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Chhattisgarh’s Apra riverfront imitates Sabarmati: 'Devaluing' water, environment

Sabarmati riverfront
By Mansee Bal Bhargava* 
This year’s #WorldWaterDay (March 22) focus was on ‘Valuing Water’. My school friend, Pragati Tiwari from Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh, called that day knowing my interest in water matters. We were remembering our childhood days as how we used to play on the banks and the bed of the Arpa Nadi (River) during the summer holidays and as how the river would swell like Anaconda to flow happily during the monsoon.
She told that currently the Arpa looks like a waste (water and solid) dumping ground and a grassland for most part of the year. The river only flows during heavy rains when the barrage gates are opened. At the same breadth, she also mentioned about the long pending Arpa Riverfront Development project by the Bilaspur Municipal Corporation which she (and people of Bilaspur) is looking forward to as the project promises to solve the water pollution and other water problems of the city.
So, I asked her how is the riverfront project going to solve the water problems of Bilaspur? As expected from an ordinary citizen, a simple spontaneous answer arrived, “the government is promising from the planned several crores project that there will be water all the time in the river, six lane roads for 2 kilometres stretch on both sides and public places of recreation”. 
This is not the problem solved but a perception sold. The politicisation and scientisation of the riverfront development projects are very much part of the India’s water agenda now. How are the policy makers making such promises and how are the planners/architects endorsing as well as ensuring such promises without much established facts? It is more about the perception of valuing water, as the perception is sold in the political arena and bought by the urban populace?
The rush to riverfront projects is more in the last decade after the completion and public/political appreciation of the Sabarmati Riverfront Development in Ahmedabad which is kind of a model project for the country. There lies a warning for other riverfront development projects in considering Sabarmati Riverfront as a model development without judiciously learning and adapting from its social-ecological and institutional impacts. A mere copy-paste of the concretisation model of the Sabarmati is likely to end up with similar impacts as that of in Ahmedabad city and the villages of the upstream and downstream of the river .
Sabarmati is 400 kilometres long river of which the 18 kilometres stretch in the Ahmedabad city area. The 18 kilometres of damming aka taming the natural flow of the river for land economics and recreation is coming at the cost of dry/drought situations in the remaining rural areas increasing the plight of the farmers to farm.
The stored water in the reservoir-lake of city stretch is unsustainable as most of that is borrowed from the Narmada River (through the Saradar Sarovar project), at whose basin also the rural areas live under severe water distress. The riverfront should be actually named, ‘Ahmedabad Riverfront’ since the project is exclusive for the Ahmedabad population and not the population of the Sabarmati River Basin or the Narmada Basin.
Prof Bernard Kohn, the French architect who had first prepared the Riverfront Development Plan for the city way back in the 1960s, reacted to the present riverfront asking us to rethink the riverfront in terms of its place within a project for the entire river basin from its source to the sea as an ecological and agricultural entity. He said
“... riverfront is not a separate project for the benefit of the privileged urban upper class with economic facilities that inescapably will develop along its banks as opposed to the many who are displaced from its land then and those who are deprived from its water even now.”
Then, like the promise in Arpa, the promised clean water in the Ahmedabad riverfront is still challenged. With the industrial wastewater still flowing into the river and the stagnant water between the two barrages, there is no respite to the state of the pollution making it one of the most polluted rivers in the country and a key source of water borne diseases in the city. The round the year edge to edge water standing in Ahmedabad Riverfront is adopted from the Siene Riverfront Development in Paris.
We also need to realise the basic difference of Siene being a flowing river and the new riverfront being a standing waterbody like an urban lake. We also need to realise that when recently Siene flooded and Ahmedabad flooded, too, bringing a lot of damage to the surrounding developments, the rigidness of the edge conditions raised several questions.
Ironically, the Arpa aka Bilaspur Riverfront too will have such impacts with plans to reduce the width of the river by one-third with reclaiming land in the river edge for economic (transport, commercial and recreational) development. The making of riverfront will require a huge mass of filling on the edge.
The local authorities conveniently dump the city’s waste on the banks of the river now as a systematic plan unlike the past when they used to do so out of no choice of solid/water waste plans. While, on the one hand, the National Green Tribunal continued to warn about the waste disposal at the river edge, on the other hand, the continued act of the local authority and the community questions the society’s value for its water.
Indeed, the promised hike in the land economics of the Ahmedabad riverfront has taken place to large extent. Most of the real estate hike is evident in the existing premises on both sides, many of which are undergoing redevelopments also because of the increase in the floor space index (fsi). However, the one-third of the land parcel reclaimed (called water grabbing) out of the river space for high end urban development is yet to experience the anticipated real estate developments.
