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Nullah and void

Sreelatha Menon  |  New Delhi 

Instead of being paved over, drains can be put to better use.

Ever thought of as a criss-crossed mesh of waterways, with boats plying and walkways, cycling paths and parks on either side? That is the dream that 70 architects have presented to Delhi’s rulers. They are waiting to make the dream a reality, and have a blueprint for how Indian cities can put their canals and drains to use rather than cementing them over.

The proposal to clean and beautify the nullahs of Delhi, by architecture firm Morphogenesis, may also be Delhi’s big chance to save its dead river, the Yamuna, which seems to have stopped responding to the crores that the government spends on it.

The network, the oldest portions of which were built 700 years ago, has been bestowed on the capital by history. According to one founder, architect Manit Rastogi, the network connects most parts of so well that one could actually walk along a from one point to any other distant part of the city without ever leaving the network.

The network could also develop into a cyclists’ haven, as well as for pedestrians — who have been all but exiled from the main thoroughfares. Rastogi does not blame the motorised population for this; rather, he blames the neglect of the nullahs.

Today we live and move between walls wherever we go, he says, referring to the roads and pavements of the city and suburbs. The nullahs are always close by, but they have been allowed to fall into such bad condition that no one can use their open space for movement or recreation, he says.

Reusing the network, however, is a challenge. In Delhi, nullahs occupy about 2,000 acres. While the Nullahs ( has received a positive response from each of the several agencies concerned, a unanimous approval is still awaited.

Meanwhwile, the Lieutenant-Governor of Delhi has asked to go ahead with a pilot project on a 1 km stretch of one of the nullahs.

Rastogi says that he and his colleagues at are united in their angst over how tradition and culture have been erased from practice in architecture. The firm has tried to keep open a space for traditional architecture by using aspects of it in its own award-winning designs. The ‘green’ building of (The Energy and Resources Institute) by Morphogenesis, in Gurgaon, for instance, has received international attention for its innovative design.

Asked how it was that he found 69 architects to support him in his nullahs mission, Rastogi says: “You talk to anyone in Delhi, and you find that most people agree with the idea that the centuries of knowledge that the country had received as a legacy should form a reference point for what we do today. No one likes the fact that we have totally discarded our heritage.”

“Did we always need airconditioners? Our buildings were naturally green,” Rastogi says. The green buildings now recognised by the standards (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) follow European standards, which require central airconditioning. So now the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy has asked Morphogenesis to work with to create indigenous ‘green’ guidelines.

Meanwhile the nullahs — 19 major channels and 20,000 sub-branches — collect sewage and rainwater and empty it into the The proposed Delhi Nullahs project would ensure that the water from each of these nullahs is treated at its mouth; think of 20,019 treatment plants!

This is feasible because the water-cleaning treatment could be done by weeds, algae, chemicals and other means. The cleaned water from each nullah would then flow into the next, larger nullah, and eventually into the river, says Rastogi — making it all sound very simple.

The architect says that his firm is prepared to organise all this for Rs 1,000 crore, in three years.

First Published: Sun, August 01 2010. 01:15 IST