Noted environmentalists and activists have been raising grave concerns against the Pune Municipal Corporation’s ambitious, multi-crore Pune River Front Development project, whose objective is to clean and rejuvenate the 44-km stretch of the city’s polluted rivers.
For a long time, they have contended that the project, ostensibly intended to purify and restore the natural flow of the city’s rivers, would only result in the rise of floodwater levels while irreversibly destroying the rich biodiversity along the riverbank. However, the PMC, refusing to pay heed to them, has started the tendering process for the project.
After the environmentalists approached the State Water Resources Department (WRD) with their concerns, the WRD warned the civic body that it would be “solely responsible for any loss of life or property” owing to any flood-like situation arising due to the project.
The Department told the PMC last week that it has been informed of debris being dumped alongside the Mutha riverbed which was obstructing the water flow.
“We are reiterating that the PMC should ensure no obstacles to the river flow and no reduction in the water-carrying capacity of the river, else, the WRD would take action,” said an official.
In October 2019, the Maharashtra Government’s State Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA) had given clearance for the project which was then pegged at ₹2,619 crore. Its cost has now swollen to ₹4,727 crore, with the environmentalists alleging that the civic body, politicos and bureaucrats governing it failed to appreciate the scale of the disaster awaiting them if the project reached its completion.
“The basic questions which arise in the wake of the Water Resources Department’s warning to the PMC is that who proposed such a dangerous project for the city when Pune in itself is a flood-prone metropolis?” says noted environmentalist and architect Sarang Yadwadkar while alleging that the environmental clearance for the project had been accorded in a highly objectionable and controversial manner.
Petition in NGT
Mr. Yadwadkar along with other activists have already filed a PIL in the National Green Tribunal opposing the project, says that a river offers enormous scope for exploitation by political parties of all hues as well as the bureaucracy.
Despite’s Pune abundant water availability owing to the city lying along the banks of five rivers, having seven upstream dams and being ringed by hills, the city has been witnessing the dark side of precipitation lately, with 25 people being killed and property worth crores of rupees destroyed by sudden floods owing to intense bouts of rain in 2019.
The riverfront project to be implemented along the lines of Ahmedabad’s Sabarmati River Front Development project, predominantly comprises channelising and converting the rivers into canals by constructing 30-40 ft. embankments along both the banks. Additionally, three barrages are to be constructed at certain points along the Mula-Mutha rivers.
“The embankments are to be constructed inside the flood lines, thus, 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. These embankments, which are proposed to contain the rivers, are pretty high. At some locations they are above the surrounding ground level. This will obstruct the natural flow of the stormwater from other parts of the city, causing massive inundation in residential localities,” says Mr. Yadwadkar.
Furthermore, he observes that impounding the water in these three barrages would only compound problems as the water currently flowing through rivers is nothing but half-treated sewage.
“In the last two decades, the health of Pune rivers has rapidly deteriorated 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 (STPs). So, if this water stagnates, the stink will further aggravate and the levels of the stagnant water will also rise. This will defeat the very purpose of the project, which is to purify rivers,” he says.
Incidentally, the Water Resources Department had cautioned the PMC on two occasions — in January 2018 and November 2019 — that while implementing the RFD on the Mula-Mutha rivers, “care should be taken that the cross-section of the river must not be reduced.”
Demanding to know how the PMC could go ahead with the tendering in the riverfront project, noted RTI activist Vivek Velankar of ‘Sajag Nagrik Manch’ said that the civic body’s move was astonishing given the intense discussions on the project for the last few years.
“While many environmentalists were protesting, were the engineers concerned [of the PMC] asleep till the tender notice was issued? While approving ₹4,727 crore for this project, why did not any corporator from the PMC feel the need to take necessary information from environmentalists and experts and discuss the potential dangers to the city and its residents arising from the project in the general body meeting,” questioned Mr. Velankar.
Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Vijay Kumbhar, also a well-known activist, questioned the motive behind the PMC’s unseemly ‘hurry’ to get the project going in spite of not having received environmental clearance in a proper manner.
“A fundamental question arising from the point of view of Pune’s security is that even though the WRD has been objecting to this project time and again, why is the PMC deliberately turning a blind eye to the Department’s warnings. Are the officials and corporators endorsing this project proposing to endanger the lives of the citizens by thus, frittering away thousands of crores of the taxpayers’ rupees? It is only reasonable to get clear and logical answers from the PMC immediately,” said Mr. Kumbhar.