Why Pune’s Citizens Are up in Arms About a Riverfront Development Project

Along with eating into the riverine vegetation along the Mula-Mutha river, the riverfront development project that aims to address flooding and make the river more 'accessible' to people will not really do so, say activists.

Kochi: On April 29, more than 2,000 citizens hugged trees along the banks of the Mula-Mutha river that flows through the city of Pune in Maharashtra.

The citizens replicated the Chipko movement to protest against the Pune Municipal Corporation’s (PMC) riverfront development project that will require more than 3,000 trees along the nearly 11-kilometre stretch of the river to be cut.

The project has other flaws, too. The project proposes to build embankments in the riverbed that will destroy the riverine ecosystem in the area, said ecologists.

It will also not help with flood control, according to architects. In fact, the construction of the embankments in the riverbed will reduce its water carrying capacity and make nearby areas more prone to floods, they said.

However, a PMC official claimed that the embankments have been designed taking all these factors into consideration and that [the construction will happen] as per state norms.

PMC’s tree authority will soon conduct a public hearing to discuss the details of the trees to be cut, the official cited above told The Wire.

Pune’s citizens, however, won’t compromise. They will keep protesting until PMC addresses these concerns and modifies the project correspondingly, they said.

‘Developing’ a river’s banks

According to PMC, urbanisation along the river banks and the release of untreated sewage are degrading the river. Moreover, private properties along the banks have made the river “inaccessible” to the public.

To address these issues, the civic body conceived a ‘river development project’. The 44-km-long stretch of all three rivers running through Pune – around 22 km of the Mula river, 10 km of the Mutha river and 11 km of the Mula-Mutha – will be developed at a cost of around Rs 5,500 crore. The project is divided into phases, and currently, work has begun along the approximately 11-km stretch of the Mula-Mutha river.

The work – costing Rs 1,450 crore, per some estimates – mainly involves building embankments along the river banks, primarily to tackle the issue of flooding. The embankments would house an interceptor sewer line, a means to divert sewage from the river and into the proposed sewage treatment plants. At the same time, the embankments would create a “continuous public realm” along the river that people can use, the PMC website said.

According to the civic body, the project will “prevent the environmental degradation of Pune’s rivers, protect them from being choked by development, reduce the threat of flooding, create a public realm along the river and provide Pune with a vital riverfront that enriches life in the city”.

Also read: In a First, a City Frees a River Using Funds Meant to Concretise It

Trees to be cut, transplanted

Activists have alleged that the project will affect more than 7,500 trees that are placed along the banks of the Mula-Mutha river.

A total number of 4,429 trees would be transplanted for the project along the roughly 11-km stretch of the Mula Mutha river, PMC’s tree authority, which aims to protect trees in urban areas, informed Pune resident Ravindra Sinha, in response to his RTI queries.

And, as many as 3,110 trees would be cut, the RTI responses said.

However, activists have alleged that the fact that so many trees would be affected was not mentioned in any of the public consultations that were conducted for the project. These consultations included meetings with local people to inform them about the project, its impacts, and to register peoples’ concerns, if any.

While PMC officials have claimed that they would cut down mostly exotic or invasive trees, activists have said this is not entirely true.

The stretch of the Mula-Mutha river where the work has begun is an example of a riparian forest, Shailaja Deshpande, co-founder and director of Pune-based NGO Jeevitnadi Living River Foundation told The Wire. It includes native species and trees such as the Salix tetrasperma, commonly called the Indian willow, she said. The RTI responses to Sinha mentioned that native and naturalised trees such as the Ficus species are also likely to face the axe.

However, only 1,500 trees are going to be cut for the project, a PMC official, who did not want to be named, told The Wire. Therefore, citizens’ “apprehensions” over the project are unfounded, he claimed.

He added that this has been done as per the Tree Act, which provides guidelines on which trees can be cut, and that these [guidelines] have been certified by state-appointed consultants.

He was referring to the Maharashtra (Urban Areas) Protection and Preservation Of Trees Act, which regulates tree felling. The Act came into force in 1975. This shortlist will be submitted to the tree authority, which will conduct a hearing during which citizens can raise objections, if they can prove them with facts and figures, he said.

The hearings are likely to take place on May 8, 9 and 10, he told The Wire.

‘This is not just about the trees’

“But it’s not just about the trees,” said Sinha.

The project will affect the entire riparian zone, or the area spanning river banks that support a unique mix of vegetation and wildlife, including water-adapted species.

“From grasses, herbs, shrubs, climbers to aquatic free-floating plants, the Mula, Mutha and the Mula-Mutha together have more than 300 species [of plants] found along the river banks, in littoral ones and in the riverbed,” said Deshpande.

The stretch is also part of the Dr. Salim Ali Biodiversity Park; the area is a proposed bird sanctuary. As per eBird, an online citizen science database that translates bird sightings submitted by birdwatchers into data on species diversity and abundance among others, the area is a birding hotspot and home to 100 bird species. These include migratory birds such as the Ruddy shelduck and birds endemic to the Indian subcontinent such as the purple-rumped sunbird.

