Skip to main content

As factories, populace choke Vishwamitri in Gujarat's cultural capital, riverfront project poses new threat to aquatic life

By Rohan Parikh*
As we passed through the dirty path covered with brambles and wild grass along Vadodara's Vishwamitri river, whose faint odour of sewage appeared to choke my nose, Raju Mali, the auto driver who accompanied me to this place pointed to three fully-grown marsh crocodiles sitting on the bank, partially hidden by the long grass. A little away, a few white cranes were sitting perched on the edge of the river bank.
Mali vouched that the crocodiles don’t pose any threat to people. His friend, Mehul Panchal, a truck driver, agreed. And they should know; after all, their families lived in the Kalyan Nagar slum for two decades before it was razed to the ground for the Vishwamitri Riverfront Development Project (VRDP).
Slums from across the city – Sanjay Nagar, Indira Nagar, Jamwadi-Sayajiganj, Fatehaganj-Kalyan Nagar – have been razed to the ground. Around 5,000 people like Mali and Panchal have been displaced due to VRDP. They have been relocated to Tarsali, in the outskirts of the city. They now travel 12 kilometres each way to work.
The Vishwamitri River emerges from the hills of Pavagadh and flows through the heart of Gujarat's cultural capital Vadodara. It empties into the Gulf of Khambhat. Legend has it that Sage Vishwamitra created a moksh-dwar (gateway to heaven) for downtrodden Hindu people at Kayavarohan, a village in the Vadodara district. The river is named after him.
The cultural significance of Vishwamitri, however, belies the plight of its waters today. Factories and hospitals dump large amounts of chemical and organic wastes into it. And, while cleaning the Vishwamitri has been a priority for many, it has been just that; a priority.
Mali and Panchal
For a city populace that consistently laments the deplorable condition of the river, the ambitious VRDP comes as a breath of fresh air. The plan claims to ensure flood mitigation and provides “landscape-design solutions”. It seeks to “enhance the cultural importance of the city”, “restore the connection of the river with the people” and “address the future needs of the city”. Despite the grand promises, the benefits are far from obvious, and a closer inspection of the issue reveals several technical and bureaucratic blunders.
A longstanding environmental activist and an outspoken critic of several insidious government projects, Rohit Prajapati has spearheaded the opposition to build a Vishwamitri Riverfront since 2014.
The project seeks to mimic the model of the Sabarmati Riverfront in Ahmedabad. As it turned out, VRDP work had begun in several areas even before the completion of due processes by the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) and Environmental Clearance (EC). An application filed by Prajapati and his team to the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in 2016 comprehensively explains the various shortcomings of the project and the illegality of the work underway.
For Prajapati, a revision of the understanding of a river is the ideal beginning point of any discussion. “I am going to argue how rivers should be defined. I am going to argue for a definition of a river,” he said, as he began explaining the complexity of a river system. The application he submitted defines a river as “more than a channel carrying water”. It is “a natural, living, organic part of a larger ecological system”.
After years of encroachment and garbage dumping, Vishwamitri’s waters are under threat. Its sewage treatment plant treats only about 60% of the waste. Even the design and treatment methods are inadequate. The application also points to other problems, including dumping of waste materials, construction debris, municipal and industrial waste, carcasses and untreated sewage water.
Kalyan Nagar slum, razed to the ground
The immediate and recurring result of negligence is seen in Vadodara’s flooding crises. Prajapati explains the importance of ravines. “A ravine is the natural flood control device of the river. Why do you have such flash floods, in a river that does not have so much water?” The answer, as explained in the report, is simple. Leave alone factories; even the Vadodara Mahanagar Seva Sadan (VMSS) has played a major role in dumping untreated sewage and solid waste into the ravines. With a slope of less than 5% on average, the floods are entirely avoidable and caused largely due to a clogged water system; the VRDP makes the flooding crisis worse.
VMSS cites two contradictory reasons for acquiring slum land. The first is to create the real estate for development. Yet, as Prajapati’s report states, there is plenty public and private land lying vacant for such purposes. Taking more land connected to the river corridor is unnecessary.
