'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).
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!
Wildlife cannot survive in a concrete box. Fish, birds and aquatic animals require algae and smaller animals (benthic invertebrates) to feed upon. These organisms as well as the larger beings that feed upon them need natural surfaces like sand, silt, clay and pebbles in which to feed, shelter and breed. All this is denied them in the case of the concretised Sabarmati. So there goes the ecological function. 0/2 so far. Are you with me?
Finally comes the turn of the human beings and it is here that the tragedy runs deep. For not very long ago, the Sabarmati did meet societal needs and expectations. The river supported a richly diverse community and provided sustenance for 40,000 families in Ahmedabad alone. It also was the setting for a historical bazaar- The Gujari Bazaar, which has met on the riverfront every Sunday since the 15th century.
All these communities were wiped out in the name of beautification. People living along the riverbanks were summarily evicted and shifted to a place on the outskirts of Ahmedabad without even rudimentary infrastructure. Nothing written in this article can express the futile efforts, the desperation, the trauma, and the despair of the displaced people as well as Navdeep Mathur's brave and comprehensive paper 'On the Sabarmati Riverfront'. Far from meeting societal needs then, the Sabarmati 'restoration' has been an excuse for targeted eviction.
But why was this done?
To unearth the reasons for an action that defies logic, it is necessary to follow the money and in this case, the trail is clear. While the rhetoric for the project claims to have converted 'private goods' into 'public assets', even a cursory examination indicates that the reverse is true. Rs.1200 crores of public money was spent on the creation of 200 hectares of real estate where the riverbed once lay.
The project calls this 'reclamation'; the river and its people call it 'encroachment'. The riverbed was once used by 11,000 of Ahmedabad's poorest families and about 2 lakh people accessed it for their livelihoods. When evicted, these people were not given any municipal support whatsoever. Most of this money was spent on channeling the river, 'reclaiming' the river bed, and constructing retaining walls, embankments, and other infrastructure. In other words, most of this money was handed over to private construction agencies. Details of this expenditure are not available. Today, the created land is being parcelled out and sold to private developers. Creation of public assets indeed!
So far, the 'environmental improvement and social upliftment project', has manifested itself as:
- Increased political mileage for a few individuals, mainly political parties whose electoral promises included replicating the 'Sabarmati Model' in Varanasi and Delhi on the Ganga and Yamuna, and the firms that secured the design and implementation contract for the entire project.
- Increased profits for a host of construction companies and real estate developers chiefly Jaypee Infrastructure Private limited who were the first to begin construction on the riverbank.
- The 'encroachments that were contaminating the river' that were caused by the many informal communities (mainly Dalit and Muslim) that lived by the riverbanks, washed clothes, ran markets, and played cricket has now been replaced by sanitary concrete walkways that the elite of Ahmedabad can feel comfortable in.
True, while doing this, an ancient seasonal river has been converted into a perennial concrete ditch, and 14,000 families were summarily evicted and left to fend for themselves. But that is the price of progress, isn't it?
Many questions remain unanswered. Several individuals made questionable decisions that ultimately led to increased profits for a few. Were these decisions really as unrelated as they are made out to be? What were the processes by which these decisions were made and applied? To whom did the bulk of the Rs 1,200 crore of public money go? This is all information that should be in the public sphere but isn't- the Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project is forbiddingly opaque.
It is ironic then, that the few groups trying to make sure the evicted of Sabarmati are not robbed of their fundamental rights are denounced as 'making wrong use of the democratic system' as is claimed by the government of Gujarat.