Mirage of a river

Friday 31 May 2013

Is restoration of the Sabarmati the way to go?

It is claimed to be an exemplary project. It has won two awards for excellence in innovativeness and urban planning; one from the Prime Minister’s Office. Narendra Modi, the Hon’ble Chief Minister of Gujarat, recently hailed it as his big achievement. He pitted the restoration of the river Sabarmati in Ahmedabad against the poor record of the Delhi government in looking after the Yamuna, the capital’s lifeline river. The media has showered praise on the project.

Claims apart, what are the facts on the ground?

River Sabarmati, the lifeline of Ahmedabad, gained global recognition when Mahatma Gandhi set up his ashram on its bank in 1917, lived there for more than a decade and, in 1930 led from its bank the famous Dandi March that roused the entire nation. It was here that Gandhi successfully tested his principle of civil disobedience against unjust laws. He even tried to set up a model rural community at the site of the Sabarmati ashram.

With its headwaters in the rugged terrain of the Aravalli range in Rajasthan’s Udaipur district, the Sabarmati, one of the largest west flowing rivers of the region, meanders its way over 370 km before merging into the Arabian sea in the Gulf of Khambat. The twin cities of Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar are situated on its banks. A monsoon river, the Sabarmati sees high flows in the season followed by low flows in succeeding months. Gandhi, when he stayed at the Ashram, is said to have regularly bathed in the river.

River Sabarmati is a classic case that highlights how a dam can kill a river. In 1978 an irrigation and water supply dam constructed on the river at Dharoi, some 165 km upstream of Ahmedabad, resulted in a steady deterioration of downstream health of the river. Restoring the river required bringing back its natural flow. Instead what has happened is beautification of just 10.5 km stretch of the river channel within Ahmedabad city. By no stretch of imagination can this be called sustainable river restoration work.


In 1997, the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) set up the Sabarmati Riverfront Development Corporation Limited (SRFDCL) to work on the Sabarmati riverfront. But the key problem was that a western style river front required a perennial river—the Sabarmati needed its natural flow. For this purpose, water from the Narmada river canal was diverted into the Sabarmati just upstream of the Sardar Patel ring road encircling the city of Ahmedabad—this was an act of grave impertinence since neither AMC nor SRFDCL had any rights over the Narmada waters, meant for the Kachchh region of Gujarat.

The Narmada water has thus been made to provide a visual feel of a river over 10.5 km distance till the barrage at Vasana. While there is no river either upstream or downstream, there is a 10.5 km-long artificial water channel. A 370 km-long river is thus sought to be showcased over a mere 10.5 km stretch at a cost not just monetary but also ecological.

The erstwhile flood plain of the river within Ahmedabad has been put on the line to try and fund the mirage. Funds from the environment minstry, the Housing and Urban Development Corporation and the Jawharalal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission have been invested from time to time into the project.

Lest we are misunderstood, it is not our case that a river’s flood plains within or outside a city should not be protected against encroachment or dumping of waste material by unscrupulous elements. But that is not the case here. Ridding encroachments and waste dumping has become an alibi to concretise and irreversibly change the flood plains.

There are ghats and temples on river banks in India. But the western style river front development, that is being attempted on the Sabarmati, is an alien concept whence the river’s natural flow patterns and often multi-channels have been irreversibly altered into a single channel “canals” that go in the name of rivers.

The river’s natural flood plains have been appropriated into paved walkways (called promenades), commercial properties and real estate. Often such selling of the flood plains has been justified in the name of generating funds to finance riverfront development. That a river without its flood plain is like a human without limbs has been little appreciated or understood, until a high flood has struck.

Often we in India ape western ways without realising the key difference between our climate and theirs: what could be considered appropriate in a temperate climate is out of place in our tropical and monsoonal land. The concept and practice of riverfront development falls in this category. Some such examples from the “developed” West are river Thames in London and river Yarra in Melbourne. While such conversion of flood plains into artificial walkways and other incompatible uses is well known and are prima facie quiet pleasing to the human senses, that these are inappropriate—hence avoidable—is now being understood in more and more places. Even in the west, small patches of erstwhile flood plains are being returned to the river—often at huge costs.

Clearly, what is happening in Ahmedabad, no matter how tall the claims, is most inappropriate for any river in the country. We must learn lessons from the mistakes committed in the past by other countries, while managing their natural assets and heritage like rivers.