VMSS’ second reason is that the threat of floods looms over the people living in the slum. Thus, they say, it makes sense to empty those areas. However, the construction activities at the site tell a different story. The development plans that involve making residential and commercial complexes will only increase the footfall in the region, which does not mitigate a flood threat.
The marsh crocodile, the Ganges softshell turtle and numerous species of fish inhabit the Vishwamitri river. Several of these species have been categorised as nationally ‘vulnerable’ and are listed in Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972. Incessant dumping in the river and unauthorised activity on the river corridor poses a severe threat to aquatic life.
Rohit Prajapati
Ultimately, Prajapati and his team of lawyers, engineers, environmentalists, economists and students succeeded. NGT passed an order to suspend all activities. Prajapati notes, “They realised they won’t get VRDP clearance because we are not just challenging this, but we are also making the point that the whole project is problematic. The premise is wrong. The idea to do this [project] will damage the river. So they realised they had to drop the project.”
Yet, construction along the river corridor is still functional. Prajapati points out the VMSS’ attempts to compare it with the Sabarmati project. “They forgot to take separate clearance. They thought that if they got VRDP project clearance like they did for Sabarmati, then other projects can be taken care of in the name of EC for the Vishwamitri River.” He seeks to have the Mukhya Mantri Awas Yojana projects -- launched near the Bhimnath bridge and at Sama-Sanjay Nagar -- contested to ‘set an example’.
Prajapati refers to VRDP as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘pet project’. The stakes for those involved are high. VMSS attempted to get an expo facto clearance for the project, but that too was challenged in court. Prajapati and his team sought a complete rejection of the project. However, the project was merely withdrawn.
After consulting a number of experts (barring Prajapati), they came to the decision that the river cannot be discussed in bits and pieces. The new project proposal is being planned according to the National River Conservation Plan (NRCP), which will deal with the river as a whole, not just as the 16.5 kilometres that pass through Vadodara. It will allow for comprehensive river planning systems that ensure long-term benefits for the entire ecosystem.
“When you struggle on the ground, you need research; use all means to make a point. You can’t win a battle only by philosophy or ideology alone, or simply in the streets, or the court.” The tenacious battles waged by Prajapati and his team come at a cost. Prajapati faces two defamation cases, with a penalty of Rs 25 crore and three years in jail. Threats are routine.
On being asked why he does not seek state protection, he smirked and replied that he receives more threats from the state than from non-state actors. Yet it does not impede his enthusiasm. Taking circumstances in his stride, he remarks, “It’s a risk of life. Even if some of us have to go a little bit earlier, fine.”
And it seems the risks may pay off well. The VRDP will set a precedent for all such riverfront projects across the country. “Everybody is looking at what will happen to Vishwamitri, even the government is very cautious since the matter is pending before the Supreme Court… So they are on hold, they are making announcements, but they are not going ahead with it.” Everyone is waiting and watching.
Recently, a plan to revive the Bhukhi Nala, a tributary of the Vishwamitri, was conceived. The architecture department of the Maharaja Sayajirao University, Vadodara, has been granted Rs 6 crore for the project. Prajapati and his team are going to be involved in the effort. It would be a small scale model of how a river can be revived to benefit the ecology as a whole. That would then, they hope, be replicated with the larger rivers.
The team sits on the steps leading to the banks of the Vishwamitri on Saturdays. It is their new congregation point. Prajapati is speaking to a PhD student. A few people stand around him, dutifully overhearing his conversation. An old man with thinning white hair stands next to me, peering at the ochre waters.
“I used to drink this water right from the river,” he says to no one in particular. “When I was ten.” Now I am sure he is addressing me. All I can do is nod along and try to indulge a man’s memories -- ones which he will probably never get to relive and ones that I can only hope to live someday.
---
*This article was first published in The Bastion

