New Delhi: Environmentalists have warned that the proposed Commonwealth Games village on the Yamuna riverbed in East Delhi will expose the Capital to the risk of severe flooding and cause irreversible ecological damage.

Work began in September on preparing the soil for the development, which takes up 43ha of the Yamuna flood plain. But environmental campaigners have lodged a petition with the Delhi high court, which they hope will stall the project before building begins.

A preliminary petition examined by the court this month warned that the project would “permanently impair the ability of the riverbed to recharge groundwater", thus depriving the city of vital water supplies, as well as exposing the Capital to “increased threats of damage" during the flood season.

The claim, lodged by the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan or Save Yamuna Campaign, along with the Indian National Trust for Art and Heritage, said the “rapid pace at which destructive activities are being undertaken" along the flood plain “puts a question mark on the survival of the river itself" and would “threaten the lives and livelihood of the people of New Delhi unless urgent action is taken to stop what is happening". The court is scheduled to hear further arguments at the end of this month.

Manoj Misra, a conservationist who previously worked with the Indian government’s forest service and now leads the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan, is spearheading the action against the flood plain project.

“We agree that the Commonwealth Games is a prestigious event, but this place is the worst possible site for the games village," Misra said.

A report released by his organization warned that building on the flood plain would trigger worse flooding further down the river during severe monsoons. It argued that the project would destroy the natural reservoir, which collects water during the monsoon and releases them gradually through the year. It also questioned whether the sandy shore area would be secure enough for 10-storeyed buildings, adding that the site was on an earthquake fault line.

Defending the project, Delhi’s chief minister Sheila Dikshit recently told the media: “Show me another city in the world which has not developed its riverbanks. Development has to take place."

But Misra argued that the severity of the monsoons meant building near the riverbanks was unsafe. “This is not the Thames," he said.

Michael Hooper, chief executive of the Commonwealth Games Federation, who was in New Delhi recently, said he had first been made aware of environmentalists’ concerns last year. When he discussed them with Indian authorities, he was given assurances that all environmental regulatory processes would be followed, he said. “We accepted those assurances, and we rely on them," he said by telephone.

The land in question has been leased since 1948 to small farmers, who have been protected by an agreement that said the government could not evict them except for a development deemed to be for the public good.

Former diplomat Kuldip Nayar, who has threatened to go on a hunger strike if the project goes ahead, said: “It is a mafia of builders, bureaucrats and politicians who wanted to place the site here."

Farmers who have long worked the land on the river banks have joined environmentalists in staging a constantly manned protest near the gates of the site, which are protected by armed guards.

Campaigners warn that the village will create a precedent for further development along the undeveloped stretch of land on the eastern banks of the Yamuna. If the project cannot be stopped, they say, the buildings should be temporary and the land be returned to its original use after the Games.

Sports minister Mani Shankar Aiyar said in an interview by telephone that extra checks on the project’s environmental impact had been commissioned by the environment ministry after complaints from campaigners but had found nothing of concern. He said hotels on the site would be developed with private money and would pass into private hands after the Games, but the sports venues developed alongside them would remain as a “Commonwealth Games legacy for the public good".