by the Delhi government to assess the success of the Yamuna Reservoir Project, an effort to create large water bodies in the Yamuna floodplains lying in the 17-kilometre stretch between Palla and Wazirabad.
Executed in 2019, the government’s plan was to create reservoirs that would temporarily store floodwater during the monsoons; this would help groundwater recharge and meet Delhi’s demands for water. The first such pilot reservoir was excavated in Sungarpur.
“They [the Delhi government] came here with many bulldozers and razed the season’s standing crops to dig this reservoir,” says Narender Kumar, as he lightly bangs turmeric roots against each other to remove the mud clinging on. His fields are a short walk from the reservoir. The Delhi government leased local farmers’ private land to create this 17-acre reservoir, initially for a fee of ₹77,000 per acre per year. This amount increased by 7% each year. “Some farmers receive this money on time in their bank accounts, but few have had to run from pillar to post,” he adds. A part of the land that Kumar and about 15 families here cultivated together was also acquired for this reservoir project. “We are not allowed to use the water from the reservoir when it’s filled and we can’t farm in that area anymore. How is it of use to us?” he asks.
In 2021, after the reservoir filled up for a third monsoon in a row, the water levels measured by the piezometer rose by 2.5 metres, the highest recording in the last three years. Till 2020, the reservoir is estimated to have added over 4,000 million litres to the groundwater aquifers in the region. Riding on this success, the Delhi Government plans to scale the construction of these reservoirs over the years. But farmers, including Kumar, have questions about how these schemes might compromise their long-term farming productivity.
Who Gets Compensated for ‘Common’ Land?
Adjacent to the flowing Yamuna, a large excavated reservoir currently lies dry. “During the monsoon, when this reservoir filled up, water remained [in it] for only about 15 days,” says C.R. Babu, head of Delhi University’s Centre for Environmental Management of Degraded Ecosystems, and chairperson of the Delhi government’s Delhi Biodiversity Council. “Since the evaporation rate during the monsoons is very low, there is no doubt that the water percolated into the ground very quickly. Without the reservoir, it would not have increased that much.” An official from Delhi’s Irrigation and Flood Control Department (IFCD), who requested anonymity, adds numbers to Babu’s claims. “We installed 33 piezometers in the area, and on an average, we have seen a rise in groundwater by 0.5 to 2 metres,” he says. “The line of piezometers on the floodplain have shown a higher increase, while the one about 2 kilometres away show a smaller increase, which is natural. It will take time for the groundwater to increase further away.”
Farmers do not share the same excitement about this groundwater recharge. On the contrary, they have had difficulty harnessing said water. Since the National Green Tribunal’s 2019 order which banned farming on the Yamuna floodplains in Delhi, the electricity supply to many farmers’ pumps here was cut in periods throughout the year, preventing them from irrigating their fields. For Kumar, the last time such a powercut happened was about two months ago. On the other hand, a string of government pumps—one of which is just metres away from Kumar’s fields—constantly supply groundwater to meet the capital’s water demands.
This is not the only loss for Kumar. A portion of his farming land has also been compromised due to the reservoir. Hugging the reservoir is a raised platform built using excavated mud. A crane vehicle and cement frames for concretising roads to the reservoir also rest on this raised mud dump. Spanning about 10 acres, this is where Narendra Kumar and other farmers here earlier cultivated. “This is the common land of the village,” his brother Pradeep says. “Long ago, the [erstwhile] Sarpanch [village head] and people in our village had come to the consensus to let about 15 families use this land for cultivation.”
But when this land was acquired by the Delhi government for the reservoir project, no compensation was provided to those farming on the common land—afterall, this was “Gram Sabha” land, and not “private land” that could be compensated for as per the lease agreement. Even the project’s report only makes mention of offering compensation for private land, and remains silent in cases of gram sabha land.
I am not aware if this land received any compensation or not
—An official from Delhi’s Irrigation and Flood Control Department
Farmers here seldom make guesses. “Whatever compensation might have been given, it would have gone to the Block Development Officer (BDO), not to the farmers impacted,” says Adarsh Singh*, also a farmer from Sungarpur, as we discuss the matter over chai, only a few minutes away from the village’s fields of vegetables, mushrooms, strawberries, and flowers.
Singh is referring to the Gram Sabha Area Fund, a fund maintained by the BDOs of all districts in Delhi after Gram Sabhas in the capital were dissolved in 1990. At the time, Gram Sabhas had become dysfunctional since most villages were subsumed by municipalities who were doing the same work as a Panchayat Pradhan (or Chief of the Panchayat).
Sungarpur falls in the BDO for the North West district. An audit from 2013-16 showed dismal observations of the then Gram Sabha’s finances. Only three of 78 villages were able to show their passbooks during the audit—this means that they were not able to show an account of expenditure and incomes, and high amounts were withdrawn from the Area Fund without accounting for its utilisation. Amidst pre-existing irregularities in the district’s Gram Sabha’s finances, farmers are in the dark about compensation for the common lands. “We have not been told any details about it. It feels like acquiring that land and using it to only dump the mud is just a way to bring the Gram Sabha land under the government’s control,” Singh adds.