Comments

TRENDING

Tracing roots of Hindutva Zionism: cannon fodder for 'warped' nationalist pretensions

By Shamsul Islam*  Those who believe in a world free of hegemonic ethno-nationalism, racism, religious bigotry and hatred have rightly taken note of Zionism and its ally Christian Zionism, major perpetrators of ethnic cleansing of ‘Others’. However, the civilized world with its core belief in multi-culturalism and peaceful co-existence is oblivious to a no less dangerous threat to the present human civilization: the Hindutva Zionism. As the term reads it is part of the Hindutva world-view which stands for an exclusive Hindu India minus Muslims and Christians. The other religions like Sikhism, Buddhism, and Jainism will have no independent status but treated as part of Hinduism. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS; National Volunteer Organization) is the most prominent flag-bearer of the Hindutva politics whose cadres presently rule India, the largest democracy in the world. RSS was founded by Keshav Baliram Hedgewar (1889-1940) in 1925 who was disillusioned with the Indian freedom st

'Blatant violation' of law by Central government in making NREGA payments

By Our Representative  In September third week, NREGA workers across the country were mobilised for two day so raise their issues and submit a memorandum to the Prime Minister. Organised the NREGA Sangharsh Morcha (NSM), a collective of groups that work with NREGA labourers across the country, workers from 13 states -- Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Haryana, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal -- carried out Kaam Do Abhiyaan, staging demonstrations and rallies against what they called blatant violation of law by the Central government in making NREGA payments. While NREGA has had very positive impacts, it has lately become fruitless, exploiting labour, even though workers who have put in honest hard work have to wait for their wages endlessly, it was suggested.  In such a situation, there is a need to firm up NREGA implementation and end systematic corruption to ensure that workers get their basic NREGA entit

Shocking? No Covid vaccine trials conducted on pregnant, lactating women: RTI reply

By Rosamma Thomas*  A Right to Information applicant who sought details of safety trials conducted in India on pregnant and lactating women for three Covid vaccines in use in India – Covishield, Covaxin and ZyCov-D -- was shocked to learn from the Central Drugs Standard Control Organization (CDSCO) that Serum Institute, manufacturer of Covishield, and Cadila Healthcare, manufacturer of the ZyCov-D vaccine, had not sought permission for such trials.  Bharat Biotech, manufacturer of Covaxin, had sought permission for trial on pregnant women and later withdrawn its application. This response , provided after the applicant was initially unsatisfied with the response and went in appeal, is from the joint drugs controller, CDSCO. It was dated September 13, 2022. One researcher closely following the vaccine rollout, however, is of the opinion that the lack of a trial on pregnant and lactating women is a blessing; potential trial participants and their unborn babies thus escaped harm. Aruna Ro

Fascism on prowl? Religious meet 'deeply pained' at silence of Church, bishops, priests

Counterview Desk  The ‘Forum of Religious for Justice and Peace’which held its 17th National Convention at the Montfort Social Institute, Hyderabad, Telangana from 22 to 24 September 2022 on the theme “Deepening our Identity as Religious: Responding to the Signs of the Times”, has expressed concern “at the deteriorating situation of our nation on every front”, especially stating, “Fascism seems to have come to stay” in India. At the same time, the convention, which took place with the participation of 60 persons from 16 states representing 20 religious congregations, in its unanimously-adopted statement added, “We have reached abysmal depths on every parameter: be it social, economic and political”, underlining, “The poor in India become poorer every day; the rich and powerful continue to profiteer at their expense and amass scandalous amounts of wealth.” Text: We, members (63 women and men Religious, from 16 states representing 20 Congregations) of the Forum of Religious for Justice

Rajasthan cops 'halt' Gujarat Dalit women's rally: homage to untouchability victim boy

By Our Representative  In a surprise move, the Rajasthan police stopped a Dalit women's rally from Gujarat on the borders after it crossed Gujarat alleging that it would "disturb peace" in village Surana, Jalore district, where the gruesome incident of death of a Dalit boy took place on August 13 after he was brutally beaten up by his teacher on touching the drinking water pot. Sources said, while the Gujarat government had "no objection" in allowing the rally, which originated from the Dalit Shakti Kendra (DSK), an empowerment-cut-technical institute for teens founded by human rights leader Martin Macwan, on September 24 morning, the Rajasthan police stopped it for two and a half hours before allowing it to proceed to Surana. The decision to take out a women's rally was taken at a DSK meeting on September 5 following a condolence meeting of the NGO Navsarjan Trust, also founded by Macwan, activists committed to work against caste-based discrimination, orga

