Najafgarh Jheel: Story of a forgotten river

The jheel, recorded in an 1807 Antique SoI Map, used to be a wetland in Gurugram and Delhi. Now, it is fed by the waste water from a drain constructed to carry flood discharge to the Yamuna.

Ritu Rao
| Updated: November 6th, 2020

A short drive on the Golf Course Road in Dwarka followed by a turn towards Goyla Dairy and subsequently a sharp left just short of Goyla Dairy brings us to the famous Inspection Road/Embankment Road. Flanked by Najafgarh Drain on one side and the arable lands of Delhi on the other, the embankment road was constructed after the 1964 floods of Delhi. The thick mud embankments are covered with trees and shrubs which provide the much-needed habitat for the local flora and fauna to thrive. This thicket starts clearing off after Jhatikara crossing (say after about a half an hour drive on this road) and the Najafgarh drain suddenly transforms into a vast expanse of water known as the Najafgarh jheel. This spectacular sight continues for a good 5-6 km before it once again narrows down into a stream. The road meets the now extinct Sahibi Nadi and Outfall from Drain No.8 at Dhansa, 5 km upstream of the jheel. The Sahibi Nadi which originates in Jaipur district and drains parts of Rajasthan, Haryana and Delhi, now has diminished flow and disappears in the arid soil near Dharuhera after the Masani Barrage in Haryana. Once fed by the Sahibi nadi and storm water runoff from the surrounding areas, the Najafgarh jheel is now fed primarily by the waste water from the Badshahpur Drain and the Outfall Drain No.8 and the rain water in monsoons.

Paradise Lost

The existence of Najafgarh jheel has been recorded as far back as 1807 in an Antique SoI Map. The Najafgarh jheel used to be an immense wetland lying in Gurugram and Delhi. It was fed by the Sahibi river and floodwaters from Gurugram, Rewari, Jhajjar and north-west Delhi. The Delhi Gazatteer 1884 records that the jheel had a spread of over 220 sq. km. The drainage in Gurugram is mainly to the north wherein the surface runoff from the Aravallis and the surrounding areas would drain into the Najafgarh Jheel. The jheel in turn would drain into the Yamuna through an irregular channel known as the Sahibi nala.

Antique Map (SoI, 1807) showing Najafgarh Jheel and Sahibi Nala (Source: INTACH)

Remains of the Day

In 1865, the Govt. of the North-West Province started draining the jheel by excavating the irregular channel from the eastern end of the jheel with a view to create more arable lands. After the floods of 1964 when the Najafgarh Jheel attained a spread of 240, widening of the irregular channel or the Sahibi river canal (51km) resulted in draining of the jheel. The construction of the Supplementary Drain after the floods of 1977 to carry excessive flood discharge to Yamuna was the last nail in the proverbial coffin, which sealed the fate of Najafgarh Jheel. Once spread over 220 sq. km., the Najafgarh jheel has now shrunk to just over 7 sq. km.

Schematic Map Showing Main Locations, Drainage Lines, Pertinent Hydraulic Structures (Source: INTACH)

Nurture by Nature

The jheel’s wetlands hosted innumerable migratory and resident birds including the endangered Siberian Crane, Pink-headed ducks and Greater Flamingos. Even to date, wild animals like foxes, jackals, hares, wild cats, nilgai, porcupines and reptiles endemic to the region and several species of both native and migratory birds are sighted here. In fact, naturalists opined that the wildlife found in this wetland was far more abundant than the neighboring Sultanpur sanctuary in Haryana. In addition, the jheel was a recharge source for the surrounding aquifers and acted as a catchment area for the runoff from the surrounding areas safeguarding them from the prospect of devastating floods.

Greater Flamingos in Najafgarh jheel (Source: The New Indian Express)

Look What We’ve Done to Our Jheel!

The water of Najafgarh jheel, now comprises largely of sewage from the drains of the surrounding urban sprawl with the bulk of it being disgorged by the Badshahpur Drain flowing through Gurugram. And the Sahibi Canal? It has now transmogrified into the Najafgarh Nala which receives its own share of waste water from a multitude of drains on the Delhi side. The pollutants from the jheel are leaching into the soil and also contaminating the aquifers. Furthermore, the jheel’s ability to recharge aquifers has been severely compromised.  As a result, the water woes of residents of South-west Delhi and Gurugram have intensified as they have limited access to piped water and are heavily dependent on groundwater. To add to this, Delhi had constructed an embankment on its side of the jheel after the floods of 1964, depriving its arable lands of the regular inundation and recharge cycle.

