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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

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