When the river enters the Salim Ali Biodiversity Park, it flows through a rocky bed which supports diverse habitats like small river islands, pools, small rapids, aquatic vegetation and muddy banks – all of which support more than 150 species of birds including several migratory water birds, Kedar Champhekar, a Pune-based independent ecologist told The Wire.

“Ironically, this stretch from the confluence downstream is where the riverfront is being implemented, destroying the best habitat on the river system in Pune,” he said.

“This will drastically reduce the bird diversity as the flow will be channelized and made uniform, thus destroying the habitat diversity that is required by different birds.”

The old and dense trees on the banks that the PMC plans to cut also supports a large diversity of woodland birds, and serves as a shelter for water birds, and provides a corridor for biodiversity and stabilises the river banks, said Champhekar.

Also read: The Empty Environmentalism of ‘Rally for Rivers’

Artificial banks

Creating a “public realm along the river”, as the project aims to do, involves concretising the rivers’ banks by building embankments. Jogging and walking tracks – even boating facilities – are also on the cards, as per the detailed project report.

However, activists believe the developments will restrict the local community’s access to these areas.

“Who are these walking and jogging tracks for?” asked Deshpande. “The need is for an ecological and a holistic river rejuvenation that also takes into account social equity and justice of both upstream and downstream communities and in such a way that all sections of society are able to access the area,” she told The Wire.

Another issue that citizens have raised is the impact of the embankments on the river’s width. Though one of the main aims of the project is flood control through the creation of embankments, which would channelize the water, experts said the move will reduce the water carrying capacity of the rivers.

The state’s Water Resources Department (formerly the irrigation department) has designated floodlines for the rivers. A blue floodline on the river bank indicates the area that would be submerged by the highest flood in a 25-year-period, while a red floodline indicates the area submerged by the highest flood in 100 years. Construction is prohibited in the areas within the blue line, and it is restricted in the area under the red line.

According to Sarang Yadwadkar, an architect and a resident of Pune for the past 35 years, the construction of the embankments within the blue floodline – where construction is not permitted – will reduce the space available for water to flow by 40%. This will steeply increase the flood levels in Pune, he said.

On the other hand, a report by the Energy Resource Institute on climate change mitigation in Maharashtra suggests that the annual rainfall in Pune division will increase by 37.5% due to climate change, he added.

At the same time, the number of rainy days will reduce. Bouts of intense rainfall over a shorter time will be a regular phenomenon. This will lead to higher stormwater surface runoffs, which would contribute to frequent flooding instances, said Yadwadkar, who was also a member of the planning committee of Pune’s development plan.

But even if the embankments do materialise, will they really prevent sewage from entering the river?

Learnings from the Sabarmati riverfront in Gujarat do not paint a very promising picture. As per some reports, the Sabarmati Riverfront Development Corporation Limited admitted that the interceptor sewers and sewage diversion networks woven into the riverfront development project have mostly failed due to factors including dysfunctional waste treatment plants.

Unless all the proposed sewage treatment plants are in place and are functioning, the vision of a clean, unpolluted Mula-Mutha is still far away, said Yadwadkar. (Also, the installation of new sewage treatment plants is not part of the riverfront development project.)

Despite the PMC official claiming that the embankments have been designed taking all these factors into consideration, the citizens have raised several concerns, he claimed. “If the floodline changes, if rain enters, and if it is more than what is estimated, then there will be no end to these discussions,” he added.

Yadwadkar had approached the National Green Tribunal in 2020 challenging the environmental clearance (EC) given to the project. Though the NGT ruled that the EC be amended, that has not been done yet. When this was brought to the NGT’s notice again, it ordered that no more new work orders be taken up until this is done. But it did not stop the ongoing construction work.

No compromise

In July and October last year, the state’s Water Resources Department had warned the PMC that they would take action if the riverfront development project flouted the rules and regulations in place to protect the Mula-Mutha river, and that the river flow or course should not be altered in any way.

The construction of the embankments should not affect the width or depth of the river so that there is no reduction in the river’s carrying capacity, said Vijay Patil, executive engineer of the Khadakwasla division in the state’s Water Resources Department.

Recently, the PMC responded to the concerns raised by the department, said Patil. It said that these issues “have been taken care of” in the detailed project report, and this has been verified by the Central Water and Power Research Station (CWPRS), he said.

Meanwhile, Pune citizens are determined to not compromise.

More than 700 citizens have written to the Pune municipal commissioner, Vikram Kumar, just last month objecting to the trees being cut down for the project. According to Sinha, citizens have submitted their objections to the tree felling to the PMC’s tree authority, Pune’s chief conservator of forests and the Pune district collector, among others, in March this year.

It’s about their survival too, they said.

“I want to be able to survive in this city,” Yadwadkar told The Wire, when asked about why he was raising his voice against the project.

“We will continue to protest [against the riverfront development project] until the PMC addresses these issues and modifies the project appropriately,” Deshpande told The Wire. “We are not against the project and we want river rejuvenation. However, the river should first be cleaned, and the project be implemented in such a way that the riparian stretch along the rivers is protected. We hope the PMC will alter the detailed project report accordingly.”

The PMC officer told The Wire that the department was “open” to “technical discussions” that are based on facts and figures. The litmus test may be the tree authority’s upcoming public hearing on May 8.