When Lalit Sharma passes through the lobby of his NGO’s building in a sprawling office park in Sector 44 of Gurgaon, he steps over floors partially constructed from wooden air conditioner boxes, finished with a resin-based hard coat. The air conditioners, installed throughout the building, are only powered in the summer months for four hours a day, in a building designed to provide enough insulation to keep itself cool for the remaining hours. When he goes to the bathroom, the toilets flush three fewer litres of water than an average toilet, and the urinals, designed with a drain that seals in odours, are water-free. Wastewater generated by the 100 employees in the building is scrubbed in a sewage treatment plant on the roof and recycled to green the lawns.

“This building is designed to be an example,” says Sharma, programme leader (water management) at the Institute of Rural Research and Development (IRRAD), which trains panchayats and the smaller Haryana NGOs in the building.

The IRRAD office, built by the SM Sehgal Foundation, is widely believed to be one of the best examples of sustainable design in Gurgaon. Sharma, who has been fascinated by hydrology since his days studying civil engineering at Jamia Milia Islamia University, joined a brain trust of about 10 people to come up with low environmental impact features, including solar panels on the roof and a rainwater collection system that recharges the groundwater.

The Sehgal Foundation seeks to counteract a seemingly insurmountable problem: in Gurgaon, water is becoming scarcer with the laying of each brick. A million and a half residents of Gurgaon city soak up 184 million litres a day, according to a recent study by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in Delhi. The Haryana Urban Development Authority (HUDA) supplies only half of this; the rest comes from groundwater, which is why the water table is sinking dangerously. To quench the thirst of luxury residential highrises and corporate headquarters, builders have taken to drilling borewells—unofficially, there are 30,000 borewells in Gurgaon—thereby depleting aquifers by 1.5 metres every year. If matters continue as they are, by 2021, with Gurgaon’s projected population of 3.7 million requiring more than 650 million litres a day, the water table will have sunk to an impractical drilling depth.

“Groundwater is pretty much done in Gurgaon,” says Nitya Jacob, programme director for water at the CSE. “We had a projection of 2020, but residents say it will be 2015 when the water runs out.”

The only way out of this literal desertification, according to Jacob and other experts, is using something that Gurgaon has in abundance: wastewater. Since 85 percent of usable supplied water is finally disposed of as waste, many informed residents and activists are asking for more effective recycling.

“We’ll use 600 million litres daily,” says Atal Kapoor, a sustainable-design architect who has lived in Gurgaon for 17 years. “That means at least 500-odd million litres of sewage being generated per day, and our current wastewater treatment capacity is for only 150 million litres. That’s a shitload of sewage.”

At the most basic level, treated wastewater can be diverted for architectural purposes: to water cement that plasters bricks, to irrigate lawns and even crops. In an ideal world, treated wastewater could even be used to generate biofuels, methane being obtainable by the fermentation of wastewater sludge. But this would require anaerobic conditions for wastewater treatment. For now, wastewater in Gurgaon isn’t used for much more than filling wallowing holes for roving pigs.


On a recent Saturday afternoon, the air at the smaller of the two Dhanwapur Sewage Treatment Plants (STP) is thick with mosquitoes and the stench from the 30 million daily litres of waste that the complex treats.

As I’m guided to the outdoor treatment site, the plant supervisor, Sher Singh, seems unfazed by both the smell and the insects.

“It’s three o’clock and you have this many mosquitoes?” I ask him. He shrugs: “They’re here all day.”

We climb a couple of rust-rotted steps to the first line of defence against Gurgaon’s sewage—an iron sieve that filters the sludge from a trickle of water exiting a rusting pipe. This is where the wastewater of that lucky one-third of Gurgaon’s residents, mostly from the part of the city that was built in the 1980s, ends up. Sewage from, for example, Unitech’s South City-1, one of Gurgaon’s earliest private colonies, travels along a 45-kilometre-long, 30-year-old pipeline, down the highway rather pointedly away from DLF’s eastern phases and office towers. It hits the single-storey row houses on tree-lined streets in the old Gurgaon, runs under the wheat fields of Khandsa village, five kilometres from Gurgaon city, and then ends up in Dhanwapur. It’s a long way for, as Atal Kapoor had so aptly put it, “a shitload of sewage” to travel.

When I arrive, the electricity happens to be off. The wastewater exits the pipe and into the plant in a trickle. Sher Singh explains that there’s been a power cut, a common enough occurrence. The back-up generator, it appears, is broken—for how long, he can’t say.

Once the electricity’s on, Singh cranks open two of the four channels that end in thick, black, bubbling pools of waste, which are treated by chemicals and then flow down a cement drain into two large reservoirs. The sludge, along with stormwater and untreated sewage, travels through the Najafgarh Canal. Farmers often divert this mess to their fields to feed their crops before it debouches into the Najafgarh drain in East Delhi, on its way into the Yamuna River.

The Yamuna is where the treated sludge mixes with the untreated waste from the city’s other two-thirds, those sprawling DLF acreages built when the developers’ hunger was bigger than the municipality’s food store.


A huge solar panel on the rooftop of the Sehgal Foundation building, widely believed to be one of the best examples of sustainable design in Gurgaon.

A huge solar panel on the rooftop of the Sehgal Foundation building, widely believed to be one of the best examples of sustainable design in Gurgaon.

There are two major failures of the STPs, say experts: 1) adequate scrubbing; 2) the use of wastewater as anything other than waste. In March 2012, HUDA—having been issued a show-cause notice by the Haryana State Pollution Control Board for poor maintenance of the Berhampur and Dhanwapur STPs— tested random samples of treated wastewater at Dhanwapur and found aqueous pollutants at 182 milligrams per litre, where the average for municipal sewage after a three-stage treatment process is 20 mg/l or less.

