Damned by pollution, doomed by beautification

The River Front Development project planned by the PMC is nothing but a cosmetic makeover for the already choked Mula Mutha river in Pune, argues Dr Gurudas Nulkar while speaking to the India Water Portal.
15 Jun 2022
0 mins read
The highly polluted and encroached Mula Mutha river in Pune (Image: Alexey Komarov via Wikimedia Commons)
The highly polluted and encroached Mula Mutha river in Pune (Image: Alexey Komarov via Wikimedia Commons)

Pune has been a water rich city and the Mula and the Mutha rivers that flow through the city are tributaries that join to form the Mula Mutha river in the city that joins the Bhima and then later, the Krishna river.

However, the city is increasingly getting water stressed with its growing population, rapid urbanisation, depleting groundwater levels and the poor state of its rivers. In fact, rivers in Pune figure among the 300 most polluted rivers of India.

The Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC), Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB), Maharashtra Water Resources Department (WRD) have been blamed for this increasing pollution and neglect of the rivers in the city. Illegal construction of roads and townships through the river bed and the recently proposed Pune Metro through the river bed have also spelled doom for the city’s rivers.

As if this is not enough, a recent initiative by the PMC proposes ‘rejuvenation’ of the ‘neglected rivers’ through the Pune Riverfront Development Project (PRDP).

The project has been designed by the HCP Design Planning & Management Pvt. Ltd (HCP) from Ahmedabad by Bimal Patel, the consultant that designed the Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project (SRFDP), which has been touted as a successful attempt to develop the Sabarmati riverfront.

Citizens, activists, environmentalists, scientists and experts across the city  vehemently oppose the Pune RFD project and argue that this effort is merely cosmetic and will do nothing to change the state of the river. Many have questioned the underlying assumptions upon which the project has been designed.

Dr Gurudas Nulkar, Professor and Head of Symbiosis Centre for Climate change and Sustainability, and a member of the board of Ecological Society speaks to the India Water Portal on the background to the RFD project and why it is being opposed by environmentalists, experts, activists and citizens alike, in Pune.

What is the peculiarity of Pune city and its hydrology? What are the problems that the city has been facing in recent years in terms of the state of its rivers, biodiversity?

Pune receives medium rainfall, but is located at the foothills of the Sahyadri mountains that form the source of major Indian Peninsular rivers. The mountains received over 6000 mm of rains in the monsoon. The Sahyadri divides this precipitation into two regions, one half being diverted to the Arabian sea and the other draining in to the Bay of Bengal. Most of the rainfall to the East of the Sahyadri is dammed. However, there is enormous land in the free catchment which still reaches the rivers.

Pune city has five rivers, Mula, Mutha, Ramnadi, Devnadi and Pavana that join up  to form the Mula-Mutha. In short, water flows into Pune from 5 different catchments and there is only one outlet to that, the Mula-Mutha river. Pune’s topography is saucer shaped, which leads to water gushing down from different directions from the catchments when it rains heavily. This water must normally reach the rivers, but the urban sprawl has now changed the natural contours and flows due to which the water does not reach the river. This is a major reason for the frequent flooding in the city.

And the frequency of flooding is on the rise in Pune over the last few years as urbanisation is leading to more changes in the land use, destruction of natural habitats and landscapes, and the obliteration of first and second order streams. At the same time, rainfall patterns are also changing due to climate change, leading to more rainfall in shorter time spans. This too has added to increased incidences of flooding in the city.

The rivers in Pune are monsoon fed so they are not full of water all the year round, they do have small flows due to the streams and springs that feed them. However, we have turned them into perennial rivers that overflow with untreated sewage from the city.  This has given the rivers in Pune the distinction of being the most polluted in the country, and exposed the population in the vicinity of rivers to health hazards. Similarly, this has had a detrimental impact on the river ecology and the biological diversity around the rivers.

What is the River Front Development ( RFD) project? Why was it proposed? What are some of the features/objectives of the project?

The River Front Development (RFD) project has been proposed by the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) on the 44 kilometre stretch of the Mula Mutha river to deal with its poor state and prevent flooding in the city. The Detailed Project Report (DPR) of the RFD says that the project aims at preventing floods, reviving and rejuvenating rivers and developing a link between the river and its citizens. But the reality is very different. The RFD does not look at the river as a living ecosystem, it looks at it just as an economic resource and carrier of water.

What are the problems with the RFD project? Why are citizens, activists, environmentalists, ecologists, experts, organisations in Pune opposing it?

In reality, the RFD project is more about artificial beautification of the river, not rejuvenation at all. It involves channelising and converting the river into canals by constructing walls (embankments) on the riverbed using cement, tar, paver blocks, rock pitching and other material. This will involve straightening of the river banks, which is an ecologically disastrous idea. Making the banks permanent with any such material, including concrete, is disastrous for the river.  

And mind you, a river is a living system. It has different water velocity at different points; such as high velocity at the source, medium in the plains and very slow at the end of its journey. The river takes different paths, picking up sand, pebbles, silt and organic matter as it snakes through different landscapes.

