Modi chief architect’s Pune riverfront project faces scrutiny

The Rs 4,700-crore project allegedly flouts several regulations.

ByPrateek Goyal
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Modi chief architect’s Pune riverfront project faces scrutiny
An artist's impression of how the riverfront would look like once it's completed.|Pune River Development Project Concept Master Plan
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In 2015, the Pune Municipal Corporation, then run by Nationalist Congress Party, invited bids to clean up and “rejuvenate” the polluted Mula and Mutha rivers. The riverfront development project, the PMC said, would cut the risk of flooding in the rivers and beautify stretches of their banks totalling 44 km. Seven firms bid for the project and it eventually went to HCP Design of Bimal Patel, the chief architect of Narendra Modi’s pet projects - Central Vista in Delhi, Kashi Vishwanath Corridor in Varanasi, Sabarmati Riverfront in Ahmedabad – which have been mired in allegations of violating rules and showing no regard for nature or sustainability. The Pune riverfront project, projected to be completed in 10 years at a cost of Rs 4,700 crore – its estimated cost has shot up from Rs 2,619 in 2018 – appears to be going the same way.

Government records obtained by environmental activist Sarang Yadwadkar through RTI Act requests indicate that the project is being executed in violation of regulations.

These records contradict the PMC’s claim that the project was cleared by the Central Water and Power Research Station. The state government agency, which is tasked with giving research support to irrigation, power and water transport projects, did not conduct any study to assess the project’s impact, though it did suggest for the PMC “to take care of some issues in the matter”. What’s more, the agency clarified, it wasn’t the “clearing authority” for the project.

The PMC also moved the flood lines, which mark zones of potential flooding along the banks, for the project without due permission. A 2015 circular by the Maharashtra government requires the chief engineer of the state’s water resources department to approve a change in flood lines but the PMC obtained the clearance in 2016 from an executive engineer who wasn’t authorised to provide it.

The water resources department has since repeatedly warned the PMC of legal consequences if it does not adhere to the flood lines drawn in 2010 and 2011 and there’s damage to life or property as a result.

“Said flood discharges and flood lines are final,” the department asserted in a 2018 letter to the PMC, and warned that riverfront development work within the prescribed lines shouldn’t disturb the water carrying capacity of the rivers. It reiterated this position in subsequent letters in 2019 and 2021: the project must in no way obstruct the flow or reduce the carrying capacity of the rivers.

The project is facing scrutiny for allegedly violating environmental norms as well. Yadwadkar has gone to the National Green Tribunal challenging the validity of the environmental clearance given by the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority. He argues that the clearance was provided on the basis of misleading claims made by the municipal corporation. At the time, in 2017, both the PMC and the state government were run by the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The PMC, for one, told the environment agency that the proposed FSI and Non-FSI built-up area was zero, meaning no construction would take place. FSI means construction with a roof and non-FSI refers to concretisation in an open area. But the Detailed Project Report prepared by HCP Design included construction of food courts, toilet blocks, parking lots, ghats, idol immersion tanks, retaining walls, barrages, stairs, ramps, promenades, gardens bridges, and embankments on 556 acres of land.

The civic body similarly declared that there were no structures on the floodplains. But the project report acknowledges the existence of ghats, bridges, shrines, slums, causeways, idol immersion tanks, retaining walls, weirs, and check dams, some of which would have to be demolished.

The PMC also claimed that there would be “no activity pertaining to the deepening of rivers”. The project report, however, proposes excavation of around two metres of the river beds.

Asked about these allegations and inconsistencies, the municipal corporation’s environment officer Mangesh Dighe replied, “When we said that there would be no construction, we meant habitable construction. As for the flood lines, they were shifted in keeping with the current natural conditions. There’s a threat of floods in some areas and we are proposing lines to prevent flooding. It’s a change for the better. We are in regular communication with the irrigation department about it.”

The project is primarily intended to create safe passage for flood waters, Dighe added, and develop green embankments along the rivers using eco-friendly construction methods and materials. “We are not narrowing the rivers, we are going to create cross sections for the safe passage of floods,” he said. “Our embankments will be completely unlike those of the Sabarmati.”

Ganesh Ahire, an architect at HCP Design, said, “We have received all required permissions, land and environment clearances. This is a green project, we are not going to do any real estate activity nor have we proposed any. The project is meant to save the rivers, to improve their flowing capacities. But rumours have been spread about the project, which is not beneficial. For the past five years, we have been resolving concerns related to the project.”

Yadwadkar, the activist, isn’t convinced. “Pune is built around five rivers with seven dams upstream which makes it prone to floods,” he said. “The riverfront development project is going to make the situation worse because they are narrowing the rivers by building concrete walls along both banks and reclaiming the floodplains for construction. As per their project report, they are reclaiming 1,544 acres of land. Their own hydraulic study mentions that the Mula’s water level will rise by over 5 feet and Mutha’s by 6 inches when they flood and submerge hundreds of sq metres. Also, they have only considered dams in their study and not the free catchment areas. If they had, these figures would have gone up drastically.” The hydraulic study was done by HCP Design.

He also objected to the shifting of flood lines “to create landscapes for construction of buildings”. “At places they have shifted the flood lines up to 80 metres, in clear violation of rules and procedures,” said Yadwadkar, who sits on the planning committee of the Pune City Development Plan. “This project is nothing but monetisation of river land and public resources.”

In the Deccan Gymkhana area, for example, the flood lines near the Kakasaheb Gadgil Bridge have been pushed in by 81 metres on the left bank of Mutha river and nearly 37 metres on the right.

Pradeep Purandare, a former professor at the Water and Land Management Institute in Aurangabad, agreed with Yadwadkar. “Shifting the flood lines will increase the severity of floods and lead to encroachment of the rivers,” he said. “It will endanger lives.”

Also see
Bit by bit, trick by trick: How Central Vista became a reality
Is the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor destroying ancient temples?

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