From activism to holism


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I write from my personal experience about the conservation activism to save the two natural features that define our city of Delhi – the Ridge forest and the river Yamuna and its flood plains. We worked on the ground, through the courts and on the knowledge base of these evolutionary natural resources. Some of this work can be found on our website

The pioneer effort started way back in 1995 when Vikram Soni with others led a campaign to stop a road through the ridge forests in Vasant Kunj. It stopped with an immediate court order. But the DDA did not relent; it came up with a project to build 13 five star hotels on this ridge forest lying between Mahipal Pur and Vasant Vihar. It was a long battle in the field and in courts, but a successful one. For the first time in Delhi such a big project was cancelled on environmental grounds and the entire area declared a protected ridge forest in 1997.

Again, we faced an onslaught in 2004 when land in this protected area was auctioned for the construction of Malls. This is when I joined Vikram Soni who had filed a case with the Centrally Empowered Committee or the Forest Bench of the Supreme Court. We organized Delhi’s singular environmental protest which was a human chain stretching two kilometres from Vasant Vihar to Vasant Kunj on Nelson Mandela Marg. We lost some but managed to save a significant part of this ridge forest. We saved 223 hectares of this pristine wilderness which is today known as the Aravalli Biodiversity Park.

At the end of the ridge campaign in 2007, without much reprieve, we found the Yamuna flood plains being encroached for building the ‘village’ for the Commonwealth Games that were held in Delhi in 2010. What followed was sustained activism – mobilizing residents, students, farmers, scientists, environmentalists, and even like-minded political leaders. At times some of us were taken into police custody for daring to protest. We ran a satyagraha at the site on the Yamuna flood plains for over three years, with satyagrahis drinking the flood plain water. Our spirits were kept alive by singing, bhajans with Kishori and the local farmers and songs by the Youth for Justice team.The latter group was led by a young man, Kapil Mishra, who is today the Water Minister in the Delhi Government.

All this while, there continued a parallel effort to develop sound research on the valuation of natural resources, and on how and why we should preserve them. The findings were published in reputed journals like Current Science and the Economic and Political Weekly. Based on this research on the flood plains, the Lt. Governor of Delhi declared a moratorium on further construction on the Yamuna flood plains to ensure their preservation for water recharge and biodiversity.


But like democracy, conservation is a troubled ideal and mostly does not work as it is usurped by greedy developers. For this we need both ‘conserve and use’ solutions that can give far greater economic benefit than any other use. With this in mind, Vikram Soni was developing a comprehensive perspective that combined science with natural wisdom which is beautifully articulated in his book, Naturally: Tread Softly on the Planet. Spanning the last decade we had long discussions on the field efforts, the campaigns, their results, the attitude of governments and courts and the underlying development model that is driving imbalanced growth. Soni developed ‘conserve and use’ as a guiding principle to deal with natural resources and ground level solutions for bringing a balance to our development model. His earlier work on water and the carrying capacity of Delhi brought into focus the limits to urban growth. It makes one aware as to why human habitations of an optimal size work better in terms of sustainability and with less invasive effect on living natural resources.

Finally, Soni taught a unique and exceptional course at Jamia Millia, ‘Science in the Public Interest: non-invasive solutions for the planet’, based on the preliminary manuscript of his book, ‘Naturally’, that integrated many elements of this matrix of life into a composite whole for a non-invasive scheme of living and production. The course brought together many graduate students from Delhi University, Jamia and the School of Planning and Architecture, professors, activists, architects and entrepreneurs drawing an amazing response for charting a course for the future.

I shall now draw on the book to highlight two original non-invasive solutions for city water: First, mineral water for cities from a local forest. A forest like the Delhi Ridge is an evolutionary resource created by nature. The Delhi Ridge is a forest sitting on a quartzite formation full of cracked pathways, the expression of two billion years of natural history. The rain falling on the forest picks up nutrients and minerals as it moves through the leaf cover on the ground and trickles down through the mineral rock to the bottom.