The new wide roads built on both sides to promote urban developments and to connect the 18 kilometres stretch of the east-west city, today stand like highways with few high-speed automobiles further reducing the human movement. The revised riverbank with two level platforms as the public spaces is attaining its purpose to connect the people with the river with providing visual connection, however, reaching out to the water is either through the few boating facilities or jumping into it in suicidal attempts.
Then comes the changed ecosystem of the river which has altered the surrounding biodiversity, besides the minuscule plantations on the long concrete strips with a few manicured gardens which has completely ignored the wilderness of the vegetation often seen on the natural river edges/banks. 
Also, when the green of the urban areas is reducing and the urban heat islands are increasing, the disproportionate/excess use of the hardscape concretised (impervious) areas undermine the value of the softscape forested (pervious) areas; besides tampering the surface water percolation into ground water. The public space is a haunting-daunting nightmare during the scorching summer because of the changed hot-n-humid microclimate.
From the time the riverfront project was conceived in the 1960s as a social-ecological initiative, somewhere in the process it turned into an economic development by its completion towards the turn of the century. This radical realignment is, on the one hand, showing the desperation of the society to be modern, and on the other hand, questioning the devastation of the water system in an already water distressed region.
And if all this is to get a city in order of a so-called civilisation and put the nature to a state of disorder, then it is worth asking the true value of the crores of investments from the human as well as environmental perspectives.
The Ahmedabad riverfront development is indeed a visual and economic delight for the elites; but ironically, it is not a vase for the large water distressed population in the vast stretch of the river besides turning vile for the thousands displaced families from the river edge of whom many still are waiting for better inclusion in the city housing. Once a meandering edge of sand and sound is now a straight jacketed and silent strip taming the river and gazing the city while to be developed as desired by the policymakers and planners/architects.
Similarly, the Bilaspur Riverfront is a dream project of the current Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh although the project was conceptualised in the earlier political regime. After a few legal hurdles, the project recently got a go ahead from the High Court. The stretch of the Arpa River in the Bilaspur city is planned for revamping in the lines of Thames River London with a special purpose vehicle of Arpa Development Authority.
On the similar lines, there are over dozen riverfront projects pan India whose planning are approved, and developments are in progress or near completion. These riverfront development projects in the country are more a land economic ventures (speculated for buying and selling) than anything about water, ecology and people. The environmental injustices of the riverfront projects have been noised substantially despite the project being justified politically and professionally.
An important question here is, why do the policymakers and planners/architects sell and why do the urbanites buy such developments models that comes at the cost of environment. Why are we so obsessed with this kind of development despite knowing that it is laying the path of a social-ecological destruction?
It is also important to ask that when it is urgent to address the climate change impacts locally and do more justice to the water apathy of the large rural mass that feeds the urban, how do policymakers and planners/architects justify even the need for a riverfront in a city for reducing the water opportunities and increasing the land opportunities laid with roads and recreation.
Ironically, the attached accolades to such initiatives furthered with academic endorsements is making the youth believe that the sole purpose of the riverfronts are recreation and tourism again undermining the value of the river ecosystem that houses more species than to entertain the humans. Then, is the society’s value of water in the riverfront projects right and righteous?
Interestingly, as an economist the straight answer is not ‘Yes’. On the onset, for the well to do urbanites, as long as the domestic water is available in a fraction of time, the value of such riverfront projects is confined to the city beautification to define certain order for the civilization. As long as the promises of the welfare state is economy driven, the community is able to comprehend only what is capitalised by the planners and policy makers.
Ironically, as an ecologist the straight answer is ‘No’, since the value of water and river is misrepresented by the planners and policy makers, and conveniently misunderstood by the people. The political/land economy on the rivers has been a devil for the river and in the long run has not done much good to the people also.
In Bilaspur document, nowhere does one find mention of river ecosystem, biodiversity, ichthyology, ornithology, even hydrology, limnology
Whether a sound Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of the riverfront projects will justify converting natural meandering rivers into narrowed constructed (concretised) straightened canals? Whether the river ecosystem lives after the riverfront? Most importantly whether all these questions matter to the society when it appreciates the initiative by all means and sets that as model approach?
For example, reading the Bilaspur Municipal Corporation’s Smart City Document prepared by the All-India Institute of Local Self Government (AIILSG, a pseudo government body), nowhere one finds a mention of the river ecosystem, biodiversity, ichthyology, ornithology, and even hydrology and limnology.
The community perception survey questions (made by planners) tell the truth about the value as the whole development discourse is sold to the people via the economic development, so naturally the ecology is downplayed. In addition, all the mentions and calculations are about the land economy, the value (forget true value just the value) of water is missed in the project proposal.
Then, what exactly does a society mean by valuing water? Valuing environment like water can be seen theoretically from two broad perspectives: 
i. assigning a price or monetary value to the environment is important for sustainability; and 
ii. assigning price is a misconceived notion since, environment is priceless, and society is continuously influencing the environment.
