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India: Was Sabarmati project truly about river restoration or a way for real estate developers to earn big bucks?

4 November 2014

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India Water Portal

Sleight of hand in the Sabarmati

Chicu Lokgariwar

Posted on September 29, 2014

The Sabarmati is being widely touted as a revived river but is the Sabarmati project truly a ’restoration’ project or is it just a way to enable real estate developers to earn big money?

A view of the concrete-bound Sabarmati

’Sabarmati ke Sant, tune kar diya kamaal’. Oh Saint of Sabarmati, you have done wonders’ goes the popular song. Today, it is the Sabarmati herself who is supposed to be the subject of a miracle. After all, she is the star of the much acclaimed riverfront development, along the lines of which even the Yamuna and the Ganga might be revived.

But is it really restoration or is it an illusion? ’Let’s start at the very beginning’, as the old song goes, and look at what we would consider a ’restored’ river.

According to Judy Meyer (1997), "a healthy stream is an ecosystem that is sustainable and resilient, maintaining its ecological structure and function over time while continuing to meet societal needs and expectations". Jargon stripped, it simply describes a river such as that a child might draw- a flowing body of water that:

  • collects water from the land around it
  • is peopled by fish and birds and animals
  • supports a few fisherfolk and
  • ultimately meets either another river or the sea.

Some rivers are perennial and flow throughout the year; some are seasonal and run dry in summer. Both are natural states and the beings dependent on them have adapted to each. A restored river then, is one that has been transformed from a previously unsatisfactory state to that of a river that maintains its longitudinal integrity (from the source to the confluence/outlet) and fulfils its ecological functions (supporting wildlife, land forming, etc).

The Sabarmati at night (Photo: Usha Dewani)

Let us now contrast this picture with the Sabarmati today. For all but 11 kilometers of its 370 kilometer length, the river bed is dry with occasional pools of stagnant water, which, while worsened due to an upstream dam, is not as shocking as it sounds, for the Sabarmati is a seasonal river. For the length that the river flows through Ahmedabad, it is filled with water that has been brought in from the Narmada. When the river exits Ahmedabad, the water exits the river and goes on to irrigate the lands of the rich farmers of Gujarat as part of the controversial Sardar Sarovar Project. Upstream and downstream of the city, and along the banks of the river, are concrete embankments that convert this fragmented river into a large swimming pool. So much for the longitudinal integrity of the river!

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