Environment and activist groups from Pune have been criticising the much sought-after Riverfront Development Project which aims to create a continuous public space across the rivers Mula, Mutha and their confluence which run across the city. Recently, The Pune wing of Fridays for Future – a climate change advocacy group by activist Greta Thunberg has levelled multiple allegations concerning the ecological prospects of the project.
The news came when The Mula-Mutha Riverfront Development project (RFD) was all set to roll out in March, 5 long years after its announcement in 2017. However, a section of city-based activists, residents including Fridays for Future Pune (FFF) have started targeting the concerns of the project. The organisation has alleged that the project encourages concretization of the river banks and reduces the width of the river channel which poses threat to the ecology and local ecosystem.
Activists part of the Fridays for Future outfit led an agitation on Friday, on the Bhide Bridge which crosses the river. Terming the bridge as ‘heritage’ and a ‘flood indicator’ FFF activists opposed the deconstruction of the bridge while calling the project an exercise in superficial beautification. However, The Detailed Project Report (DPR) prepared by Pune Municipal Corporation and Architect and Urban Designer Bimal Patel’s HCP has a different story to tell.
What is the Mula-Mutha Riverfront Development Project about?
The Riverfront Development Project in Pune entails creating a continuous public realm and flood treatments across a 44 km stretch of the three rivers in the city – namely Mula, Mutha and their confluence Mula Mutha. The river rejuvenation and cleaning project aims to reduce the risk of flooding and at the same time enhance the connection of the city with the river. The project team after thorough geological and social surveys has prepared a draft in which cleaning the river and avoiding pollution remain the primary concerns.
The project aims to integrate heritage structures, dynamic activity precincts like parks, gardens and temples, etc in the vicinity to create a common shared identity of the city. It is said that the project is based on the Sabarmati Riverfront in Ahmedabad – one of the first successful projects exploring the possibility of riverfronts in India. A team of renowned architects and urban designers led by Bimal Patel’s HCP is leading the project.
Despite its varied features, the project has been caught up in a controversy where activists are pointing out that the PMC is blatantly ignoring suggestions and studies by local experts and is moving forward with the project that will destroy river ecosystems. A sudden reaction from the environment and activists groups is however not stopping the ruling BJP to ask for votes over the ambitions of the project. The stoked-up criticism may also suggest political motives since municipal elections are around the corner. Meanwhile, the PMC has given a green signal to the project after the completion of a series of urban development projects concerning footpaths and road engineering in the city.
Debunking Myths peddled by Fridays for Future
Contrasting to certain facts, the groups of activists have made claims which find no ground in the DPR so prepared. One of the many allegations Fridays for Future has put is that the development of the riverfront is not being done with respect to the lay of the land and existing ecological conditions. A post on the Instagram page by FFF Pune says, “RFD is a plan to channelize river of Pune into canals, by building high concrete walls/embarkments along both the banks.”
According to the project report prepared by HCP, the embankments across the river banks will help reduce water entering into the city areas in cases of flooding. Embarkments not only dictate the flow of water but also create levels with varying degrees facilitating interaction between the river and the citizens. The slanting embankment covered with greens enhances the river bed section into a shape of a funnel and thus is able to contain water in a greater capacity to remove the risk of flooding.
The claims of brazen concretization of the riverfront have been refuted by Pune-based architect and urban enthusiast Vedant Vyas, who has previously submitted an alternative proposal for the riverfront as a thesis. Talking to OpIndia, he said, “It is ideal that most of the green cover is being retained on the sloping embarkments which will not result in a gain of latent heat in the ecosystem. The only intervention is the creation of pathways and cycle tracks that will allow the residents to connect with the river better.” While it is amply clear that existing gardens and parks which earlier had no connection with the river have been opened up on the riverfront by planning many activities such as yoga courts, recreational areas across the banks.
While talking about the commercialization of the Riverfront, Vyas added, “The provision of existing eateries, shops near the Z bridge is to be shifted away from the river and it will only help to boost the local economy of the region.”
Another point raised by the environmental organization was about ‘wasting taxpayers money’ over the project which seems to them a mere action in ‘beautification’. The activists have also opposed the idea of increased human footfalls in the vicinity of the river, which will supposedly threaten the aquatic ecosystem. In this case, it must be understood that riverfront projects, anywhere in the world aim to reclaim neglected urban spaces near water bodies while aiming at overall rejuvenation of the river. The DPR of the present RFD has made sure that the existing ecological features are not being comprised, and rather being elevated to suit newer purposes.
Increased human intervention in existing environmental contexts does not necessarily affect the ecosystem, but can also in turn make citizens aware of it. Through projects like riverfronts, urban development helps people connect with the existing flora in the city and make them aware of the nature of the river flowing through the city, which earlier was dying in neglect.
The riverfront project has also addressed social and cultural concerns by linking existing heritage structures like ghats, temples across the river by adapting them to suit the new development. Inventive interventions like building kunds for Ganapati Visarjan, connecting the Omkareshwar Mandir to the riverside by building stepped ghats have been charted out. The project, in this way, promotes social cohesion and paves way for traditions to continue as they contribute to the identity of the city.
What is Fridays for Future?
Fridays for Future is an environmental advocacy group started by Greta Thunberg which claims to fight for climate change issues across the world. The outfit has been flagged many times in the country during farmer agitations in North India. Greta Thunberg was caught red-handed when she was seen sharing a ‘tool-kit‘ document revealing a global campaign with a move to incite violence before the Republic Day riots on January 26 last year. The website of Fridays for Future India was banned after they spammed the mailbox of the then Environment Minister Prakash Javdekar.
The same organisation is also trying to stall the Bengaluru Metro project.
In the guise of environmental activism, activist groups and their connected networks often prove to be roadblocks on which infrastructure projects continue to stumble upon. From the ‘Narmada Bachao Movement’ to brazen propaganda against the Central Vista Project in New Delhi, the repetitive attempt to stop infrastructure projects suggest coming from a similar toolkit. Every time an urban development project is initiated, overarching allegations on the supposed threat to ecology, alleged wasteful expenditure and mythical propaganda about the stake of people in the project are activated. Mired in conspiracy, agenda and politics, the cabal of such activists somehow forgets to read the policy drafts, design proposals every time before the next agitation is planned.
While Punekars await for the riverfront to see the light as soon as possible, the dire attempts to stop the project cannot be ignored. Even though their dumbfound activism is relegated to the fringes, the pattern to stand as a roadblock in the development of the nation continues.