But then what is a mountain spring? The rain falls on a forest, soaks into the humus and travels down the earth, and enriched in minerals, finds an opening as a spring. The only difference in the water that collects at the bottom of our ridge is that it does not spurt out as a spring. If we collected the mineral water at the bottom of the ridge, we would have a perennial and local source of mineral water. We would have to be careful to preserve the resource by only taking out as much water as was replenished by the rain and no more. And so we have a local source of mineral water.

There is officially 80 sq km of ridge forest area in Delhi, with a recharge potential of over 30 per cent of the rainfall. Delhi’s average annual rainfall is 60 cm, which gives us an annual recharge potential for the whole ridge of 16 million cubic meters (mcm).

For a start, the Asola and Bhatti forest sanctuary is itself a protected ridge area of 29 sq km that can be elevated to a mineral water sanctuary. This can yield an annual recharge of over six million cubic meters (mcm) or six billion litres. The importance of the ridge lies in the fact that it provides us with mineral quality water. A person consumes between 2-3 litres of water a day, so it follows that the Asola Bhatti ridge forest could provide natural mineral water for 7-8 million people.


Let’s not forget the health benefits: mineral water carries all the nutrients, minerals and trace elements that the body needs. Processed or RO water may be safe but does not carry these health benefits. Ridge water has mineral water qualities that can hugely improve the health of city dwellers.

At one tenth the commercial (e.g. Himalayan mineral water) rate for a one litre mineral water bottle, Rs 5 per litre, this works out to about Rs 3000 crore a year from non-invasive use of a perennial resource. At commercial rates for processed water, Rs 12 per litre, it works out to somewhat more, Rs 7,000 crore. At commercial rates for Himalayan mineral water, Rs 45 per litre, it values at about Rs 27,000 crore a year.

This scheme is perennial and sustainable while being very low cost. It would cost less than Rs 100 crore for installation of bore-wells, a pipeline, an underground storage tank and a SCADA system, which will have sensors for all quality parameters and computerize all operations for optimal pumping to ensure quality and avoid overuse to maintain the health of the aquifer. And the water can be dispensed from Mother Dairy booths without the use of plastic bottles.

Imagine what this can do. If one wants mineral water for a city, all one has to do is find a forest wilderness area near the city and preserve it as a source for good water. Such a scheme will avoid huge carbon emissions from the transport of mineral water from the mountains and mountains of used plastic bottles. Here is the principle of local, non-invasive, ‘preserve and use’ for a living natural resource.

The Ridge Mineral Water Aquifer


Total area: 150 sq kms (only 77 sq kms notified; urgently need to notify the rest).

Recharge potential: @50% of rainfall (60 cm per year); it comes to 25 billion litres of pure quality water.

Economic value: Rs 5,000 crore per year at Rs 2 per litre.

Artificial water harvesting system

Aravalli fractured quartzite recharge and aquifer system

Let us now move on to flood plain aquifers for local, non-invasive and perennial water for cities. From being blessed, countries like India and China that had plenty of water 50 years ago now face terminal water stress. Not only have all the rivers of northern China been hit and polluted, the country has also gone on overdrive on groundwater. As a matter of fact, it may be heading for a bigger disaster in doing an unwise and unnatural long distance bulk transfer of water from the South to the North.Equally serious, India has unthinkingly pulled out most of its groundwater in the North-West and the Central-South in working its celebrated green revolution. The only way out is to find a new source of water and protect it with one’s life.


The river Yamuna has been flowing for millions of years, overrunning its banks during the monsoon, swollen with water and depositing sand on their flood plain. The Yamuna river flood plain in Delhi is a sandbank which is about five kilometres wide and on average about 50 metres deep and runs for a river length of 50 km in the NCT. Even after gravity compactification, it holds a lot of underground water – about 35%-40% of this volume is water. About one-third of this, about 12% of the total volume of the aquifer can be withdrawn – this is called the specific yield. Can we use this?

