In October 2019, the Maharashtra government’s State Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA) granted clearance for the Pune Municipal Corporation’s (PMC) ambitious ₹2,619-crore Pune River Front Development Project, which aims to clean and rejuvenate the 44-km stretch of the city’s rivers.
However, noted environmentalist and architect Sarang Yadwadkar, has alleged that the green nod was given in a highly objectionable and controversial manner. He said the project would only result in the rise of floodwater levels while irreversibly destroying the rich biodiversity along the riverbank.
Speaking to The Hindu , he pointed to the dangers in sanctioning such projects by the State’s civic bodies, particularly in the wake of the recent floods and the 2019 downpour in Pune, in which 25 people lost their lives.
The project, which is to be implemented on the lines of Ahmedabad’s Sabarmati River Front Development Project, predominantly comprises channelising and converting the rivers into canals by constructing 30-40 foot embankments along both the banks. Three barrages will also be constructed at certain points along the Mula-Mutha river.
The embankments are to be constructed inside the flood lines, narrowing the river and reducing the riverbed’s cross-sectional area. The floodplains on the outer sides of these embankments are to be filled with soil to create artificial gardens. “The embankments proposed to contain the rivers in this project are pretty high. At some locations, they are above the surrounding ground level. This will obstruct the natural flow of storm water from other parts of the city, causing massive inundation in residential localities,” Mr. Yadwadkar said.
The environmentalist contends that the impounding of water in these three barrages will compound problems as the water flowing through the rivers is half-treated sewage. He said over the last 20-25 years, the health of Pune’s rivers has deteriorated from bad to worse and the city’s burgeoning population has generated huge quantities of sewage, which is not being treated adequately owing to the sheer inefficiency of the PMC’s sewage treatment plants. “So, if this water stagnates, the stink will further aggravate, and the levels of stagnant water will also rise. This will defeat the very purpose of the project, which is to purify rivers,” he said.
Incidentally, the Water Resources Department (WRD) had cautioned the PMC on two occasions — in January 2018 and November 2019 —that while implementing the project on the Mula-Mutha river, “care should be taken that the cross-section of the river must not be reduced”.
Mr. Yadwadkar, who was part of the planning committee of the city’s Development Plan, said, “It appears that the PMC and their project consultant has completely disregarded the WRD while implementing the project. Pune is a flood-prone city whose problems are aggravated with increasing rainfall in the past few years and the gradual constricting of riverbeds due to encroachment. Rains, being a natural phenomenon, are not under our control, but the encroachments can very well be curbed.”
He observed that the seven dams — Khadakwasla, Panshet, Varasgaon, Temghar, Pavana, Mulshi and Kasar Sai — which are the potable water lifelines of Pune and Pimpri-Chinchwad, are constructed upstream of these rivers. “These dams are not only close to the city, but to each other as well. In the event of a cloudburst-like shower, the catchments of all these seven dams will receive huge run-offs simultaneously and enormous quantities of water will have to be discharged from all these dams which will hit Pune city within no time,” he said.
The project will further narrow the rivers by its construction of embankments and the reduction in width will reduce the cross-sectional area necessary for uninterrupted flow of water, he said. “Consequently, whenever water is released from the dam, that flow will get less space to flow in the riverbed, leading to a steep rise in flood levels, inundating large areas of the city,” Mr. Yadwadkar said.
In 2014, a report prepared by The Energy and Resources Institute for the Maharashtra government, detailed the impact of global warming on the State and discussed in-depth the scientific solutions to avoid it. The report had predicted a 37.50% rise in Pune’s annual rainfall, with less rainy days and increased frequency of cloudburst, implying that the city is headed towards more severe and frequent floods.
‘Can spell disaster’
Additionally, the Pune-based Central Water and Power Research Station (CWPRS) — the country’s premier hydraulic research institute — had recently released a report on the impact of riverbed construction of the Metro on the flood levels of Mutha river.
The report reveals that in the present circumstances, even without Metro pillars, in the event of a flow of 60,000 cusecs of water, it is expected to exceed the ‘Blue Flood Line’ by flowing 5 feet above it. “In sum, the CWPRS report indicated that due to encroachments, the flood level in Pune has gone up by 5 feet, which is a very scary fact indeed. This leaves thousands of homes open to the threat of inundation and constricting riverbeds. Thus, the project can only spell disaster,” Mr. Yadwadkar said.
According to him, the project report had claimed that the CWPRS had given its approval after an in-depth hydrological study of the rivers. However, the CWPRS has denied giving any such endorsement nor conducting any study and clarified that it had been requested by the PMC to examine the hydrology and the hydraulics report prepared by the project consultants concerned.
“If CWPRS did not conduct an independent study, then why is the project report claiming this? Why are the citizens of Pune misguided about this and most importantly, who will be responsible for a potential disaster when flood levels rise?” he asked.
Mr. Yadwadkar said what was more worrying was the manner in which the clearance was granted by the SEIAA. “The minutes say that the proposed built-up area of the project (FSI and non-FSI) is zero square metres, meaning that the project does not propose any built-up area at all. Yet, the cost estimates clearly mention many built components like retaining walls, promenades, embankments, stairs, ghats, food courts, parking spaces among other structures, covering a minimum built-up area of 13,83,110 square metres of 342 acres. How could the SEIAA overlook such a massive part of the project while issuing the environmental clearance?” he said.
While authorities at the SEIAA and the PMC are buoyant about the project, Mr. Yadwadkar has questioned the innumerable contradictions in the SEIAA’s decision, notably as to why no study was conducted independently by any competent authority. “Furthermore, the cost estimate clearly shows that 80% of the cost is for different types of civil construction. There is no mention of purifying or cleaning the rivers. How the rivers could be rejuvenated by such concretisation and without cleaning is a million-dollar question,” he said
While Mr. Yadwadkar, along with other city-based RTI activists Vijay Kumbhar and Vivek Velankar, have petitioned the National Green Tribunal and the Bombay High Court against the irregularities, the project itself is stuck in a quagmire with the PMC awaiting approval from the State government to form a special purpose vehicle.