Sabarmati's sorrow

Print edition : January 28, 2011

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi during a visit to the work site on the riverfront. A file photograph. - PTI

The multi-crore Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project in Ahmedabad suffers from serious flaws.

WE are only pinching' the Sabarmati over a 10-kilometre stretch as it passes through the centre of Ahmedabad, explains Bimal Patel, consultant to the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC), which has conceived and initiated the controversial Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project. We wouldn't cause any damage, for the sake of the city.

The architect of the new Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad building is fond of the phrase pinching the river. He dismisses the contention of environmentalists and concerned citizens that the project will interfere with the carrying capacity of the river. If one narrows the river over a stretch, its flow over that distance increases, he asserts. The carrying capacity can be measured by the square metres of river pinched multiplied by the velocity of the river. Any constriction accentuates the flow of water, he notes, justifying the riverfront project.

The Berkeley-educated architect illustrates the hydrology by comparing the constriction to a garden hose. If you want to reach plants some distance away, you tighten your grip on the hose so that the water spurts out further. This does not affect the flow of water in the hose. In the same manner, narrowing the river will not interfere with the natural flow of water.

The project isn't delayed, Patel says. We are giving finishing touches to the lower promenade. The project is in the heart of Ahmedabad city [with a population of four million]. We have only built up to the existing bank [by reclaiming land]. Everybody who can afford it has built a wall so that their properties don't get washed away when the river floods. Even the Gandhi Ashram built such a wall in the 1960s. In fact, our office extends up to the riverbank. We have provided access to the Sabarmati, which was denied earlier because of the slums. The only way that Amdavadis could see the river was by standing on a bridge. There was just a sliver of land [where the famous Itvari, or Sunday market, used to be held] accessible, just like the beach off Marine Drive in Mumbai, he explains.

Vatsal Patel, an AMC official in charge of the project, adds: The Sabarmati is not a perennial river. Its flow depends on the rainfall in its catchment in the Aravalli hills in Rajasthan. The Sabarmati flows forlornly for most part of the year. Water is released from the Dharoi dam when compelled to. If the monsoon is good, Vatsal Patel believes, water can be released in August. We have installed sophisticated early warning systems. In 2006, though, the Sabarmati did flood Ahmedabad and cause havoc when the Dharoi dam, 200 km away, released its excess water in a heavy monsoon. The Sabarmati is normally like a drain. Fifty years ago its water was potable. In 2006, the flow was 4.5 cusecs versus 0.5 normally.

A huge crowd gathers to watch the Sabarmati after water was released from three dams in August 2006.-AJIT SOLANKI/AP

The media took a very negative view of the damage caused by the floods, Vatsal Patel complains. Some sections of the wall, built temporarily with reinforced cement concrete, were washed away, along with materials and equipment. Some of the equipment was retrieved half a kilometre downstream. We have trained and controlled the river so that it does not flow into the city's nullahs and flood the low-lying areas. In London, the Houses of Parliament had to be closed in 1833 in view of the stench emanating from the polluted Thames and a wall was built to keep the river in place. We have to guide the river so that it does not go anywhere in the city: the safety of people is equally important.

Reports in the media, however, tell a different story. Although it has been under construction for 13 years, the Rs.1,287-crore project is unduly delayed. Only some 40 per cent has been completed. Corporation officials blame the rise in steel prices for the delay.

The retaining walls, between four and six metres high, will be built by reclaiming land from the riverbank and reaching the existing edge of the bank. Regrettably, the design leans too heavily, visually and conceptually, on the South Bank of the Thames or the banks of the Seine in Paris. However, South Bank has a throbbing cultural centre as its focal point, which casual strollers can also enjoy. As for the Seine, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has bowed to public pressure and transformed some of the riverside roads into an actual beach, replete with sand, where Parisians can sunbathe oblivious of the traffic a few metres above them. Zurich has similarly banned cars from one bank of its riverfront, following public pressure and a referendum. Seoul has removed the highway that had asphalted a small river running through the city centre, and restored it as a green belt. Nowhere have people been displaced for such public amenities.

Ironically, it was a French architect, Bernard Kohn, who lived in Ahmedabad in the 1960s, who proposed the riverfront plan to Union Finance Minister Morarji Desai in 1961. Ahmedabad was, after Chandigarh, a magnet for world-class architects such as Le Corbusier, Louis Kahn, Balkrishna Doshi, Anant Raje and Charles Correa. Presumably, Kohn hoped to gain Morarji Desai's sympathy as he was from Gujarat. Morarji Desai wrote back that it was necessary to initiate thinkingand stimulate general interest in the solution of the problem. In the 1970s, a proposal by a consortium, which included Bimal Patel's architect-father Hasmukh, himself a prominent Amdavadi architect, and another proposal in the 1990s, sank without a trace owing to shortage of funds.

A Dhobi Ghat on the bank of the river. The slums now face relocation.-DARRYL D'MONTE

Bimal revived the scheme in 1998, suggesting that a fifth of the land reclaimed from the riverbank the total will be 168 hectares could be sold to recover the original project estimate of Rs.361 crore.