In effect, in Gurgaon, the treated wastewater remains waste.


Atal Kapoor, as a founding member of I Am Gurgaon, an association that seeks to improve Gurgaonites’ quality of life, wants the city to deal with its shit once and for all. Educated in Gujarat, he helped devise urban renewal projects in Chicago and design luxury hotels in Russia before settling in Gurgaon in the 1990s, when India was decidedly underdeveloped and had only recently thrown open its doors to economic liberalisation.

“I thought I would change the face of the country,” he says.

Now, he splits his days between designing residential complexes and office buildings through his boutique design firm and helping I Am Gurgaon set up Public-Private Partnerships to fix the failing infrastructure of the city.

The projects run from rainwater harvesting to tree-planting drives, but today he’s working on a plan to install a series of small STPs along the Najafgarh Canal that would take the strain off big plants with creaking, decades-old technology such as Dhanwapur and Behrampur. Cities approve large, centralised plants, he argues, not because they’re the most efficient at dealing with waste, but because they’re cheaper to build. They have technology that functions properly for 20 years and then becomes obsolete as the cities grow.

But, says Kapoor, “I see waste as black coal. It has to be treated as a commodity, not a liability.”

The main use for wastewater treated under his micro-STP scheme would be groundwater recharge, to help raise the water table depleted by 30 years of unchecked siphoning. But it won’t be happening soon. The government at Chandigarh would have to sign off on his proposal, and Kapoor is still figuring out the details and costs of his plan.


If there is anyone raising a stink about the urban deplorability of Gurgaon, it is the whitecollar demographic. “With professionals, you have a very discerning population,” says Kapoor. “When their aspirations aren’t met, they’re going to create a big hullabaloo about it.”

As recently as October 2012, the South City-I Residents’ Welfare Association, together with the Gurgaon Citizens’ Council, put up a massive protest against Unitech for ‘apathy towards maintenance’.

White collar revolutionaries or no, there are those who believe that no matter the manner or intensity of initiatives, nothing will happen without government intervention with a plan for sustainable use of water. There is some hope, in that the Haryana government seems to slowly be waking up to the idea that Gurgaon’s water problem won’t fix itself. In July last year, the Punjab and Haryana High Court banned colonies and builders from using groundwater. The same month, the district administration made it mandatory for houses larger than 100 square metres to have their own system of rainwater harvesting—essentially, terrace drains leading to collection tanks, preferably underground. In December, HUDA said it would supply to colonies and builders treated sewage or tertiary treated sewage water from Behrampur and Dhanwapur STPs at Rs 4 per kilolitre. This could be a decoy: water that has gone through tertiary and secondary treatment isn’t potable—the builders would be responsible for final treatment, so this generosity could be another way of enforcing HUDA’s much-flouted rule that all private developers build their own STPs.

But some say that these measures are merely stopgaps, or worse, unenforceable. “By making rainwater harvesting compulsory but not providing drainage to your site, the municipality has shrugged off [its] responsibility,” says Sanjay Prakash, who designed a green office complex in Manesar, a 15-minute drive from Gurgaon city and tagged by developers as ‘New Gurgaon’. “In a regime that can be so easily gamed by corrupt practices, it is difficult to implement anything.”

There’s also the issue of bringing everyone in a multitenant building on board during the decision to set up an STP: the builder, the complex manager—who might or might not also be the builder—the tenants, all of whose contributions would be necessary. When I suggest a visit to the building he had designed, the 40-million-dollar Agilent Technologies Inc, he asks me to give him a heads-up in case they weren’t, for some reason, using the STP.


Architect and activist Atal Kapoor in his office (left) and the Sehgal Foundation's rooftop treatment plant, widely believed to be one of the best examples of sustainable design in Gurgaon (right).

Architect and activist Atal Kapoor in his office (left) and the Sehgal Foundation’s rooftop treatment plant, widely believed to be one of the best examples of sustainable design in Gurgaon (right).


So we’re back to the single shining example that efficient and modern wastewater treatment is possible in Gurgaon: the IRRAD building.

The sewage treatment plant here comprises a complex of chambers and filters linked by pipes. It is housed on the terrace of one of the two buildings on the campus. The water from the specially-designed, low-volume toilet flush tanks travels up a network of pipes into a storage tank on the terrace, where it is starved of oxygen to kill the aerobic bacteria. It is then sent to an oxygenation chamber to break down the decomposed bacteria, then onwards to the chlorination tank, and finally treated with ultraviolet rays. Now it’s ready to water the lawns and recharge the groundwater.

Any post-filtration solid waste is kept in a sludge holding tank to be used as very potent manure. IRRAD’s is one of the most efficient STPs in Gurgaon, since 100 percent of the waste is recycled. Part of the reason it’s so efficient is that unlike the Dhanwapur STPs, it is entirely localised—the sewage does not have to travel 45 kilometres along an ageing pipeline in various stages of disrepair.

If there is a problem at all, it is that it treats the waste of only 100 people in a city of 1.5 million and growing. The second IRRAD building is more or less vacant; Sharma explains that the supply of office space has outstripped demand. At the time I visited, the plant had been operating for only six months. The solid waste it had generated was packed in a fivekilogram rice sack. It looked like ashen dust. It had yet to be used for anything. Sharma says that the strength of the building was never intended to be its size, but rather its ability to inspire others to follow its example, something he admits has not quite happened yet.

“It’s the best of its class,” agrees Prakash. “But if we were to ask a mainstream developer if these buildings have any serious impact, the answer is no.”

Byline: Nida Najar
Photographs: Vivek Singh


Motherland is a bi-monthly magazine with a focus on contemporary and emerging Indian cultures.

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