The river bank is never a straight line and never permanent, but is flexible and depends on the river flow and forms a gradual gradient where water touches and mixes with the soil on its banks and supports different kinds of plants and animals depending on the habitat created.  

One of the main consequences of river straightening is that it can become shorter and steeper. We have already channelised the river - narrowing it further will result in faster flow and higher water levels when it rains heavily leading to floods. This is exactly what is seen from the DPR.

This can also lead to more erosion of the river banks and increase in siltation and turbidity affecting all animals living in and near the waters. This could lead to irreversible damage of the river ecosystem. River straightening can also reduce the river’s self-purification capacity because of shortened contact of the water, lesser oxygen mixing, which affects life in the river bed.

The RFD embankments will be constructed inside the floodlines, which will narrow the cross section of the river. The Water Resources Department has defined the floodlines for the river and warned the PMC not to reduce the cross section of the river . Apart from the embankments, three barrages are planned to be constructed two on the Mutha and one on the Mula Mutha river. These will stagnate the already polluted river leading to drop in oxygen levels. This will further deteriorate the biodiversity and allow invasive species like hyacinth to cover the water. We have seen this phenomenon in the Sabarmati RFD project.

The RFD project report mentions that the Central Water and Power Research Station (CWPRS) has given approval to this project after in depth hydrological study of the rivers. However, the CWPRS has categorically stated that they have not studied the RFD nor are they the approving authority. Both these letters are available with the PMC .

Environment clearance obtained for the RFD has been taken from the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA) but there are several questions arising in the approval.  

The DPR of the RFD has no mention of climate change in any of its sections, nor any consideration of the changing rainfall. Everyone knows how the rainfall is affecting rivers and floods.

Also, in the entire project, there is no mention of purifying or cleaning the rivers. How can there be rejuvenation without clean water, one wonders? This is not about river rejuvenation at all as there is no consideration for the river ecology anywhere in the report.

As citizen, we must take the blame, since we are responsible for the sewage. Our rivers are no longer living entities, but for us, they are just bridges to be crossed. The RFD does not address the critical need to change human-river relations. The project will bring along huge earth moving equipment that will change the river bed, the banks and the course. Cement, tar, paver blocks and lawns will change her banks. In all this activity, there is no room for community participation. Is that what we want for our river? We really need to think hard.

The project consultant has the experience of the Sabarmati river model. Why do you think the Sabarmati model is not appropriate for cities such as Pune?

Comparing this with the Sabarmati model is not at all appropriate as the hydrology and the topography of both the cities is totally different. For example, the Sabarmati river originates in the Aravalli mountains, where the rainfall is less than about 1000 mm. The Sabarmati flows through Ahmedabad and then goes to the Gulf of Khambat, so the RFD project is not at the source region, but near the mouth of the river, where it is slow and wide. This is not the case with the Mula Mutha that originates from the Sahyadris where the rainfall is around over 7000 mm and the project is planned near the source where the rivers are very fast.  Moreover, we have huge dams a few kilometers upstream of the planned RFD project.The two situations cannot be comparable.

What do you think needs to be done to change this situation and improve the state of rivers in Pune?

We argue that the rivers have been polluted for many years now and it is the primary responsibility of the Pune Municipal Corporation to keep them clean. We want the people of Solapur to support this demand as they are the ones who suffer when the polluted Mula Mutha water goes into the Ujani dam which feeds the city.

Even in 2022, a large portion of Pune city is not supplied with drinking water. The sewage treatment capacity is woefully inadequate. When these critical functions in city administration are dysfunctional, how can the PMC spend 4400 crores on ‘beautification’? Why can’t they spend this money on making the city tanker-free and its water safe and secure?

Even if all other problems are taken care of, thinking of the river as a living entity and thinking of its ecology is the critical part here. Restoration should first involve cleaning the river and letting it be on its own, nature has a tremendous capacity to revive itself. We must prevent filth from entering into the river.

As citizens, we must connect and involve every Punekar in the care for the river. It is important to spread the knowledge of river ecology, its life-giving functions, and how it can be truly rejuvenated. Ecological restoration should be understood by citizens – they are the beneficiaries who are not involved in any decision making regarding the river. We still follow the colonial model. Indians managed their own water resources before the British took control.

We argue that restoration and revival should look at the river as a living entity, we as citizens would like to see a living river, with undisturbed banks not cemented ones and clean, free flowing waters that harbour rich flora and fauna. The River Front Development project does not meet any of these requirements in its present form.


The detailed project report for the River Front Development project by the PMC can be accessed here

To support the movement and know more about the details of the project please click here

Read this paper to know the alternative way in which the Mula Mutha River Front development can be done in an ecologically sensitive and sustainable manner

Dr Gurudas Nulkar is a Professor and Head of Symbiosis Center for Climate change and Sustainability, and a member of the board of Ecological Society. He is the author of several books on sustainable development.

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