Barriers in Protecting and Restoring Seasonal Rivers in Gujarat: A Planning Perspective

Neha Sarwate

Our urban areas and cities face an ironic water crisis of flooding on one hand and water shortage on the other. Concurrently, the quality of the available water for human consumption is severely compromised. This can be attributed to the degradation of terrestrial aquatic ecosystems, mainly river ecosystems, and depleting aquifers. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) identified 351 polluted river stretches across the country in 2018, of which 20 are in Gujarat. The Supreme Court Order of 2017 (No. 375/2012), NGT Order of 2021 (O. A. No. 228/2020), and the ongoing Gujarat High Court suo moto Case of 2021 addressing the pollution of the Sabarmati River exemplify the judicial commitment towards mandating the protection and restoration of rivers. The Ministry of Jal Shakti, under the aegis of the Namami Gange Programme, has laid out a roadmap for the rejuvenation of rivers, followed by numerous initiatives and directives at the national, state, and local government levels. The national advisory body, the National Institute of Urban Affairs (NIUA), and the Town and Country Planning Organisation (TCPO) have also established guidelines for Making River Centric Master Plans and River Centric Urban Planning Guidelines, respectively.

In spite of the increasing emphasis and initiatives on the rejuvenation of rivers, the issues pertaining to rivers and water crises are far from being resolved. The continuing discharge of treated and untreated sewage and effluents into the rivers, the dumping of solid waste and C&D debris into the ravines and floodplains, result in complex problems affecting the health and livelihoods of the residents. The challenges are multidimensional and multilayered; they primarily stem from the lack of scientific understanding of rivers and attitudes or mindsets towards planning that are translated into policies, legislative provisions, planning processes, and implementation strategies. The directives at the global levels (MEA 2005, TEEB 2010, IPBES 2014) related to ecosystem services reflect an anthropocentric mindset towards the ecosystems. The emphasis is on effective management of water resources through adaptive institutional mechanisms and participatory processes. However, these directives are interpreted in a fragmented manner in national, state, and local policies, where the comprehension of ‘ecosystems’, especially river ecosystems, varies among the various stakeholders.

Challenges – Comprehension of Rivers

Among all ecosystems, river ecosystems, due to their inherent variability, have comparatively less clarity and comprehensibility. River ecosystems, as distinct entities, are vital subcomponents of all terrestrial ecosystems, possessing embedded functions. With the increasing specialisation in academic and professional fields, ecological disciplines have also become fragmented. Consequently, different sections of society, influenced by their geographic and educational contexts, have varying understandings of rivers. The following observations, interactions, and engagements with stakeholders in Gujarat, particularly in the cities of Vadodara and Ahmedabad, form the basis of this discussion.

Academia and Civic Society: Generally, geologists, hydrologists, and geographers view rivers as interconnected networks of natural drainage patterns within a watershed or catchment area that undergo dynamic changes in water inundation and recession. Soil scientists, biologists, and zoologists largely consider a river as a habitat for various organisms, from microbes to keystone species, and as a platform for their activities. The planning community, mainly architects and urban planners, mostly perceive rivers as single channels that carry water from land to sea, while society at large takes rivers for granted, believing that water is an inherent feature of the river where they can perform their anthropogenic activities.

Governance Mechanism: The legislative provisions, the departments with their respective staff, the appointed officials, and the elected representatives collectively form the governance mechanism, and all have diverse interpretations of the river. Each state has its own policies, rules, and guidelines to steer planning and development in its jurisdiction. The governing planning Act for Gujarat is the Gujarat Town Planning and Urban Development Act (GTPUDA), and certain clauses in the Act exhibit a total ignorance of the scientific understanding of river systems. For example, Section 12 (2) (l) states that for the purpose of the Development Plan, the Act provides for “the filling up or reclamation of low-lying, swampy, or unhealthy areas or leveling up of land,” which reflects the “wasteland” classification of land uses by the apex planning body, the Town and Country Planning Organization (TCPO). The word ‘river’ is mentioned only once in the context of river pollution; other than that, there is no mention of ‘environment,’ ‘ponds,’ ‘lakes,’ ‘wetlands,’ ‘floodplains,’ or ‘ravines’! Additionally, the Act does not even refer to the Water Act, the Forest Act, or the Environment Protection Act.

The executive departments function under the administration’s delineations of ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ dichotomies. Consequently, the river is classified as urban rivers and rural rivers, with divisions in various stretches depending on the adjacent land uses. Since the main focus is the administration of ‘land’ versus ‘water,’ there is no single entity governing the effective functioning of the river. The water component falls within the purview of the Irrigation Department, the banks and riparian areas come under the District Collectorate, the riparian flora and fauna are the responsibility of the Forest Department, while the maintenance of all these aspects lies with the Urban Local Body. Hence, the river system stands dissected, and any planning initiative is undertaken in a piecemeal, project-based approach. There is an underlying assumption that all privately classified land needs to be ‘developable’ or ‘buildable.’ Additionally, lands usually labelled as wasteland or ‘kotar,’ colloquial for ravines, are often under the radar of political entities and land sharks. Consequently, these lands are legally encroached upon, and the river becomes the recipient of various types of waste, compromising its integrity. The fate of riverine areas in rural areas is similar.

River as a System

All the aforementioned woes can be alleviated if our society, particularly the decision-makers to begin with, understand the river as a dynamic system of a land-water continuum. The river system comprises abiotic and biotic structures that form the substrate for multiple interdependent processes, enabling the performance of various functions. All forms of land and water within the spatial watershed area constitute an integral part of the river system. They represent the ecological structure of the river, which, when scientifically defined, spatially delineated, and holistically integrated into the planning processes, will result in a well-functioning, healthy ecosystem.

Views expressed by Neha Sarwate, Environmental Planner, Researcher, Academician

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