One may think that if we pull out this water from the flood plain, we will end up leaching out all the water. But, the flood plain is an extensive aquifer that runs the whole length of the river – over a thousand kilometres. If we take out the water locally for the city, the rest of the flood plain will recharge it by gravity, even when there is no rainfall recharge. This has been seen to be so from the hydrographs of the flood plain. Experiments on local withdrawal of water show that if there was no recharge from outside the local area of withdrawal, groundwater levels would have diminished by 10 metres whereas, actually, in the flood plain they diminish by only two metres. This shows that the flood plain is an exceptional and extended aquifer, where any withdrawal is compensated by gravity flow from a large surrounding area. And unlike other aquifers, the water supply from the flood plain wells never runs out. This is optimal natural underground storage with the advantage of no land (reservoir) and no evaporation losses as for surface storage.


But, there are clear limits on how much recharge can occur naturally. Ecology demands that we do not pull out more than the annual recharge. On carefully working out the natural recharge from rainfall (60 cm a year for Delhi) and flooding, we found that the withdrawal has to be considerably scaled down. Even so, for about 50 km of river length, this can take care of the water needs of almost three million people, 200-250 million cubic metres of water a year. It is non-invasive and perennial. It can be preserved and used every year – nature’s gift. As the recharge takes place from rainfall and flooding that comes late in the season, when the river has washed out the pollution, naturally filtered flood plain water is of drinking quality – unlike the polluted river water.

Sand and Water

Sand and gravel are great for water storage. Take an equal amount of dry river sand and water in two identical glasses and start pouring the water into the sand glass, watchfully. Half the water glass can empty into the sand. No surprise – sand and gravel are great for water storage; they are aquifer material.

It is a straightforward exercise to set an economic value for this water. The market value of tanker water in Delhi is Rs 1500 for 10,000 litres or 10 cubic meters. At tanker value, the recharge yield of the flood plain (200 mcm) works out to over Rs 3000 crore a year. Recycling the same volume of water for drinking works out to be much more. But even if we value the water at the subsidized rate of the Jal Board, it still works out to a fourth of the tanker value – about Rs 750 crore a year.


On the northern Palla flood plain of the Yamuna in Delhi, this scheme has finally become operational – though, inexplicably, the Delhi Jal Board has delayed its implementation by three years. The scheme is perennial and sustainable while being very low cost; an annual yield of 100 million cubic meters would cost about Rs 100 crore for installation of bore-wells, a pipeline and a SCADA system which will have sensors for all quality parameters and computerize all operations for optimal pumping. Is it not crazy to recycle water with more technology and dispense more waste in the environment, with costs of over Rs 3000 crore a year, rather than have a natural and perennial source of water that does the same practically for free? Such a creative scheme can be of immense value in hundreds of cities that have a river flowing through. Cities which have a population of less than three million, like Mathura, Agra, Allahabad and Benares, to name few, can source all their water from the flood plains. Delhi will need other sources as its population is very large.

The Hidden Treasure

As is eloquently recorded in the book, ‘Naturally’, such ‘preserve and use’ schemes are the guarantor for holding these natural resources that were created over millions of years, for future generations – something that has been regrettably absent from most human inventions in the last century.

Yet, despite all the efforts, the Yamuna continues to be polluted in Delhi and downstream. Equally, the ridge forests in Delhi continue to shrink. Why do the pristine forests of the country continue to deplete, the rivers dwindle and get more polluted, and aquifers more contaminated as their levels go down? The question remains.


Large cities are growing larger and in so doing trample their natural environment. The footprint of a city with huge per capita consumption goes far and wide. It turns out that a resident in a city consumes many times more per capita than a denizen of a typical rural village. The conscious effort of activists and governments cannot compete with the damage from unrelenting urban growth to the world’s natural environment. But the latter is little noticed, while the former applauded without understanding the limitations and pitfalls. An ostrich like view prevails. The conserve and use principle is nowhere in operation, except in some remote tribal areas; it is all destroy and use. We are still consuming and behaving like there is no tomorrow. A significant portion of our living planet has already gone extinct; the remaining is on a path of depletion in a runaway mode. The living planet with its varied species and ecosystems is the foundation of humanity. As it wanes off, so will the human civilization . Unfortunately, we cannot see this trend, except momentarily when it collapses all of a sudden.