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Could riverfront development boost flood risk? Rs 5,500-cr project behind Pune’s ‘Chipko moment’

RFD project in Pune spans across 44 km of riverside stretch. PMC official says open spaces like parks & heritage structures will be integrated with proposed riverfront.

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Mumbai: The proposed Mula-Mutha Riverfront Development Project (RFD) in Maharashtra’s Pune has run into turbulence, with environmental activists fearing that concretisation of the riverbank may lead to increased floods and authorities insisting that the project will help control floods.

Conceptualised in 2015-16, the RFD project will, according to the website of the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC), span 44.4 km — 22.2 km along the Mula river, 10.4 km along the Mutha river and 11.8 km along the confluence of both rivers. The project is divided into multiple stretches, of which two along the confluence are currently being developed. 

The foundation stone for the Rs 5,500-crore project was laid by Prime Minister Narendra Modi last March.

Environmental activists opposed to the project say they are not in favour of the creation of embankments through a reduction in the width of the river, and accuse authorities of ignoring climate change concerns.

On 29 April, more than 2,000 residents and activists staged a ‘Chalo Chipko demonstration in the Mutha riverbed to protest against the felling of trees for the proposed project.

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Controlling floods & green corridor

A PMC official who did not wish to be named told ThePrint, “The objective of this project is to control floods by building embankments, create a green corridor and a public place along the river for recreation. And also, the river will be protected from any encroachments.”

According to the official, the civic body conducted surveys and sought public opinion and found that there was a need to tackle issues including pollution, the risk of flooding and inaccessible river banks.

Open spaces such as parks, heritage structures along the river, and ghats will also be integrated with the proposed riverfront, the official said, adding that the design of the river cross-section has been run through a “computer model” and the hydrological and hydraulic calculations have been approved by Pune-based Central Water and Power Research Station (CWPRS).

“Once the obstructions in the river are removed, the velocity of the river will improve and then the capacity will increase subsequently,” said the official.

However, environmental activists are not convinced.

Sarang Yadwadkar, an architect by profession, said a 2014 report of the Delhi-based The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) commissioned by the Maharashtra government had suggested that Pune would experience 37.5 per cent more rain but fewer days of rain and increased frequency of intense rain in the near future.

“To create embankments, more land is required and it is done by reclaiming the riverbed or the flood plains. Reduction in width of the river would reduce its cross-sectional area necessary for uninterrupted flow of water,” said Yadwadkar, who is the activist leading the protest against the project.

“The government (TERI) report says flood risks in Pune will increase going forward. With these embankments, the natural flow of rainwater towards the river will be obstructed,” said Priyadarshini Karve, convenor of the Indian Network of Ethics and Climate Change (NECC). 

Karve added that the proposal should have been drafted while taking into account the future effects of climate change and not just an assessment of rainfall received over the last 100 years.

Critics also point to construction underway inside the blue flood line — which demarcates the”‘area along Pune’s rivers that is likely to be inundated by the highest flood that can be expected during any 25-year period”. 

“They are doing this construction and reclaiming the land which will then be open to further construction. They have already proposed food plazas and parking in the current plan,” said Yadwadkar.

The detailed project report (DPR) for this, on the other hand, terms the blue flood line and the red flood line “artificial constructs that are widely but wrongly considered to be the ‘natural’ extent of Pune’s rivers”. It goes further to suggest that if man-made obstructions were removed and river flow improved, high flood levels would decrease, and the blue and red lines on either side of the river would have to be redrawn closer to each other.

Faulty DPR made by ‘confused consultant’?

As was the case with the construction of a metro car shed in Mumbai’s Aarey, opposition to this project also took on a political hue after Shiv Sena (UBT) leader and former minister Aaditya Thackeray criticised the manner in which authorities were approaching the project.

“No river, globally, is narrowed in width to develop it. Rivers are always better wide and with natural embankments. The current project wants to give it concrete banks, which makes it more like a bucket than a river,” Thackeray told ThePrint over the phone Wednesday.

He went further to allege that the PMC was clueless about climate change.

Alleging that the detailed project report (DPR) of RFD was drafted by a “confused consultant”, Thackeray said the report “oscillates from mentioning flood control as an intent to saying in later pages that this project is not a flood management project”.

“Five rivers enter Pune, while Pune has six dams on the immediate upstream. How is narrowing the cross-section of the river going to contribute to flood control,” he asked.

Dismissing such concerns, the PMC official quoted earlier said, “If you see, we have 87 per cent of the green embankments where stones will be used for water percolation and only 13 per cent where the river width is very narrow. There, we have to adopt a vertical cross-section. Otherwise, it is a green embankment, so nothing to worry about.”

Another criticism of the RFD project is that it is an attempt to emulate the Sabarmati riverfront in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. The PMC official, however, rejected this allegation, saying the two rivers are different.

Thackeray, meanwhile, suggested that the civic body should first clean the river before beginning construction. 

“Sewage water entering the river and other pollutants must be held back, and treated before being released into the river. Then the banks of the river must be maintained as naturally as possible,” he said.

Asked whether this project was overlooked by the previous Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government in which Thackeray was environment minister, the Shiv Sena (UBT) leader said that this is a “PMC project” and approvals for it were granted by the central government.

“Our first meeting made us realise that the irrigation department was unaware of flood lines being changed by the PMC for approvals. This was discussed in a meeting at the Y.B. Chavan Centre. Along with it, the permissions they sought did not apply to tree cutting and now they want to cut 8,000 trees. The irrigation department and environment department had been misled while seeking permissions till 2019,” he claimed.

While the PMC maintains that it consulted all concerned departments, activists have questioned the consultation process. “All they did was change the name of the project rather than the plan. This is all that happened during the consultation. Only the terminology is changed,” Karve said.

(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)

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