Jehangir Cama, who owns the city's oldest posh hotel, which bears his family's name and is on the riverfront, alleges: It is a big scam in the name of a river-beautification project. At a panel discussion in October, organised by Our Inclusive Ahmedabad, a concerned citizens' forum, and the Centre for Urban Equity at CEPT University in the city, Ghanshyam Shah, a well-regarded researcher on social issues, said: The riverfront development is made for a big mall. Those who used it for generations have been thrown out.

The project seeks to develop the riverfront on either side of the Sabarmati by constructing embankments and roads, laying water supply lines and trunk sewers, building pumping stations, and developing gardens and promenades. The reclaimed land will be sold and slum-dwellers along the river will be resettled. The project is being managed, under Chief Minister Narendra Modi's personal supervision, by a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) company, wholly owned by the AMC. This is to avoid the delays associated with municipal decision-making and facilitate fund-raising. Despite these measures, the efficient Gujarat administration has run aground, literally and metaphorically, on the bed of the Sabarmati.

Bimal Patel believes that owing to rising prices of real estate, only 15 per cent of the reclaimed land, or around 35 hectares, has to be sold. Some 46 hectares is to be used for roads, 15 hectares for rehabilitation and resettlement, 22 hectares for commercial development and 13 hectares for residential development. The remaining land will be allocated for public utilities and amenities. Jehangir Cama said, From the speed at which the work is being pushed, it appears that a few major developers and builders' greed is the prime moving force behind the entire project. The riverbed was originally the property of the AMC, but it has now been transferred to the SPV.

WORK ON THE riverfront project under way (above and below) at two places in a 10-km stretch of the Sabarmati.-DARRYL D'MONTE

The main proposal for roads envisages a six-lane East River Drive ( a la the one along the Hudson river in Manhattan, New York) and a four-lane West River Drive. Some 40 hectares of parks and gardens will be created along the river's edge, while there will be an uninterrupted promenade with widths varying from 5 m to 17 m and a tree-lined walkway, the one truly welcome feature of the project if it does not involve uprooting thousands of slum-dwellers.

The most controversial aspect of the project is the resettlement of 4,400 families from the riverbanks. The AMC has fixed 1976 as the cut-off date for eligibility, says a report made on the basis of a public hearing on Habitat and Livelihood Displacements, which was released at a CEPT panel discussion in October by Our Inclusive Ahmedabad. Ironically, while a certain section of the displaced households is eligible under the Basic Services for the Urban Poor component of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, many of them have not been given a house because they do not have proof of residence for 1976, the report states.

At the CEPT panel discussion, Professor Illabehn Pathak, director of the Ahmedabad Women's Action Group (AWAG), said she saw women living in ruins with their utensils and small nothings, everything lost when their ramshackle shanties were demolished. Mothers couldn't give milk to their children. In the relocated site, a few km away, there was no water, latrines, lighting or dispensaries. An adolescent didn't want to eat at night for fear of being raped when she went to relieve herself. There were only ten communal taps and women were reduced to fighting like animals. Poor women had been made poorer. Throwing them out of their abodes is disrespectful to our culture.

Professor Neelkanth Chhaya, a CEPT teacher and architect, referred to the termination of the Sunday market on the sandy shore. At an inter-disciplinary studio he ran two years ago, the participants were asked to put down in writing (in Gujarati) their views on the project. Everyone objected to the riverfront development, he recalled. They were worried that they would be cut off from their world and agreed that ecological problems would affect the city. The emphasis of the State government on converting Ahmedabad into a world-class city betrayed a mindset that goes with such development. The visual simplicity covered all sorts of disorders.


Bimal Patel took a few critics with him to the slums that were due for demolition and to the resettlement sites. The 4,400 eligible households will each get a finished 24-sq metre apartment, with all amenities. Rehabilitation and resettlement was built into the project from day one, he asserts. He concedes that the displaced will lose their jobs: I wouldn't like to be displaced myself!

In a welcome departure, the apartment is given in the wife's name so that the husband does not sell it and squander the money. Paradoxically, this has led, in a few instances, to husbands divorcing their wives and throwing them out to claim ownership of the new apartment.

The aspect that has probably received the least attention but is a crucial one is the ecological impact. There are recent cases of State governments concretising riverbanks under the mistaken impression that this will prevent floods. Project authorities and their political patrons believe in engineering solutions to tame rivers running through big cities.

The Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority, Mumbai's apex planning body, actually reclaimed mangrove forests on the Mithi's banks to build the new central business district of Bandra-Kurla. Its own office backs onto the Mithi, just 15 metres away.

Developers suffer from ecological illiteracy and cities face its consequences. This illiteracy cost Mumbai dearly when the cloudburst in July 2005 caused the Mithi to burst its banks and inundate parts of the city. Delhi has permitted construction on the banks of the Yamuna. Recently, a building in east Delhi, along the Yamuna, collapsed owing to water-logging and claimed 70 lives. NDTV's 24 Hours programme in September pointed out that the Akshardham temple is built on the banks of the Yamuna.

Citing Akshardham as a precedent, buildings were built on the banks of the Yamuna for the Commonwealth Games. A TV panelist referred to how architects were building structures along riverbanks, as if this was London or Paris; they forgot the monsoon. Riverbanks serve as floodplains. When walls are built to contain a river's fury, it can trigger a catastrophe. We are treating rivers as drains, a panelist at the CEPT discussion observed.

A letter from the Editor

Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.


R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor