Rivers have always held a special place in world history. They have been the deciding factor in the location of settlements, universities and forts; and lives of people have revolved around rivers whether as a source of water or as a means of livelihood, as a mode of transport or even as a place for leisure. Indian history shows evidence of not just this physical importance of rivers but also mythological, religious and social significance, ranging from the conviction about the holy nature of Ganges as per Hindu mythology or the citation of Brahmaputra in Ramayana to the age old religious practices of immersing, bathing and dipping in the holy waters.
The city of Shahjanahabad which is now popularly called Old Delhi was planned to be located adjacent to the river Yamuna in the 17th century when boats were the most popular mode of transport. The British during their quest to make a ‘new’ Delhi also aimed at utilizing the pious presence of the river in its adjacency. While so much importance was give to the river in historical times, it diminishingly continued through time as the riverfront became a space in the city for recreation and religious purposes. However, in the present times these purposes have taken a backseat to give way to what is more apparent: the riverfront as a depository of industrial wastes, city wide biodegradable and non biodegradable wastes, religious remains and a setting for major hard paved developments along river banks which are seen as a major real estate reserve for the city. The riverfront which was at one time an important part of every dilliwallah’s life famous for its cool breeze and wide open lands and as a place for both young and old to take pleasure in, apart from being a pious place where the journey of life continues to another destination, now remains a notional member in everyone’s memory. The thought of Yamuna River in Delhi either brings about the fading image of filthy frothy brackish floats from the television documentaries or the fleeting glimpses stolen through the high fenced jaalis as one zooms past one of the few bridges between the east and the west of Delhi to see scanty waters out massed by weeds, plastic bag huddles and dead bodies. Is this the Yamuna that our city deserves? Or better still is this the city that Yamuna deserves?
A random look at Thames Riverfront in London elucidates the presence of the river as an important landmark in the city, not just on the tourism map but also as a public place for the residents of the city to enjoy. Similarly, the Charles River in Boston is an important hang out place for all the Harvard students among others who use it varyingly as a quiet study place, a place for adventure and cycling apart from using it as a recreation place for hanging out and eating out. It is understandable that every city has a different context (physical, economic, political and social) but it is also clear that a riverfront does not deserve what it gets in our city.
Unarguably, the environmental issues concerning our river hold forthright importance which needs to be tackled by the city’s eminent professionals. However, another equally crucial concern is to change the image, meaning and importance of the Yamuna River in the lives of city people. The stories that our grandfathers (one of whose peers would be Khushwant Singh who gleefully describes the Yamuna Riverfront of yesteryears as an exciting and romantic destination for himself and his friends in his popular book ‘Delhi’) have proudly narrated to us, should not go extinct with time. The river should become a significant urban space in the city, which now is sadly only a space not as ‘significant’, and should be used as a recreational space where the city gathers, entertains, relaxes, comes in touch with nature, and unwinds. The need of the hour is to celebrate this important resource and create it into an identity for Delhi and its people, assuming that the visual muck and the environmental issues have been dealt with first by our eminent professionals and environmentalists.
The foremost and the most fundamental way of integrating the riverfront with the city and making its people identify with the river would be to increase its visibility. This can be done by opening out routes, roadways and parks along the river to make people ‘see’ the river before they enjoy it. Extending or creating new routes to the riverfront both vehicular and pedestrian, could be way to literally ‘lead’ people onto the riverfront and encouraging people to step back, stop and take in the fact that there exists a river in our city rather than just zipping past it. The next step is to make people like what they see, and turn the existing dead edges into exciting urban spaces for the city. This can be done by selecting the most visible pockets along the 22 km stretch of Yamuna River in Delhi and developing them as important landmark recreation zones, which would be an exciting space in the city across age groups, income groups and ethnic groups. Not just entertainment centers but also cultural activities can be planned along the riverfront and the rivers cultural heritage can be sustained. Direct links to the university areas of the city would enable a younger population of the city to come and use the space for hanging out, studying, performing, romancing and even gaining knowledge, making the environment more youthful. Also important at this junction would be the sensitivity to detail where in there should be sitting spaces comfortably laid out at regular intervals, there should be walking and cycling tracks along the river, street furniture should be an inherent part of all spaces including adequate lighting, dustbins etc. and above all our authorities need to gear up and maintain the cleanliness, safety and growth of the place. There needs to be the coexistence of the local chaat wallah and ‘Mc Donald’s’ to enable the coexistence of varied user groups and the creation of a identifiable physical environment. The Yamuna riverfront of Delhi thus remains not just a void in the morphology of the city but an active, exciting and enriching urban space that sees no barriers of age, income or sex and becomes the much needed public place for our city.
It is obvious that the solutions to all these thoughts are not forthrightly manifested. However one can dream and no one can be stopped from dreaming? And as they say, the first step to better times is to imagine them!
[Image courtesy: http://www.csa.com/discoveryguides/india/images/yamuna.jpg]