Putting a price on the loss of this common land, Pradeep says that, “by not being able to cultivate rice on that Gram Sabha land, we lose about ₹1 lakh [of potential earnings] per year.” Adding to this, Singh and Pradeep have another question about their farming in the long run—how productive will the land be when it is returned to them?
The Return of Unproductive Land
The pilot for the Yamuna Reservoir Project was envisioned to be spread over three years, with 2022 being its final leg. “Currently, our department is preparing a report compiling all the results of the pilot project, and we will soon be submitting this. After that, a call will be taken to decide if this project should be taken up further or not. If not, then the land will be returned to the farmers,” IFCD official says.
With the possibility of the land’s return on the horizon, Singh shares farmers’ apprehensions on their land currently leased. “Once dug up, the land loses its fertility, since the topsoil has been excavated,” he says. “Banjar ho jati hai jameen [the land becomes infertile]. It will take us years to make it productive for agriculture again.”
The agreement, accessed by The Bastion states that upon termination of the agreement, the government will return the land “after restoration of the same to the extent possible.” Singh however mentions that most farmers are not aware of this condition in the agreement. Language could perhaps have been a barrier— the lease is written and signed in English, a language many are not familiar with and would have needed a translation. Additionally, the words “to the extent possible” do not instil too much confidence.
Instead of a lease, farmers here have an alternate suggestion. “We are okay with our land being acquired for fair compensation, rather than leasing it out under this system. With the lease, we will only get back damaged lands [from the government],” says Narendar Kumar, who now prepares to spray his fields with fertiliser. Singh adds, “I hope in this case, the government extends some financial support to compensate for the time and inputs that will be needed to make our fields productive again.”
Walking along the edge of the reservoir shows its depth to be about 1.5 metres. “It was even deeper in 2019, but with the monsoon flooding, silt has accumulated here and no desilting has occurred in the last three years,” says Vivek Pratap, a resident of Sungarpur who showed me around the village. After shadowing him for the day, I noticed that Pratap wears many hats—those of a sports coach, an environmentalist, and an entrepreneur who is beginning to facilitate women Self-Help Groups from the village to create Ayurvedic products. He is also a member of Jeevan Surabhi Pratishthan, a collective of youth from 18 of Delhi’s villages near the Yamuna, who have been active since 2010, but registered officially as an NGO earlier this year. They have been involved in promoting traditional sports, coaching students and helping farmers increase farmers’ income through diversifying livelihoods.
“In our meetings [of Jeevan Surabhi Pratishthan] and those with officials, farmers suggest that if the purpose is to increase groundwater percolation and regulate flooding, then instead of building small reservoirs along the floodplain, a barrage similar to the one in Wazirabad can be made. That way, in the summer months too, water can be stored here instead of letting the river bed almost dry up,” Pratap says. He is referring to North Delhi’s Wazirabad barrage, about 20 kilometres away, which since its construction in 1959 has been regulating the Yamuna during the peak of the monsoon. Last year, talks were on to renew it by strengthening the construction and reducing the response time of its flood gates, so that it could hold more water during the non-monsoon season leading to more percolation and water recharge throughout the year—these are the same functions of the reservoir.
“Although it’s showing success, one of the biggest challenges to the Yamuna Reservoir Project is that farmers are currently unhappy with it,” says ecologist Babu. As the project scales up elsewhere along the floodplain, he refers to more such challenges that ought to be addressed.
Scaling Up With Caution
“Before expanding the Project to all parts of a city, more careful observations need to be made,” Babu says. “The original flora and fauna of the floodplain and the ecology will be altered with the creation of more reservoirs like these. Currently, the floodplains allow for smooth flow of floodwater. Multiple reservoirs like these will cause the water to resist the flow, increasing the water level of the river. The waters will breach into surrounding areas during the monsoons. The concrete results of this project and understanding its technicalities—like the absorption rate of the floodwater—need to be looked at carefully, for these will vary from site to site.”
Instead of marring the floodplain’s geography and ecology, C.R. Babu suggests storing this floodwater through “off-river” reservoirs—or water storage bodies outside of the floodplain—which could be supplied flood water through smaller channels.
On the day of the field visit, just like Narender and Pradeep’s, all the other fields here up till the Yamuna were dotted with men and women bent down weeding, harvesting, and spraying their fields. On these fields are also the flag bearers of the city’s electricity demands—transmission lines pass over acres of his land. These, along with the government tubewells, the power cuts for private tubewells, or the reservoir, such ‘developments’ distance the farmers from the lands they have cultivated for generations. As Delhi moves to make Yamuna floodplains home to more such reservoirs, it must be reiterated that they are also home to similar farms and common lands all along Yamuna in Delhi, and the ecological and social challenges that the pilot project have thrown up must be acknowledged.
Featured image by Vaishnavi Rathore