Untreated /Partially Treated Waste Water in Badshapur Drain in Gurugram (Source: INTACH)

The Jheel’s Nemesis

Anthropogenic pressures are the main reason for the degradation of Najafgarh Jheel. Primary among these pressures are encroachment, pollution and apathy on the part of community and other stakeholders. However, the foremost pressure is reclamation of land in the Najafgarh Jheel for real estate development with prevalence of rampant encroachment in the submergence zone of the Jheel. There is rampant construction activity in the Najafgarh basin in contravention to extant environmental norms posing threat to life and property apart from causing destruction to a fragile ecosystem. In fact, the spell of rain in August 2020 resulted in seepage and flooding in the basement of residential colonies near the Jheel in Gurugram. Sold as prime waterfront properties, the developers invariably omit to mention that their tall concrete structures measuring thousands of tonnes sit atop soft wetland soil with near empty aquifers underneath. This, coupled with the possibility of an earthquake — the area is a seismic zone — could be a sure recipe for disaster. There is also widespread ignorance in the government functionaries and community with regard to the ecological and socio-economic services of the Jheel, everyone tends to perceive water bodies as potential real estate land. 

The State Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA) of Haryana has been granting permissions for construction of high rise buildings in the area around the jheel with the caveat that: “The project proponent shall keep the plinth level of the building above the High Flood Level (HFL) of the said Najafgarh jheel/drain attained in the last 100 years”. However, the SEIAA has not specified the HFL, thus, enabling project proponents to state that they have observed the condition without actually doing so. As per the Department of Irrigation and Flood Control of Delhi, the highest known flood level in Najafgarh jheel was in 1977 when even Janakpuri was threatened and a flood level of 213 mamsl at Dhansa and 212 mamsl at Kakraula was attained.

Apartments in the Jheel (Source: Ritu Rao)

Whose Jheel is it Anyway?

This jheel is governed by myriad of government bodies. While the government of NCT has earmarked Najafgarh jheel in its master plan 2021 and needs to take concrete steps to revive it, no work has been done to demarcate the area of the jheel in Haryana. Concerned about the dismal state of the jheel, Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) had filed a petition in NGT in 2014 drawing attention to its imminent extinction owing to human apathy. It further submitted that unless the Tribunal intervened, the land area of the water body was in danger of falling into the hands of unscrupulous real estate dealers, and the illegal construction can kill any possibility of the revival of the jheel.

This matter was disposed of in 2017 in view of the statement issued by the Haryana government that the lake (Najafgarh jheel) in question is indeed a waterbody and it was trying to approve it officially. However, when two years later no further steps were initiated to notify the jheel as a wetland, INTACH in March 2019, filed another petition in the NGT. The NGT sought a status update and action taken report from Government of NCT of Delhi as well as from the Government of Haryana. In a subsequent hearing in October 2019, Haryana filed a report asserting that there was a doubt that Najafgarh jheel was a private land and not a wetland. According to them, this assertion was based on revenue record of the year 2005. As against the said revenue record, there is a 1983 gazette notification showing the area to be a lake. To reconcile the above situation, the NGT sought that the earlier revenue records particularly, before the settlement are checked up. Since then, the hearing at the NGT has been postponed several times because the Haryana government has not filed its report. Delhi government’s position on this matter is more sympathetic. It is presently planning to rent land from the farmers on the Delhi side to the north of the embankment and inundate it. Most of the decisions in favor of environmental causes in Delhi has been due to court orders (initiated by activists and NGOs) forcing the hands of the government. Along with the courts, the media continues to draw attention to environmental issues. In the case of Najafgarh jheel too, the media has kept the issue alive.

Taking cognizance of the apathy and lack of awareness on the part of citizens of both Delhi and Haryana, a Facebook group -Najafgarh jheel – Countdown to Extinction or Rejuvenation? – has been launched recently to get together people sympathetic to the cause. So far there have been only isolated efforts by activists and NGOs to save the jheel. The formation of the Facebook group on social media is a fledgling yet important step to consolidate these efforts. The group seeks to mobilize ordinary citizens particularly of Delhi and Gurugram to save the jheel. At the same time, it hopes to convince decision makers to take steps to protect and revive the jheel.

DDA Zonal Plan L Showing Najafgarh Jheel Area as 356 Ha (Source: INTACH)

Next Steps

Protecting and reviving the jheel entails two things. First, the jheel has to be notified as a wetland to protect it from future encroachments. Second, concrete steps need to be taken to revive the jheel. While solutions are not easy to come by, a collaborative approach by getting all stakeholders together on a common platform and working out a solution is the best way forward. Formation of a dedicated Najafgarh Jheel Conservation and Management Board is a possible step in this direction.

Najafgarh jheel’s fate is hanging in balance between two possible outcomes: one, the seemingly inevitable ‘How we lost the Jheel’ if we insist on continuing on the present trajectory and second, the more hopeful `How we saved the Jheel’ if we manage to pull back from the abyss and reverse course. The benefits emanating from conserving and reviving the jheel are numerous, which we can overlook at our own peril.

In Need of Divine Intervention (Source: Ritu Rao)

This story has been sourced from SANDRP.