Urban Rivers

Do we have space for Rivers in our cities?

Is it a legitimate, valid question, or is this question a product of old fashioned, romantic mind? If we go by the way we are treating the rivers and its various essential components in big cities or small, the answer seems a clear no.

State of Urban Rivers The urban rivers in India are not only in poor state, but their condition is worsening with every passing day[i]. Pollution, encroachments, solid waste dumping, damming, water diversions, groundwater over-exploitation, catchment degradation, destruction of water bodies, wetlands and forests, indiscriminate mining, the impact of building bridges, flyovers and metros are some of the known physical threats to the Urban rivers. Complete lack of any legal or institutional protection, and a mindset that sees rivers as non-essential, expendable entities are some of the major causes for this situation. This is true of rivers like Yamuna (Delhi, Agra, Mathura), Ganga (Allahabad, Varanasi, Patna), Gomati (Lucknow), Mithi (Mumbai), Mula-Mutha (Pune), Sabarmati (Ahmedabad), Dravyawati (Jaipur), Khan (Indore), Kshipra (Ujjain), Jhelum (Srinagar), Mahi and Vishvamitri (Vadodara), Tapi (Surat), Arkavathi & Virishabhavati (Bangalore), to name a few.

The consequences of this worsening state of Urban Rivers are already being experienced in multiple ways including increasingly destructive floods, water scarcity, worsening quality of life and increasing economic, social and cultural impacts. The rapidly rising urbanisation and rapidly increasing per capita footprint of Urban India means that these consequences are going to only worsen further.

EKW: A bright spot in Urban Gloom In Kolkata, the existence of East Kolkata Wetlands (EKW) have been a blessing for Hooghly, but the same threats that rivers in other cities face, are also increasingly threatening the EKW here, posing increasing risk to Hooghly. In fact, EKW provide a remarkable example, a rare bright spot in otherwise gloomy Urban River scene as the Urban Sewage of Kolkata gets treated at EKW without the use of land & capital intensive Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) that rarely seem to function in a sustained way.

East Kolkata Wetlands (Photo: Question of Cities)

As Amitangshu Acharya noted[ii] about EKW: “In 1930, a local landlord and fish farm owner, Bhabanath Sen, began to let Calcutta’s wastewater into his fishponds. The success he witnessed with fish growth and productivity laid the foundation for a globally celebrated example of urban sustainability – the East Kolkata Wetlands. Today, a vast waterscape of 264 fishponds recycles 750 million litres of sewage and wastewater, and where 50,000 fisherfolk and vegetable farmers turn excrement into 10,000 tonnes of fish and 50,000 tonnes of vegetables.” A struggle is going on in Kolkata to save the EKW from the Urban onslaught.

The STPs that do not deliver STPs have been the mainstay of cities[iii] to treat its Sewage, but when they do not function, they end up releasing untreated or semi treated sewage into the water bodies and rivers of the cities. The governments or city managers seem to have no clue as to how to ensure that STPs, their only solution, deliver the promised results and yet, the same STPs keep getting built at larger and larger scale. There is no attempt to make the functioning of the STPs more transparent, accountable or participatory.

Decentralised STPs is a possible solution as they can help not only reduce the cost, they can help make the STPs functional and also make it possible to recycle the treated sewage locally, but there seems not much interest in it among the central, state or city governments.

The River Front Development The most celebrated example of how our government and possibly society would like to treat a city river, made famous by no less then Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is that of Sabarmati flowing through Ahmedabad in Gujarat. The Prime Minister promised, through bill boards publicly put up by Bharatiya Janata Party during 2014 parliamentary elections in Varanasi, that if elected, he will convert the Ganga in Varanasi to similar River Front Development. That fortunately has not happened so far, though some components of this plan were implemented. The Varanasi project has reportedly been scrapped[iv] after it was completely destroyed by monsoon floods in August 2021. The Dravyavati River Front Development Project in Jaipur remains stalled since years[v] due to dispute between the government and the contractor.

In April 2018[vi] when we questioned the architect of the Sabarmati River Front Development Project, Bimal Patel of HCP Design, Planning and Management Pvt. Ltd-Ahmedabad in a meeting in Pune on Urban Rivers co-organised by South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People and INTACH, having no clue to the question as to what is a river, accused this author of having old fashioned, romantic idea about rivers!

The River Front Development Projects are being opposed by the people[vii] at a number of places across the country including Delhi, Pune, Vadodara, Lucknow, Bhagalpur[viii], Kota, to name a few. In Hyderabad, the Musi River Front Development Project remains scrapped[ix] even after spending a few crores.