Manoj Misra is the convener of the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan

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  • I am not a fan of Mr. Modi

    I am not a fan of Mr. Modi (check www.dervishnote.blogspot.com) so you can be sure that my response does not come from some desire to protect him and his schemes.

    Indeed, it is because I am not a fan of Mr. Modi, that I believe my argument has stronger merit. The environmentalist movement in India has for a long time been prey to peculiar nativist sentiments. This is evidence for example in the manner in which this otherwise interesting article speaks about a "we" of a tropical land, and "them" of a temperate. India, is set up against the West, playing out a battle in which the "native" seeks liberation in all spheres. Thus, even a unique eco-system like that of Australia, is clubbed as "West" in your article.

    I do not contest the basic argument you forward. On the contrary, I think there is a great need to critique these superficial "green" projects. However, I do not believe a us vs. the West argument needs to be dragged in to buttress your argument. Doing so, only ensures that you underline the soft Hindutva argument that underpins so much of thought in India.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Congratulations, it is an eye

    Congratulations, it is an eye opener to other states that are thinking of such schemes.

    In Hyderabad, the government is talking of Sabarmati-like project on the Musi river, a filthy unhygenic waste water flow. Two drinking water reservoirs were built on the Musi and its tributary, the Easa. Only during the four rainy months there is some chance to get fresh water into the river. Most of the time it carries only wastewater.

    In Sabarmati, Narmada water flows but in the Musi, industrial and domestic sewage flows, and more than 50 per cent of the river banks are encroached.

    The objective here is to mint money as bribes by converting on either side of Musi Banks for commercial use under the disguise of recreational centres. Even in the case of Sabarmati river the treated domestic sewage as well treated industrial waste water are discharged -- I have seen the point of discharge. I went along with delegates from industry on the advise of Supreme Court Monitoring Committee.

    Andhra Pradesh government should stop wasting public money on Musi beautification instead protect the water bodies in the catchment areas and fill them with treated waste water which help in recharging dwindling groundwater.

    Dr. S. Jeevananda Reddy

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Is Narmada water being made

    Is Narmada water being made to flow in Sabarmati not supplied to city of Ahmedabad? This has furthered the idea of river interlinking project.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Great story with critical

    Great story with critical analysis. India is a rich country(in resources) with poor people. The Governments both at Centre and States besides Union territories should seek experts and intelligentsia views in solving major problems and for development.
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

    Posted by: Anonymous | 5 years ago | Reply
  • I read this article a few

    I read this article a few days ago and observed that it somehow fails to make the distinction between the environmental aspects and the urban design aspects of the project because the accolades for the Sabarmati riverfront development project are solely for the way it has revamped the city's public realm with a people-oriented nature of development through an innovating funding mechanism. Just that and nothing more. Don't mistake me here because I am not saying that urban design has to be devoid of environmental concerns at all. I'm just saying that while this project may have its drawbacks as regards the way it deals with the larger environmental context of a river and its ecology, it does score high on many other factors especially as regards how the riverfront integrates with the city and its culture along the 11km section that passes through Ahmedabad.

    Agreed, the use of a concrete edge may not have been the best choice but given the practical limitations (engineering concerns for flood protection and costs involved), it was a compromise which the design team later salvaged through landscaping and programming of the hard edges to make it less alienating and not so climatically inappropriate. And yes, the reclamation of lands on the river edge/ flood plains needs to be taken with a pinch of salt but how else is one to fund a project of this nature in this country? Is there a single precedent of a project of this scale that aims to provide 22km of a variety of public spaces for its citizens that has been funded by the Government (without going into deficit)? It would be useful to draw lessons on funding for public projects from this case rather than cry foul. There are lessons to be learnt but no need to take away the positives just because there are negatives.

    And finally, the constant harping about 'western' riverfront ideas only sounds like a case of sour grapes. Besides its only 11km of a 370km long river (hardly 3% of its length). There are projects that prioritize nature, there are projects that prioritize people, there are projects that prioritize nature & people AND there are projects that prioritize neither. In my opinion, the Sabarmati Riverfront Development is the 2nd category which I think is any day better that the 4th category. I wish the author had picked other utterly inappropriate and aped-from-the-west ideas that are proliferating in our cities in the name of development to express his angst. I'm referring to the ones in the 4th category.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 5 years ago | Reply
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