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Ruined by criminal apathy

P K Chhetri |

Indraprastha was the capital of the Pandavas, as described in the Mahabharata. The city was also referred to as Khandabaprastha at time. Although its exact location is uncertain, Purana Quila, in present day Delhi, is frequently cited as the site of ancient Indraprastha. Even during the reign of Ashoka, the place had definitely acquired importance, as evident from a stone carving of it in Sriniwaspuri. 

It was characteristically a populous and highly prosperous city once upon a time— otherwise it would not have been a seat of one empire after another since the 11th century. But it is also a fact that the precise geographical locations of the capitals have changed frequently. Nevertheless, it remained within the present day area of Delhi.

King Anangpal of the Tomar dynasty established the city sometime in 1020 AD in the vicinity of Surajkund in Haryana, which is about five kilometres from Tughlaqabad in Delhi. Kund implies tank in Hindi and Surajkund had a stepped stone embankment, and was dug with a purpose to impound the rainwaters of the Aravalli Hills. Later, Firoz Shah Tughlaq replaced its steps and terraces with lime concrete. Anangpur Dam, near Surajkund, built across the mouth of a ravine, was made using locally available quartzite stone. Several cities had sprung up during the Sultanate period, which was followed by the Tughlaq dynasty, in the terrain of the Aravalli Hills. The cities had developed extensive water harvesting systems to cater to the need of the dwellers. In South Delhi, one can still find the remains of the water bodies of the Sultanate era, though they are in a highly dilapidated condition.    Quila Rai Pithora (Mehrauli inscription, 1052 AD),  18 kilometres from the river Yamuna, was the first capital city of the Sultanate. Since the area presented a highly rough terrain with high lands, there was no scope to draw a canal from the Yamuna.

Finding rainwater harvesting as the only solution, Sultan Iltutmish (1210-1236 AD) constructed a large water tank known as Hauz-e-Sultani or Hauz-e-Iltutmish, which was later extensively repaired by Alauddin Khilji, and even Feroz Shah Tughlaq appreciated its importance for the supply of water.

The sultans were never satisfied with the construction of tanks, as they knew their limitations. During the period many other stepwells were built in different parts of the city such as Sultanpur-ki-baoli, Palam baoli, Uggarsen-ki-baoli, Nizam-ud-din baoli in Firoz Shah Kotla,and the Muradabad-ki-Pahad-ki-baoli in Vasant Vihar, though most of them are now dried up due to utter neglect. In 1296, Alauddin Khilji built a reservoir, Hauz-e-Khas, with a catchment area of around 25 hectares, by harvesting the water of the Aravalli hills. Its banks can still be identified yet it is in ruins today.

To utilise the surplus water of Hauz-e-Shamsi reservoir, he diverted it to Tughlaqabad through the Naulakhi nullah. Today this natural drainage system has turned into a dirty drain to carry the city&’s sewage into the Agra canal and reflects the highly disrespectful attitude on the part of the Delhi administration. Muhammad-bin-Tughlaq (1325-51 AD) added one more habitation to the existing three of Delhi, which he named Jahanpanah, when he ascended the throne. A dam, called Satpula (seven spans) was built across the southern wall of Jahanpanah to regulate water supply for irrigation outside the city— the spans were actually sluices to control water in an artificial lake. The dam was a double storey structure, a wonderful engineering marvel of gates to release water and the standard level of water storage. At each end of the dam, there was a tower to house maintenance staff.

To maintain the balance of the main structure, abutments were tied, which supported the soil from getting dislodged. It was in no way inferior to the modern day structural pattern of a dam. Later, Shahjahan&’s (1627-58) system of digging the Shahjahani canals and dighis was unique and highly sophisticated with all contemporary, similar structures. While building the Red Fort and the city of Shahjahanabad, he employed Ali Mardan Khan and his artisans to channelise the waters of the Yamuna into the city and his palace.  Though there was already a canal from Khizrabad to Safidon built by Firoz Shah Tughlaq and later repaired under the order of Akbar, it had already stopped flowing due to siltation. Ali Mardan did two things—he brought Yamuna waters to the palace and also linked this canal with another from Sirmaur hills, presently located on the Delhi border near Najafgarh, to maintain its uninterrupted flow. This canal, known by the name Ali Mardan canal, channelled the waters of the Sahibi river basin to feed into the old canal and entered the city near Bholu Shah, irrigating on the way orchards and gardens for up to 20 kilometres.

In the main city, the canal water charged the dighis and wells. A dighi was a square or circular reservoir with steps to enter with its own sluice gates to control the flow of water. Bathing or washing clothes on the steps of the dighi were strictly prohibited to keep its water safe for use. However, most of the households maintained their own wells or small dighis, and in the event of the main canal running dry any time, the water of these dighis or wells were used. Indara Kuan, Pahar-wala-kuan near Gali-pahar-wali and Chah Rahat near Chhipiwara (which feeds water to the Jama Masjid) were some of the major wells. Around 1843, Shahjahanabad had a record 607 wells, of which 52 provided sweet water. Unfortunately due to negligence of consecutive Delhi governments more than 80 per cent of the wells have to be closed because of contamination of water by the sewers.  

Between 1740 and 1820, although the canal dried up several times, it was revived by the rulers. Even today we can find a segment of the old canal around the Lawrence road (Keshav Puram) and Ashok Vihar.

In rural Delhi, people relied heavily on bunds and wells for irrigation. As per the information incorporated in the earliest gazettes, Delhi had around 57 per cent of irrigated area —19 per cent by wells, 18 by canals and 20 by bunds or regulators.

In the area lying near the hills, bund irrigation was the common feature. The general character of this system was to hold floodwater till the end of September thereafter it was released through escape channels. It was the characteristic feature of irrigation during the Mughal rule. The important bunds in Delhi were Shadipur and Chattarpur and Gwalpahari bunds under Ballabgarh tehsil, however in Najafgarh tract, flood irrigation was practised. Canals, which received no floodwaters, were utilised for cultivating kharif crops, such as jowar, bajra and cotton, and areas, which usually remained inundated during rains, were used for cultivating rabi crops.

Unfortunately, the old water supply system, which was once the lifeline of the inhabitants of Delhi, has been converted into dirty sewers. Around 22 drains from Delhi open into the Yamuna making its waters extremely polluted. Until 1984, colonies in South Delhi used to receive water from the Okhla treatment plant but due to the outbreak of epidemics like cholera and jaundice, the area was linked with Bhaghirati water supply system instead.

At present, the Delhi water supply system depends on five rivers—Ravi, Sutlej, Beas, Yamuna and Ganga— but for how long? It is about time the administration critically evaluated its existing water and sanitation policies before it gets too late. The people of yesterday were highly sensitive to their environment and also knew the importance of local water sources. Inha-bitants of the national capital today must learn to appreciate such facts.


(The writer is a former Joint Secretary, Government of West Bengal)