Northeast Delhi's drains serve many purposes. For some, they serve as a convenient way to dispose household garbage. For others, they are prominent geographic markers that help first-time visitors navigate the maze of interconnected lanes.
These drains have now grabbed headlines for a different reason. Around eleven bodies, all likely those of people killed during the communal riots that roiled northeast Delhi last week, have been fished out from different points in these drains in the last five days, according to reports from hospitals and the district administration.
The riots have killed at least 47 lives and left around 350 injured.
The first body recovered on February 26 was that of Ankit Sharma, a staffer with the Intelligence Bureau, whose family said that he was attacked by a mob during the violence. The last five bodies recovered from the drains on Sunday and Monday are unidentified.
Several of them are decomposed beyond recognition and the police and hospital authorities have recommended a DNA test as the last resort. The police also said that they are not sure whether all recovered bodies are of people killed in the riots.
Akash Gupta, a resident of Khajoori said the drains have become a topic of discussion on account of the bodies.
The drains of northeast Delhi create a labyrinth which often confuses even residents. "One reason is that they all look alike. Another is that, most residents identify these drains by names of localities. But multiple drains pass through some of these localities. It is possible that you and I could be referring to different drains when we say Gokalpuri drain or Bhajanpura drain," said Hamza Ahmed, a resident of Yamuna Vihar, a riot-hit neighbourhood.
His neighbour Kanishk Kumar said, "All of them are covered by thick layers of floating garbage, plants (water hyacinth) and have silt deposits."
When it comes to jurisdiction, multiplicity of agencies add to the confusion. While some of these drains come under Delhi government's irrigation and flood control department, others fall under the East Delhi Municipal Corporation (EDMC).
The network consists of one "main drain" – referred to as Drain no. 1 – whose origin is in the Eastern Yamuna Canal in Uttar Pradesh's Ghaziabad. This 12 km drain enters Delhi through Loni and covers large parts of northeast Delhi and east Delhi before it exits downstream at Noida through the Okhla barrage, explained a senior official in Delhi irrigation and flood control department.
He added that there are four major drains that intersect Drain no. 1 at different points. These main drains pass through localities that include Karawal Nagar, Chand Bagh, Gokalpuri, Bhajanpura, Brijpuri, Bhagirath Vihar, Mandoli, Mustafavad, Shiv Vihar, Babarpur and Jafrabad. All these areas witnessed violence last week.
Other than that, there are 24 narrow drains , which are also open, this person said.
Senior engineer and spokesperson of the EDMC, Arun Kumar said, "Floating garbage is a major problem in these drains. Now, under the Drain Management Rule, last amended in 2016, garbage collection has become a door-to-door exercise. This can clear the drains to a large extent."
The drains in northeast have been a perennial civic issue for years now. Several residents recalled how the issue was a central one during the assembly elections in 2013, 2015 and 2019, and during municipal polls in 2012 and 2017. "But now we have lost hope," said Munna Akhtar, a resident of Kabir Nagar, though the peripheries of which one of the four main drains in the region passes.
"This drain is a hygiene issue as well as health issue. Now that they are on news, we hope they get adequate attention from the government and the municipal agencies," said Deepak Sharma, a resident of Gokalpuri village.