Panel Discussion on Riverfront Development – Challenges and Reflections at Indian River Week hosted by Indian River Forum (IRF)

India’s Rivers have played a dynamic role in shaping the country’s history, culture and economy. According to the Central Water Commission (2019), there are more than 300 cities which are located on the riverbanks of India. With the ever-increasing trend of Urbanisation, decreasing urban commons, and weather extremes due to climate change, the city-river relationship has been transformed in the 21st century.

The panel discussion on Riverfront Development was organised by Indian River Forum over its annual conference ‘Indian River Week’ 2023. The discussion reflected upon the challenges, issues and learnings from different case studies of Riverfront Development in India.

The relationship between cities and rivers has existed historically since the formation of settlements along water bodies, specifically rivers, preferable for their diverse geographical qualities. If we look at the quintessential profile of Kashi or Banaras, it comes ideally around the riverfront with its facades, temples, riverfront mansions, turrets and minarets and of course, the grand ghats that make up the material fabric as well as the imagination of the city. Existing literature on the historicity of Benaras and its urban forms around the river, hint at the series of reconfigurations brought through myths and by different power groups like individual Hindu patrons, Mughals, Marathas and Brahmins emphasizing a definite politics of placemaking throughout history.

The panel defined the traditional riverfronts as ‘organic’ riverfronts. The evolution of urban settlements along the river there were ‘organic’ riverfronts which evolved on the riverbanks as well. These riverfronts are known as ‘Ghats’ and have varied functionality such as spaces for rituals and nature-based livelihood.

Many urban settlements have evolved with rivers serving as a fundamental resource for habitat and livelihood with multiple utilities such as water resources, fisheries, transport, climatic protection, and ecological contribution to the landscape. Along the river, the urban commons play a vital role in the sustenance of the ecology along with it being an inevitable social binder, where the interactions amongst the diverse citizenry, public life, and the identity of communities emerge and are sustained. Urban Commons on the floodplains of Rivers determine the social behaviour and norms that the communities associate with the resources. It becomes an instrument of governance mechanism shaping the relationship between communities and resources, its exchange and everyday interaction. Therefore, urban commons play a crucial part which determining the relationship between the city and river.

Against this backdrop, Kislay (Research Associate, PRC) expanded upon 5 different case studies of Riverfront Development in the country with an emphasis on Musi Riverfront Development in Hyderabad. These case studies were researched on the initiative of Nagar Nadi Fellowship – 2021.

The city of Hyderabad has an intricate relationship with the Musi River. The city was developed around the Musi River during the pre-independence era, along major attractions of the city are in the vicinity of Musi. The river is subjected to both legal, illegal, moral and immoral encroachment. At the same time, the river is called ‘ferocious’ because of the frequent flooding which the city has gone through. Post-independence intervention of the state in Musi River in the form of riverfront development through bridges, walkways, and road linkages. Manu Bhatnagar (Director, INTACH )called these post-independence new riverfronts as ‘celebration of concrete’. In the case of the Musi River, the interventions have transformed it into a canal. Therefore through state interventions the river is ‘tamed’ to the extent that the water consumption from the river through the two reservoirs – Osman Sagar & Himayat Sagar has been prohibited.

The panel emphasised how Riverfront Development becomes an instrument of Urban Governance where it has devastating environmental, livelihood, and socio-cultural impact. These mega-riverfront constructions are constructed by arguing that it is for rejuvenation, beautification, and disaster management (for example flood management in the case of the Hyderabad Musi River). Along with these, the infrastructural transformation that excludes in the name of ‘creation of public and commercial’ space. It was stressed during the discussion that there is the encroachment of state upon citizens’ rights, citizens access and riverine ecology.

Further, the discussion dwelled upon the legality of these riverfront projects. Especially how loopholes are encapsulated in the state-led urban planning to encompass the safeguards for ecology. Drawing upon his experience Ritwik Dutta who is involved in environmental litigation in the last 20 years argued that the NGT guidelines and laws have merely become advisory rather than guidelines for the projects. Neha Sarwate who is an environmental planner presented the case study of the Vishwamitri project in Vadodara. On 25th May 2021 the citizens of Vadodara won the NGT case against the much talked about Vishwamitri project. The project had grave social and environmental impacts which would have damaged the local ecology of the region. Therefore legality of the environmental clearances becomes a strategic tool for both the state and citizens to determine the implementation of the Riverfront projects.

The discussion concluded with an emphasis on transparency and accountability of state-led urban planning. People’s participation and decentralised planning become essential for an ecologically resilient and socially just river transformation.

Report & presentation prepared by Kislay (Research Assistant, PRC). The research on riverfront case studies has been done by Prachi Satrawal, Chayanika Iyer, Raina Ghosh, Sanjeev, and Nikhil Shah.

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