Ram Nadi citizens in Pune, on a hunger strike to save their river

Ram Nadi, a small rivulet that flows through western parts of Pune, has provided water to the residents of Bhugaon town and parts of Pune in the past.


A riparian zone (river bank) is a very productive and critical area along a river. It helps in absorbing floodwaters, feeds aquifers or vice versa, purifies water, provides habitat for fish, water birds and riparian vegetation, and acts as an invaluable environmental education site for children and citizens. Riparian areas are efficient at processing organic matter, sediments and sediment-bound pollutants. They also regulate microclimates, remove phosphorus and nitrogen containing compounds, reduce coliform and pathogens and transform animal waste and chemical fertiliser into less harmful substances. Riparian areas are extremely valuable ecosystems and can even serve as natural water treatment facilities, saving money, time and the environment. For more information, refer to 'Putting a price to riparian corridors as water treatment facilities' (http://www.watershednetwork.org/). Unfortunately, the importance of riparian zones is not appreciated at all and we have been losing these areas to short sighted urban planning and encroachments.

Ram Nadi’s question of identity

It has a recent reservoir and an ancient bund which had a 1 MLD treatment plant providing drinking water to a suburb. Pashan Lake, on Ram Nadi provided a stopover for endangered Sarus and Siberian Cranes, while the Someshwar temple built by Jijabai, Shivaji Maharaj's mother, on the banks of Ram Nadi is an important cultural and religious landmark of Pune. The banks here have beautifully carved ghats and kunds. Looking at the value of all this, the discussion of whether Ram Nadi is a river or a stream seems redundant. What difference would this nomenclature make to the river?

However, in todays times, the importance of this semantic discussion cannot be underestimated because if we accept it is a river, it should be entitled to a wider green zone. Supposedly a green zone along a river, where no construction can take place should be 30 metres, while it is 7.5 metres for a stream. However, there is considerable ambiguity regarding these classifications. Unfortunately Ram Nadi gets neither 30 meters nor 7.5 meters along its banks; the river is encroached on and bullied by apartment complexes and buildings into a narrow channel.

When disaster struck

Since the past few years (especially since 2007), Ram Nadi has been experiencing devastating floods. The intensity of these floods has been directly proportionate to the encroachments along its banks and its channel by huge apartment complexes, which interestingly have legitimate building permissions. So whatever happened to the green zone mentioned in the Development Plan?

In October 2010, citizens of the Bavdhan and Pashan area experienced the fury of the Ram Nadi and its tributaries when nearly the entire Bavdhan area was submerged under water. In a single society, residents faced Rs. 2-3 lakhs in damages each; 4 people drowned, including a 25 year old PhD researcher working in the National Chemical Laboratory. The streams, which were built over, broke their confinements;  walls, shanties and houses collapsed causing further casualties.

Impacts of floods in Ramnagar Colony Source; Rajendra Teredesai, RamnagarImpacts of floods in Ramnagar Colony. Source: Rajendra Teredesai, Ramnagar

 

Flooded houses in Bavdhan, Source: Sakal TimesFlooded houses in Bavdhan. Source: Sakal Times

Learning their lesson the hard way, Bavdhan's citizens pulled together and have been following up with the Pune Municipal Corporation and Collector’s office to remove encroachments from the river's path. Most of these encroachments are in the form of posh apartments complexes that profess to be ‘in the lap of nature’, or near the ‘enchanting brookside’! These buildings, including the Indian Meteorological Department Hostel, have been built right in the river and stream channel. When two such buildings are built on opposite banks, they form a narrow channel, which accelerates the flow of water, causing more erosion and disruption downstream. Roads (including the Pune-Mumbai Highway) have been built over the river and its streams, with tiny pipes underneath to allow the river to flow. Most of the time, these pipes are choked with garbage and construction debris before the rains, so the roads above become the river’s alternate route to flow.

 

An apartment complex 'Pebbels' dumping mud right into the river channelAn apartment complex 'Pebbles' dumping mud right into the river channel.


An Apartment complex Pinnacle Brookside in Bavdhan area, next to RamNadi. Notice the outlet draining in the river. Photo with thanks from: Ravi Karandeekar’s BlogAn apartment complex, Pinnacle Brookside in Bavdhan area, next to Ram Nadi. Notice the outlet draining into the river.
Photo courtesy: Ravi Karandeekar

 

Dumping of construction debris in the river. Source: Ravi Karandeekar’s BlogDumping of construction debris in the river. Source: Ravi Karandeekar

 

A positive outcome of this crisis is that it has brought the citizens of Bavdhan together, and has raised their awareness about their river, its ecology, the water birds and goods and services that it can provide, if used judiciously. Two months earlier, a group of residents halted the work of a company on the bank opposite to them, which was planning to build a retaining wall in the river channel. It was refreshing and heartening to see engineers, housewives and children holding placards and shouting slogans to save ‘their’ river.

Citizens of Sai Kamal Society, Bavdhan protesting against encroachment of an industry in the Ram Nadi channel. Source: Parineeta DandekarCitizens of Sai Kamal Society, Bavdhan protesting against encroachment of an industry in the Ram Nadi channel.
Source: Parineeta Dandekar

 

Citizens of Sai Kamal Society, Bavdhan protesting against encroachment of an industry in the Ram Nadi channel. Source: Parineeta DandekarCitizens of Sai Kamal Society, Bavdhan protesting against encroachment of an industry in the Ram Nadi channel.
Source: Parineeta Dandekar

 

The construction did actually stop and the company also hastily removed all the muck that it had deposited in the river bed. However, this was made possible only because the residents actually went to the site personally and halted work. All their letters to the company and the administration had fallen on deaf ears. On the 26th of last month, they also organised a river walk where residents as well as journalists walked along the Ram Nadi and saw the encroachments themselves.

Residents on a hunger strike

Pune Jal Biradari and Bavdhan residents sent a number of letters to the Pune Municipal Corporation and Collector to remove these encroachments. However, the same departments who had promised ‘fast and proactive’ flood protection and river cleaning works after the floods, did not respond with any positive action. In retaliation, a group of concerned residents and members of Jalbiradari Pune have been on a relay hunger strike against the apathetic response from the Commissioner and Collector, demanding strict action again encroachments immediately. On the first day of the strike, no official from the PMC or the Collector’s office visited the venue.

Citizens of Bavdhan on Hunger Strike Source: Parineeta Dandekar and Dainik BhaskarCitizens of Bavdhan on hunger strike
Source: Parineeta Dandekar and Dainik Bhaskar

 

Citizens of Bavdhan on Hunger Strike Source: Parineeta Dandekar and Dainik BhaskarCitizens of Bavdhan on hunger strike
Source: Parineeta Dandekar and Dainik Bhaskar

 

Citizens of Bavdhan on Hunger Strike Source: Parineeta Dandekar and Dainik BhaskarCitizens of Bavdhan on hunger strike
Source: Parineeta Dandekar and Dainik Bhaskar

 

Citizens of Bavdhan on Hunger Strike Source: Parineeta Dandekar and Dainik Bhaskar
Citizens of Bavdhan on hunger strike
Source: Parineeta Dandekar and Dainik Bhaskar

 

And Ram Nadi is not alone - all urban water bodies in Pune (and India!) share this fate. Citizens of the neighbouring Dev Nadi, for instance, have created this Wiki page for their river.

It has become evident that Pollution Control Boards or Municipal Treatment Plants have made no difference to the health or quality of water in our rivers. Let us hope that such citizen-led initiatives, which are born out of dire need and love for their rivers, will pave the way for a more participatory and sensitive approach to urban river management.

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