But you know it’s going to be a short visit. For nearly 10,000 people who live along and adjacent to the 1.5km-long drain that cuts through sectors 28, 29 and 37, there is no escape. They have been blighted by this stench for years as the drain in the backyard has permeated their lives, health, relationships and the idea of home. The families most affected are in wards 2A (Sector 28), 4, 5, 5A and 6A (Sector 29), 11A and parts of 11 (Sector 37).
The drainwater has contaminated the groundwater, says Col Goel (retd)
Twelve years back when Colonel Anil Kumar Kalra (retd) had shifted to Flat No. 432 at ward 2A of Sector 28 with his wife Manju (70) after retiring from the Army, he had no inkling about the predicament that awaited him. “I was looking forward to a quiet, retired life. But this drain became our family’s bane, not only causing health problems but also keeping us away from our son, daughter-in-law and grandchild,” Kalra (74) says. The compound of his house is separated from the drain by just a boundary wall.
The couple last saw their granddaughter two years ago. “The five-year-old had to be hospitalised as the stink from the drain made her sick when she came to visit us with our son and daughter-in-law from the US,” Kalra says, adding he has been pining to meet the little one but fear of another bout of allergies has come in the way of planning a visit.
“When this first-floor apartment was allotted under the Army Welfare Housing Organisation (AWHO) in 1989, we had no idea that it was located right next to an open stormwater drain. I had invested most of my savings in this property and now have no choice but to continue living in this acerbic environment,” he adds.
Inside the house, Manju quickly checks if the room fresheners are working. The sandalwood vapours do their job. The scented air is a welcome escape from reality. “But there is no permanent solution. I have to keep the windows closed all the time,” Manju, who retired as a professor from IBS Hyderabad, says. She has developed asthma, which the couple says is a consequence of inhaling gases from the drain for years.
A two-foot fibreglass sheet on the parapet blocks the drain from sight when they walk up to the terrace. Passersby stopping to relieve themselves at the drain is a common sight, they say. “Every morning, we wake up to these unpleasant spectacles,” Kalra adds.
Originally developed as an irrigation drain by the Uttar Pradesh irrigation department, the ‘Arun Vihar drain’, as it has come to be known, was transferred to the Noida Authority once the development of the New Okhla industrial region started in April 1976. At that time, the ‘laal dora’ areas – villages – located near the planned city areas were left untouched. Consequently, their sewerage systems too remained undeveloped.
Over the years, as Noida grew as a city, so did the population of the areas civic planning bypassed. Bereft of proper sewer lines or sewage treatment plants, irrigation drains became outlets for effluents generated by households. This is what happened to the Arun Vihar drain as well.
Continuous emission of gases from the drain has also been damaging household appliances.
“Every year, we have to repair our air conditioners. Refrigerators and televisions have also been affected. While we have started taking ACs on rent now, our mechanic has warned us that our two-year-old refrigerator may last just one more season,” Manju says.
“Gases from the drain damage air conditioners and refrigerators in particular. The most common problem is gas leakage and cracks,” explains Shabbir Alam, an AC mechanic. “This is because of hydrogen sulfide emissions from the drain that damage the copper coil in compressors. That’s why new compressors don’t last more than two seasons in many households.”
However, it is the impact on health that worries residents of these sectors the most. Dr Shikha Jindal Gupta, senior consultant pulmonologist at Neo Hospital in Noida, and a resident of Sector 28, says, “We all know this open drain emits some toxic gases in the form of nitric oxide, methane and carbon monoxide. Inhaling these gases is like inducing a silent killer. For patients of asthma, the condition will worsen. The gases can also affect our brain, leading to memory loss cases, besides skin allergies, itching in the eyes, etc. We don’t have studies on this other than common symptoms noted in patients, but long-term exposure must be causing some chronic diseases.”
The Kalras say their neighbour, Lt Colonel Ohri (retd), moved to Gurgaon after he fell seriously ill. Colonel Devesh Goel (retd), who doesn’t live too far from the Kalras, agrees. He has been trying to grow some flowering plants in his backyard in vain. “It seems the water from the drain has seeped into the groundwater and contaminated it to such an extent that no plants or flowers can grow in this soil. Only cactus and some pollution-resistant shrubs, like lemon, manage to survive,” says Goel (77), who retired as architect and town planner from military engineering services (MES) and moved to Arun Vihar in 2012 with his wife.
Solution known but not timeline
Kavita Jamil, vice-chairperson of Arun Vihar residents’ welfare association (AVRWA), says time and again, they have urged the Noida Authority to either cover the drain or install STPs to clean it. Jamil says in collaboration with the National Environment Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), the residents’ welfare association had decided to set up two in situ treatment plants – in situ or direct dosing water treatment involves mixing and dosing chemical reagents into the affected waterbody instead of pumping water for treatment through a water treatment plant – to clear the drain.
Stormwater drains cannot be covered, according to guidelines from the National Green Tribunal, which had also asked authorities to ensure they are cleaned up and no sewage enters them.
Manu Bhatnagar, an expert in environment planning associated with INTACH, says, “Natural stormwater drains are acting as substitutes for sewers because the authorities have not provided sewer systems. There was a case in NGT, ‘Maile se nirmal Yamuna’, in which the tribunal directed that no urban drains are to be covered or concretised. The solution is cleaning these drains and separating untreated wastewater. If a drain is covered, then it becomes like a gas pipeline, even more anaerobic. We need to work harder for a sustainable solution, not just put the problem out of sight (by covering it).”
“The Noida Authority has sanctioned a budget of Rs 16 crore for repairing and lining the walls of the drain. NEERI too has submitted the proposal to develop two in situ treatment plants,” Jamil says, adding just before the imposition of the model code of conduct, MP Mahesh Sharma and Noida MLA Pankaj Singh had helped move the file from the Noida Authority to the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) for clearance. “Any work above Rs 10 crore requires CAG clearance. We have been intimated that the file is awaited any day now from IIT-Delhi, where it has gone for technical clearance,” says Jamil.
A senior Noida Authority officer told TOI the drain isn’t uniformly shaped throughout its length and that too needs to be fixed. “The drain is damaged at some places, and at others, it’s sinking. For NEERI’s in situ treatment plant design, the drain needs to be shaped properly. It also needs channels. Currently, the drain has sludge underneath. To what extent that can be removed depends on the capacity of earthmovers,” said the officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
For a permanent solution, the officer added, the drain’s bed needs to be concretised with channels using V-notches- a thin-plate weir to obstruct open channel flow and allow water to flow over the notch upstream.
“Tendering work will start soon as we were waiting for the model code of conduct to be lifted,” the officer said.
The Noida Authority will float tenders after the technical clearance from IIT-Delhi. “NEERI has proposed an in-situ wetland at Arun Vihar drain, but before that, the structural design of the drain will be strengthened. Then, the wetland can be created at Sector 29,” said RP Singh, deputy general manager (water and sewer), Noida Authority.