Hyacinth covers the Mula river at Aundh in Pune, indicating the heavy sewage load flowing into the river. (HT )
Hyacinth covers the Mula river at Aundh in Pune, indicating the heavy sewage load flowing into the river. (HT )

Civic Sanskriti: Riverfront devp has more under-currents than free-flowing solutions

Rivers of Pune need conservation; while construction and commercialisation on floodplains will be counter-productive and increase risk, says Sanskriti Menon
By Sanskriti Menon
PUBLISHED ON MAY 04, 2021 04:39 PM IST

Over 250 individuals attended an online meeting last Sunday on the proposed Mula Mutha riverfront development project which had a presentation from a municipal official.

Conducted very cordially by Sajag Nagrik Manch, the meeting provided information about the project, estimated to cost 2,619 crore. Participants highlighted several concerns they feel should be addressed by the city authorities. Fundamental questions raised at the Sajag meet were:

“Who asked for this project?”

“If your mother is ill, do you take her to the hospital or the beauty parlour?”

“Why this massive expense for Pune’s citizens in Covid times?”

Similar concerns have been expressed by a member of Parliament, and other citizens, in letters to the municipal commissioner last month.

There is agreement with the riverfront project that the current state of the rivers is of concern, especially that untreated sewage is discharged into rivers. There is also agreement on removing debris and waste, and preventing future dumping.

However, there are different views about what exactly are the other problems being addressed. Since there isn’t an agreement about the problems, there is certainly no agreement about the solutions.

The project highlights flooding impacts on residences and business close to the river, and proposes construction of high walls and embankments for protection.

But why were buildings permitted in flood prone areas in the first place. Now, a cheaper, less destructive solution may be to rehabilitate flood-affected households in other locations.

Removing debris and roads in the riverbed would improve the river’s carrying capacity. However, constructing metro pillars in the river would again reduce it.

NGOs have highlighted studies from IITM that indicate an increasing number of extreme rainfall events in the country due to climate change. They also draw attention to a report by TERI ‘Assessing Climate Change Vulnerability and Adaptation Strategies for Maharashtra’ prepared for the state government Environment Dept, which projects an increase in rainfall by 10 to 32.5% by 2030. We are already experiencing this in Pune.

The NGOs point out that creation of walls and embankments along the river will further inhibit the drainage of flash flood waters, creating greater risk for people living along the streams draining into the rivers.

Further, the project proposes commercialization of the flood plains of the river to raise funds, for conserving the river. However, if the river bed and flood plains are destroyed, what is left to be conserved.

The cumulative impact of construction of metro pillars, pipelines and the changes in the concretized streams and paving in the surrounding landscape as well as the increasing frequency of extreme rainfall events need to be taken into account.

The municipal corporation needs to address urban flooding at a cityscape and regional level, rather than through modifying the river channel and building walls.

It is to the credit of the project consultants that springs have been mapped and would be integrated into the project design. On the other hand, the project includes beautification of the banks and laying cycling and jogging tracks. Beautification is proposed with creation of ‘rural riparian’ banks, but ecologists disagree.

Dr Swati Gole, Ecological Society cautions that the construction of walls to contain floods, creation of artificial green spaces on the embankments and a continuous body of impounded water would completely destroy the river biodiversity. Rocky outcrops and natural banks are part of this valuable biodiversity. A study by the Ecological Society shows the different habitats along the river, the conservation concerns, and a different approach to river restoration. The report is available at https://tinyurl.com/ES-CEE-MMReport

Visits to the river show direct dependence on the river ecosystem such as collection of medicinal plants, small patches of vegetable growing, sheep grazing, and fishing. Instead of formal green landscapes that displace some of the poorest citizens of Pune, the design could integrate such subsistence uses of the river ecosystem. In fact as early as the 80s, Shri Prakash Gole spoke about creating utility points for laundries and rickshaw washing and treatment of their wastewater using eco-friendly technologies like root zone beds.

Public surveys and consultations were done to develop the proposals. However, now the full project proposals are available. Other project documents such as the metro line, scientific inputs on climate change, as well as the ecological study of the river are also now available. All of these need to be considered together.

Now is the time for widespread deliberations on the proposals with multi-disciplinary scientists, especially ecologists, and the public. The municipal corporation should not be in a hurry to implement this large-scale project without such deliberation.

The rivers are a defining feature of our city. The Mula Mutha and other rivers of Pune need protection, conservation and restoration, but construction and commercialization will be counter-productive and may increase risk. Let the experiences, concerns and knowledge from multiple minds inform the way forward, much like a river itself forms.

Sanskriti Menon is senior programme director, Centre for Environment Education. She writes on urban sustainability and participatory governance. Views are personal. She can be reached at civic.sanskriti@gmail.com

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