Pune riverfront project treats flood plain as urban land which can be subjected to any use


By Amruta Pradhan*

Three rivers (among some others) with a total length of 44km traverse through Pune city. Mula river flows a distance of 22.2 km, Mutha River 10.4 km and Mula-Mutha River 11.8 km. Plight of these rivers is well known. They have been featured in the list of 300 most polluted rivers of India. Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC), Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB), Maharashtra Water Resources Department (WRD) etc. have pulled number of controversies over river pollution, illegal construction of roads and townships through river bed and most recently Pune Metro being proposed through the river bed.

Making a case for ‘rejuvenation’ of the ‘neglected rivers’, PMC has now proposed Pune Riverfront Development Project (PRDP). The project has been designed by the same HCP Design Planning & Management Pvt. Ltd (HCP) led by Bimal Patel from Ahmedabad who conceived and implemented Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project (SRFDP).

Plight of Mula-Mutha

Rivers of Pune have consistently made headlines for pollution for the past four years and more. In a 2015 report of CPCB titled “River Stretches for Restoration of Water Quality” all the three Pune rivers were listed for their highly polluted (priority II) stretches. Out of 22 km length of Mula river which flows though the city, 6 km from Bopodi to Aundh Gaon; the entire 12 km stretch of Mutha river from downstream of Khadakwasla dam to Shivaji Nagar (just upstream of the Mula-Mutha confluence) and the 15 km of Mula-Mutha river flowing through the city have been flagged by CPCB for all the monitoring locations having BOD (biochemical oxygen demand) between 20-30 mg/l. According to the ‘Water Quality Standards for Best Designated Usages’ prescribed by MPCB water with BOD exceeding 10 mg/l is termed as ‘Not fit for human consumption, Fish & Wildlife Propagation’.

In 2018 report of CPCB, the stretches of Mula and Mutha have shifted under Priority I category. Mula-Mutha stretch continues to be under Priority II. Criteria for Priority I includes all monitoring locations exceeding BOD concentration of 6 mg/l. Another criterion for Priority I stretches is that at certain locations the BOD exceeds level of 30 mg/l which is a discharge standard for sewage treatment plants and effluent treatment plants to fresh water sources. What this means is the river water at these locations is more of effluent than fresh water.

It is this effluent like water which is unfit to support any aquatic life flows through the river in non-monsoon seasons.

Mula-Mutha rivers also face severe encroachment. According to the DMP of PRDP; 437 ha of area falling within red line (46%) has been encroached. PMC also has routinely violated the red and blue flood lines. In year 2000 PMC constructed a road through the Mutha Riverbed from Mhatre Bridge to Sambhaji Bridge and then to Shivaji Bridge over a distance of 4.3 km. In 2013 a 2.3 km long (and 24 m wide) road from Vitthalwadi to NH-4 bypass was being constructed illegally through the Mutha Riverbed. This was subsequently challenged in NGT. In its final judgment in July 2013 NGT ordered the road to be realigned. Subsequently a contempt petition was filed when PMC failed to comply with the orders where the NGT in January 2015 again ordered removal of the constructed road. Currently 1.7 km stretch of Vanaz-Ramwadi Metro corridor is proposed through left bank of river Mutha. Along with this a 30 m wide road with a length of 7.4 km has also been proposed within Mutha riverbed as a part of 2007-27 DP of Pune city.

Pune Riverfront Development Project (PRDP)

With such dire state of Pune’s rivers, PRDP has been introduced making some attractive promises. It promises to make the river as a clean, aesthetic, people friendly, green space. In a city like Pune experiencing more and more space crunch and shrinking green areas owning to its haphazard growth; such a promise is indeed a valuable one. Another promise that it makes is to restore the river water quality, “enhance its ecology” by retaining and replenishing water. This is another valuable promise considering the dire state of the river stinking with sewage water and filth.

While these promises sound very optimistic, the project design seems to ignore some vital bio-physical and social interactions between the river, the landscape through which it flows and the people that occupy that landscape. The project has been designed making numerous bio-physical and social assumptions. Careful look at them shows that there is a huge probability that the interactions between the river and the landscape may not go as imagined and the river may not behave as assumed. As a result, it may increase Pune city’s vulnerability multifold in terms of flood and water quality; especially with predicted changes in rainfall due to climate change.

The project shows lack of understanding of the bio-physical reality of the river

The project is clearly concerned about only select elements of the Pune’s rivers viz. flow, floods, land in the floodplains and the river water quality. These elements however do not exist in isolation. They are a result underlying bio-physical processes which are the essence of the river ecosystem.

Bio-physically speaking, river is a ceaseless flow of water (resulting from gravity) along with processes of erosion and sedimentation. River ecosystems encompass river channels, its floodplains and riparian areas forming a diverse mosaic of habitats at the transition zone between the land and water. Rightly termed as a ‘living ecosystem’, river is much more than just being a conduit of water. It is a sum of complex interactions between abiotic physical-chemical components of the river such as water flow, sediments, substrate, light, temperature, dissolved oxygen, pH etc. and the biotic components such as plants, animals, microorganisms adapted to the variations of the flow.

They all play a crucial role in maintaining the flow of important provisioning services for humans such as freshwater supply, groundwater recharge; regulating services such as buffering flood flows and maintaining the water quality and supporting services such as breaking down waste, nutrient recycling and maintaining the primary productivity. Thus as important as river’s channel are the riparian belts, hyporheic zone, flood plains and the aquatic biodiversity.

The most striking aspect of the project designed around real estate in the name of flood and water quality is the denial for these vital underlying processes.

The aim of the project, the DPR states, is:

“The riverfront is proposed to be developed as a green and recreational space that can transform the existing neglected waterfront into a centre for social, cultural and recreational activities in the city. It will create a vibrant and a completely public riverfront which will provide many opportunities for leisure and recreation.”

While proposing to make river banks as a place for leisure and recreation, the project treats the flood plain of the river as urban land which can be subjected to any landuse. In the process it denies the bio-physical functions that the floodplains of the river perform such as maintaining the base flows, silt deposition, recharging groundwater, providing habitat for the aquatic & floodplain diversity and most importantly- make a room for flood water etc.

*Excerpts from the paper “Pune Riverfront Development Project: Encroachment in the name of Rejuvenation?” by the author published in the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People site https://sandrp.in. Click HERE to read full paper

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