Introducing non-native cheetahs is 'not equivalent' to restoring pride in the nation

By Bappaditya Mukhopadhyay*  The Cheetahs from the African continent has finally been introduced to India by the Indian Prime Minister on his 72nd birthday. The process had started with the previous Government in 2009. However, the Supreme Court clearance was pending owing to the objection by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) plea to reintroduce cheetahs. Finally the clearance was obtained in January 2020 and thereafter Kuno National Park (KNP) was chosen for the reintroduction of first set of Southeast African Cheetahs. In the near future, depending upon the success story of the current reintroduction, more cheetahs from South Africa may also be introduced. This exercise has generated a lot of interest among various stakeholders with opinions on both sides galore. It is important to pose some questions that surround the whole exercise. Let us evaluate some of these arguments. The first set of arguments are quite detached from the issues of conservation as they most

'Military diplomacy': US praises Bangladesh Army for leadership role in UN operations

By Kamal Uddin Mazumder* As the Indo-Pacific region represents the world’s economic and strategic center of gravity, the Indian Ocean today is becoming the centerpiece of all geo-strategic play. Cooperation in the region is crucial to implementing the international community’s global agenda, including achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Major powers like the US have enhanced and deepened their strategic engagement and leadership roles with countries in the region. The Indo-Pacific Army Management Seminar, or IPAMS, is a U.S. Army Pacific (USARPAC) initiated conference that is aimed at facilitating and enhancing interactions among the armies of the Indo-Pacific region. This year's 46th Indo-Pacific Armies Management Seminar (IPAMS)-2022, co-hosted by the Bangladesh Army and US Army Pacific (USARPAC), concluded in Dhaka. The objective of IPAMS is to promote peace and stability in the region through mutual understanding, dialogue, and friendship. It is the largest confer

Buddhist shrines were 'massively destroyed' by Brahmanical rulers: Historian DN Jha

Nalanda mahavihara By Our Representative Prominent historian DN Jha, an expert in India's ancient and medieval past, in his new book , "Against the Grain: Notes on Identity, Intolerance and History", in a sharp critique of "Hindutva ideologues", who look at the ancient period of Indian history as "a golden age marked by social harmony, devoid of any religious violence", has said, "Demolition and desecration of rival religious establishments, and the appropriation of their idols, was not uncommon in India before the advent of Islam".

Grave error? Scholar blames ex-Gujarat babu for anti-Christian riots 'citing fake report'

By Rajiv Shah  A few days back, I received a message from one of the finest former Gujarat government bureaucrats, PG Ramrakhiani, a 1964 batch IAS official, who retired in November 2000. I would often interact with him in 1997-99, even later, after I was sent to Gandhinagar as a Times of India man to cover Sachivalaya. Those were turbulent times. Shankarsinh Vaghela was the Gujarat chief minister, under attack from two sides – from the BJP, which he had left to form a separate breakaway party, Rashtriya Janata Party (RJP), one one hand, and the Congress, which was supporting him from outside, on the other. Ramrakhiani, in his message, referred to the book authored by Ghanshyam Shah and Jan Breman, both top-notch scholars who have known Gujarat in and out. Called “Gujarat, Cradle and Harbinger of Identity Politics: India’s Injurious Frame of Communalism”, I reviewed the book in January 2022.  It claims that Muslims in Gujarat have been turned into “new untouchables”, thanks to the Hin

Swami Vivekananda's views on caste and sexuality were 'painfully' regressive

By Bhaskar Sur* Swami Vivekananda now belongs more to the modern Hindu mythology than reality. It makes a daunting job to discover the real human being who knew unemployment, humiliation of losing a teaching job for 'incompetence', longed in vain for the bliss of a happy conjugal life only to suffer the consequent frustration.