Mithi River in Mumbai (Photo: Question of Cities)

How river science defines a river Indeed, defining a river is key to answer the question if we have space for rivers in our cities. Briefly, a river is a hydrological drainage entity that is defined by the state of its climate, catchment, tributaries, upstream downstream, lateral, vertical and temporal connectivities and its floodplain. The aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity along the river, and the components of what flows in the river are other important components of a river. It is not just water that flows in a river, but also silt, boulders, nutrients and biodiversity. The biodiversity flow in a river is in fact not just upstream to downstream, but also downstream to upstream. Being a landscape level entity, the river also necessarily has ecological, social, cultural and religious significance, it also provides a large number of economic services. The tributaries, the flood plains, the lakes and wetlands, the forests and ridge are very integral to a functional river.

There is nothing romantic about this definition of river, it in fact follows from basic science of rivers. But one wonders if the architects of our river front development projects, or our water governance system or even cities have any interest in science of rivers. The Urban dwellers and managers basically see the space occupied by river as potential for real estate development and secondly as a dumping place for all kinds of solid and liquid wastes of the city. Its only during floods in monsoon that they realise that riverine land is also serving as drainage system.

That is why the architects of Sabarmati River Front Project talk about reclaiming land from the river, as if they are talking about reclamation of some waste land! And such reclamation of river land is at the heart of economics and logic of River Front projects. Without of course bothering to do even basic social or environment impact assessment of such projects. Or conducting any genuine public consultation process.

What irritated Bimal Patel in that Pune meeting was the repeated, reasoned argument by many participants that what is called Sabarmati in Ahmedabad is no longer a river. It is just a canal storing stagnant, non-flowing water, clearest sign that there is no river there. More importantly even the water that is stored in that canal in Ahmedabad is not Sabarmati water, but Narmada water, over which Ahmedabad had no right. That is what the river front development does to the river: it kills the river. The question if cities have space for river, is loudly, emphatically answered by Bimal Patel and all those right upto PM idealising the Sabarmati River Front Project: Sorry, there is none.

Can we have smart city without a river smart city? In fact, the Union Government has a scheme called smart city mission, but there is no component in it related to rivers or more broader water sector. Can a city be smart without being river smart or water smart? But that question do not seem to have entered the minds of our governments.

On the contrary, there is complete policy vacuum as far as Urban Water Sector or Urban Rivers are concerned. There is no policy to guide governments in the water or river governance. There is no definition of what is a water smart or river smart city. The Pune meeting in April 2018 and India Rivers Week meeting earlier ended with a resolution that India urgently needs an Urban Water Policy that would also define what is a river smart city. In fact, there could be annual competitions to declare a river smart city.

In Nov 2020, the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) came out with a “Urban River Management Plan: Components and Guidance Note”, in consultation with National Institute of Urban Affairs. That note however is neither a policy of the Government of India on Urban Rivers, nor does it have any force of law. As the Note says: “The overall objective of this document is to assist cities along the Ganga River to improve the state of the river in their stretch. While the central focus is on the Ganga, the document also applies to other rivers flowing through these cities.”

The pathetic quality of this document is apparent when it says (P 17): “The Ganga River Basin with an area of 1,080,000 sq. km is one of the largest river basins in the world. It flows through the Indo-Gangetic plains of the country before merging in the Arabian Sea.” The Ganga River does not merge into the Arabian Sea, which is on the west coast, when Ganga river flows into the Bay of Bengal on East Coast. This is just one of many examples reflecting on the poor quality of this document. In June 2021, NMCG similarly brought out the document: “Strategic Guidelines for making river sensitive Master Plan” and (undated) document “Guidance Note for Environmentally Sensitive, Climate Adaptive and Socially Inclusive Urban Riverfront Planning and Development”.

A lot of petitions have also been filed before the National Green Tribunal (NGT), High Courts and Supreme Courts. There have been some welcome orders[x], but cumulatively, not much effective change has been possible as many of the orders of the courts have remained unimplemented, while in other cases, the judiciary has not been able to fathom the significance of the situation.

Urban Rivers & Climate Change The need to protect and rejuvenate Urban rivers in all their manifestations becomes even more important in the context of climate change with increasing intensity, frequency and spread of high rainfall events in the cities with the intensification of the water cycle. Increasing frequency, intensity and spread of the floods in cities is one of the many impacts of climate change on our urban rivers.