The market prices do not reflect the actual and perceived value instead the market projects a value based on the goods and services produced by the environment, for example, the land created out of reclaiming the river edge is ascribed a monetary value for real estate which is calculated as the benefit against the cost of doing the process. In addition, the value that aren’t known are not involved. In the same example, the value of water since unclear in monetary terms, it is not involved in neither cost nor benefit calculations.
The natural Arpa river vs the designed riverfront
However, the fact that freshwater is scarce means that using them in one way prevents us from using them in another way (subtractability) is the opportunity/replacement cost or the best alternative use foregone. Every project undergoes a cost-benefit analysis of whether a river serves benefits exceeding the cost of the development.
In the same example, the space of the river used for road is a loss of the river in the longer run but may be a gain in economy in the shorter run. Problem here is road can neither recharge nor store water and reinstating a river from a road is distant at this moment although not impossible.
A price attached is an indicator of the economic value. A river does not have an explicit price and ironically the impacts of not having a river also do not have a price. But they do have value as the rising flood, drought and asymmetric access to water services are hinting the instrumental as well as the intrinsic value. Still, failure to account for the direct benefits influence the costs.
Attaching a monetary value to a river isn’t easy. The monetary value here is the price/cost that the individuals pay for the goods and services such as, consumption of water for drinking and other uses; consumption of land to farm or construct buildings; socio-economic activities associated such as, fishing, boating, recreation park, garden.
It is indirectly the financial value and that includes the cost of maintaining the river and production of the desired goods and services. The valuation will adjust the financial price to represent the economic value. For example, the unit price of the surrounding land and of the developments are the financial value ascribed to the river and will be integrated in measuring the economic value of the river, but this is not inclusive of true value. It is still challenging to measure the non-tangible value such as, the improved human wellbeing, microclimate, social integration and reduced health risks, flood, and drought risks, etc. 
Even the tangible value like the ground water recharge is difficult to monetize. Then, there are cultural values of water/water bodies as precious referring to highly priced to put up a figure for which a metaphor used is, priceless. Then people are unwilling to charge for and pay for such things as they are categorized as fundamental right too. This is also linked to the moral value. However, it needs to be understood that to provide and maintain some ecosystem services, there are costs involved and that needs to be borne by the society.
The flip side is accepting that ecosystem services need to be paid for and for that its price must be measurable and still correct-quantitative measurements remain challenging. So, while people are willing to pay user fees to all kinds of facilities, they will be mostly unwilling to pay regularly for the river to remain as river. This is the biggest irony of the modern society.
Summing up, the core problem lies in the perceived value of water in the society. It is, therefore, extremely important and urgent to paint the inconvenient truth of the climate change and urbanisation induced water distresses. The rising water distresses of floods, droughts and asymmetric access to water are mostly manufactured and manipulated because of the perceived rather biased value of water between the urban and the rural.
Riverfront development projects are a classic example of that skewed value of water. The ecology of rivers is irreversibly damaged through riverfront projects in India. It is no exaggeration to say that we are drifting from the development of a riverfront to the death of a river; moreover, irony is that the people are not mute spectators, instead their demand for development shows up through the saga of appreciations.
The wish for clean city, clean river, is misunderstood as concrete city-river. The appreciation has reduced, and the apprehension has increased for the natural wilderness of the rivers (and lakes and forests). And, if the rights be given to the rivers as living, then how will the taming of the river by changing its meandering flow, its edge conditions to concretisation, its nature of ichthyology and ornithology, justified as development.
The river edge is the most vulnerable to change, the relationship of a river in a city is established by the riverfronts and the change is based on the society’s demand of value of water. From waterfronts for water route trades to the waterfronts for city beautiful, riverfronts in India have a new meaning. The politicisation of science and the scientisation of the politics by the policymakers and planners/architects to make smart cities are doing no good to move towards the sustainable development for both urban and rural.
To reduce the water distresses in the society, it is important to build a political will for conserving and managing water more effectively and efficiently than it is done today by commodifying the every aspect of water. Water must be at the centre of the people centric policy agenda.
To be smart cities and chasing urban acceleration, it is an important reminder that that India (world too) did poorly in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) mainly because of the urban acceleration; and therefore we need a closer look at the SDG acceleration model of which India too is signatory. Both accelerations are not directly proportional and rather impossible and hypocritic.
It can be only hoped that the extended Covid-19 will shower some wisdom on the human needs and greed and that the policymakers and planners/architects will rethink-redraw the development model towards ecology and humanity.
---
*Entrepreneur | Researcher | Educator. More about the works of Prof Mansee Bal Bhargava can be viewed here

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