What should one do when one stumbles across an innovative urban design idea that is almost lyrical in its simplicity and ingenuity, fulfills a city’s most compelling needs, adds to its aesthetics, helps ease traffic congestion, sewage and water problems, reduces disease, has unanimous public support and vast potential for global funding, yet hasn’t moved from the drawing board or received a single approval from any government department?
This isn’t a hypothetical question. A proposal to organically clean-up and transform the city’s 350 km of storm water drains — or nullahs — into a network of arterial water routes and landscaped passages for Delhi’s pedestrians and cyclists has been floating around since 2007, when it was first created by architecture and design company Morphogenesis.
Instead of the city’s sludge flushing out into the Yamuna and being chemically treated by a Rs 1,500-crore wastewater treatment plant, Morphogenesis’s Manit Rastogi proposed alternative bio-remedial measures at source that allow nature to sanitise gray water before it enters the Yamuna. (www.delhinullahs.org)
He proposed re-integrating existing storm water drains — originally constructed as interconnected drainage channels by the Tughlaks 700 years ago, but no better than sewers today — and converting them into flowing streamlets, lush with anaerobic plants and mosquito larvae-eating fish. This will beautify and sanitise the city as well as naturally harvest rainwater from seasonal runoff, recharging groundwater.
More importantly, by opening up land for walking and cycling routes and connecting these to public transport and cultural monuments, this simple, systemic solution will allow citizens to reclaim their city from within, creating pleasing public spaces that aren’t merely decorative. And at a cost 33 per cent lower than the Yamuna chemical treatment plant.
“I’m a firm believer that strategic intervention through design can change people’s civic sense,” says Rastogi when I ask him how he hopes to stop people from littering these channels. He expects resident welfare associations to become actively involved. The idea’s simplicity and economy assured it unanimous support, and up until 2009, it gained traction quickly with Delhi’s Lieutenant Governor even advocating for it publicly.
Morphogenesis used social media to create public awareness — until the quick fix nature of work done for the 2010 Commonwealth Games drove the city government to hurriedly entomb more of these drains beneath concrete slabs to hide their filth. Three pilots were shortlisted in 2009, but no work ever began.
Such a winning plan should have been gratefully embraced by the city — countries like Korea and China have already demonstrated how well this works. But the multiplicity of agencies that govern Delhi, requiring hundreds of approvals to move forward, proved to be its doom.
Rastogi estimates that a minimum of 25-30 primary agencies like the Delhi Jal Board, the Delhi Development Authority and the municipal corporations need to be involved. “And that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” he says.
Actually, the real problem is that no one is ready to take ownership of such a project. Unlike New York, that icon of urban metropolis, which has undergone extraordinary greening under the stewardship of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New Delhi has no real CEO. Clearly, more is not better. Neither of its two mayors, an LG and a Chief Minister are ready to “own” this project.
One reason is that it can’t be completed within the usual five year term most governments have. Although immediate results would begin showing within a year, “the entire project has a 7-10 year horizon,” says Rastogi, which means no one political party would be able to take credit for its implementation.
Fortunately, Morphogenesis hasn’t lost all hope. Rastogi is so convinced that he is trying to regroup his original team to map water channels of cities like Patna and Ahmedabad, which have more pro-active governments — and hopefully, less red tape. He begins work in Patna in August. There’s enough international funding to make it profitable, and tenders will attract a huge response, he says.
If NY can transform itself from a concrete jungle to an urban paradise, surely any city can carve out the green amid its gray? Design, as Paola Antonelli, senior curator at the Museum of Modern Art, said in India recently, is so much more than about objects. It’s about life. And what could be better than design that allows us to re-imagine urban landscapes that bring us closer to our city? It’s time we brought the Delhi nullahs project back into public memory and into our conversations. It would be more useful than fasting about an ideal.
Jyoti Pande Lavakare is a Delhi-based writer