Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Potemkin River

One of the first news items that caught my fancy as I browsed through the editorial page of  Hindustan Times today (December 25, 2013) is titled The Sabarmati riverfront is just a facade. As I read through the article, the first thought that came to my mind was Potemkin, the fake town created by Potemkin on the banks of River Dnieper (perhaps a legend, perhaps not). The first act I am doing is penning this post. So many firsts in rapid fire sequence!

The article is about the “ambitious riverfront development project” taken up by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC). Obviously, the city has been beautified and this is a plus, creating an energizing public space that most of our cities lack.  Chalk that one up for the AMC.
But at what cost? At about Rs. 100 crores per km. Hmmm… How will the chalk mark go on this one? A tick or a cross? I do not know.
The article criticizes the effort with some caveats. If the project has indeed revived the river the author is all ready to applaud. But, if it “caters merely to the water needs of a 275-m (sic) wide Sabarmati canal”, then it is a fake – a Potemkinesque fake.
I agree and disagree. First, why I disagree. The project claims to rejuvenate the riverfront, falling within municipal limits. It is not mentioned whether there has been any claim of reviving the river, though the article implies there is. I suspect that a mere municipal authority cannot claim to revive a 370 km long river even if much of its pollution load is locally created.
The project seems to have achieved its goals, however limited it may be from a holistic perspective. Had the improvement in the stretch of the river within municipal limits is the direct result of environmental and ecological interventions – mentioned in the article as, “rejuvenation of catchment vegetation,” “restoration of its natural flows and flood plains,” – and sewerage and effluent treatment plants along the river length, that is holistic. But that is not the mandate of the AMC, as I understand. The riverfront has been cleaned up. So far so good. But, cleaned up of people too? If yes, then that is a different kettle of fish, not to be taken up here.
Now to why I agree with the slant of the article. Assume there is a riverfront promenade. The walkers duly note that the river is flowing freely and appears clean enough, at least as compared to rivers in other cities, like Mithi in Mumbai or Cooum in Chennai. Then, as you walk along you will start to believe that the characteristics of the river in this stretch continues further upstream and downstream. This is the reference to Potemkin in the title.
Potemkin village was fabricated to impress Catherine II of how Crimea was; the riverfront to be taken as the sample for the Crimean interior. Likewise the riverfront has been beautified to give the false idea of the how Sabarmati flows both downstream and upstream. Here, the criticism in the article is spot on.
There could have been another criticism which unfortunately the author did not mention. The riverfront scheme is one of “canalizing” the river. This has been the case in many cities in Europe but current wisdom is, such efforts carry negative premium in ecological terms. Indeed, this has been mentioned sideways in the newspaper article when it says that a river loses its ability to rejuvenate itself when its “lateral connectivity” is disrupted. This obviously happens when a river is “canalized”.

All said, I liked the article. For one, it helped me move forward on the path of analyzing as critically as possible information that is available in the public domain. Two, it helped me fatten my blog portfolio.
Raghuram Ekambaram 


dsampath said...

the river project is basically
a project to
beautify Ahmadabad..
it does not rejuvenate the river
as rejuvenation would be a massive job...one will have to got to the roots..
This is only of entertainment value and brings a place for local Ahmadabadis to go and relax...

mandakolathur said...

DS Sir,

This is my understanding too. That is why I felt the newspaper article went over the top. My comment on the effort to beautify the city by doing something that is going out of favor where it started is to show that we seem to always lag the developed countries at least by a decade no matter the issue.