While our cities are fast losing rainwater holding, storing and recharging capacity, the global movement in a number of cities is in the opposite direction, with spreading concepts of room for the rivers[xi] and sponge cities[xii]

In this otherwise gloomy situation, there have been some hopeful signs[xiii] too. Some examples from India: A million wells initiative and Paani Earth in Bangalore, efforts of Sarang Yadvadkar and Jivid Nadi group on Pune Rivers, the principle committee on Yamuna and Monitoring Committee on Yamuna (now dissolved) constituted by the NGT following petition by Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan in Delhi, Citizen groups effort to clean up some rivers (e.g. River Nethrawathi in coastal Karnataka, River Tawi in Jammu, Cooum river in Tiruvallur in Tamil Nadu), Documenting the state of Urban Rivers (e.g. The story of Adyar River of Chennai, River Hooghly’s heritage in Kolkata), among many others.

Some suggestions to improve state of our Urban Rivers The Union government and state governments needs to come out with a National and State Urban Water Policy that will also provide policy for Urban Rivers. No activities should be allowed through law in the 1-in-25 year floodplains and restricted activities with no construction in 1-in-100 year floodplains. The policy should also provide measures to protect the groundwater recharge zones and improve the capacity of the cities to hold, store, recharge the rainwater. All existing water bodies and wetlands should be protected and their state improved through desilting and such other measures. Similarly the city drainage system must be clearly defined and it should be provided legal protection from any changes.

All this should be legally the duty of the city government. The norms for transparent, accountable and participatory management of all the rivers related activities and infrastructure should be defined in the policy and should be legally mandatory. No additional external water should be provided to a city till the city exhausts the use of rainwater and local water bodies, recycling of the treated water and demand side measures. As far as feasible, decentralised STPs should be the norm. There should be ward level management committees to ensure participatory management of all components of a city river system with involvement of independent civil society and such other independent media and academic persons. Annual state level and national competitions for various tiers of cities should be conducted to award the most river friendly cities. The criteria and jury for such awards should be pre declared and should be confidence inspiring.

Interestingly, in Dec 2019 Prime Minister Modi said at the first meeting of National Ganga Council: “There is a need for new thinking for ‘River Cities’. There is a need for a new river centric thinking in planning for cities on the banks of rivers. The river health needs to be mainstreamed into urban planning process by developing Urban River Management Plans.  Cities should be responsible for rejuvenating their rivers.” Unfortunately, we see no sign of this new thinking in governance of our Urban Rivers.

May be, we need to urgently realise that sooner rather than later, the River always retaliates, the water always wins. But we are unlikely to learn before facing bigger disasters.

Himanshu Thakkar

Note: An edited version of this was published at https://questionofcities.org/make-space-for-rivers-in-cities-draft-policies-to-protect-them/ on Nov 4, 2022.


[i] https://sandrp.in/2022/06/29/indias-urban-rivers-in-crisis-in-2022-top-ten-cases/

[ii] https://questionofcities.org/water-in-the-city-a-matter-of-ecology-public-health-and-livelihoods/

[iii] https://sandrp.in/2022/06/30/urban-rivers-2022-top-ten-govt-actions-pre-occupation-with-stps-without-accountable-governance/

[iv] https://indiaspendhindi.com/uttar-pradesh/varanasi-ganga-river-canal-project-closed-791390

[v] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/jaipur/rs-1600cr-later-dravyavati-riverfront-is-squatters-hub/articleshow/88131513.cms 

[vi] https://sandrp.in/2018/04/25/india-urgently-needs-urban-water-policy-river-front-development-kills-the-rivers/

[vii] https://sandrp.in/2022/06/21/river-front-development-projects-damaging-rivers-wasting-public-money/

[viii] https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/governance/ganga-riverfront-construction-work-stopped-in-bihar-s-bhagalpur-for-violating-wildlife-sanctuary-act-82623 

[ix] https://www.deccanchronicle.com/nation/current-affairs/140921/government-shelves-musi-riverfront-development-project.html 

[x] https://sandrp.in/2022/07/08/top-ten-judicial-actions-on-urban-rivers-2022-executors-deliberately-delaying-diluting-defying-orders/

[xi] https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/lets-make-room-for-the-river/article35571290.ece 

[xii] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/jun/07/slow-water-urban-floods-drought-china-sponge-cities 

[xiii] https://sandrp.in/2022/06/19/urban-rivers-top-ten-positive-stories-from-india/

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