The Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project at Ahmedabad has attracted much attention for its concept, approach and achievements nationally and internationally. It has won awards for the authorities from the central government for its `exemplarity’. The international financial institutions have modeled its experiences and strategies as `best practices’. It has been projected in the list of 100 “Most Innovative Projects” hailing it as a project towards ‘urban regeneration and environmental improvement which will transform the river as a focal point of leisure and recreation’. What makes SRFD Project a unique venture and a noteworthy achievement is the dismal record, on all fronts, in managing the country’s river resource across the board. Despite most of its main cities, big and small, located on a river; despite just about everyone-- from Mumbai to Delhi to Dahisar-- having polluted and abused its river asset; and despite a crying need to address the problems the rivers face and exploit the potential they offer, Sabarmati is the only river and Ahmedabad is the only city in the country, till date, to have done it—solved problems and exploited potential. The SRFD project is unique not only for what it is and has done, also when compared to and seen with almost criminal neglect and utter lack of initiative and action on other rivers and cities. It is no surprise that SRFD Project is seen as a model for the country and a few more cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, Surat, Kolkatta and Lucknow are working on developing similar projects.
So, what makes it so special? At a single go the Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project (SRFD Project) has achieved four major objectives: (a) converted a liability that the Sabarmati river had become due to waterlessness, pollution and neglect, into an asset by making it perennially water filled, at least in the city stretch, eliminating the major water polluting agents by diverting as many as 39 sewage outlets that dumped untreated sewer in the river into two sewage treatment plants, and drastically reducing possibility of further pollution by putting the river water and the river banks to multiple public uses (b) gifted to the citizens a large, centrally located and much needed civic space to the city chronically starved of open spaces, by amalgamating the existing and the reclaimed lands obtained by trimming the river for recreation and leisure purposes (c) creating a precedent in form of an institutional mechanism for project planning and implementation, in form of a special purpose vehicle, namely the Sabarmati Riverfront Development Corporation Limited (SRFDCL), that would serve the city well in the future while planning ambitious and high investment projects, and (d) created a new and modern landmark, announcing Ahmedabad’s arrival as a `word class’ city to the fast urbanizing global world—the BRTS is the other such project in the city—wherein vision in urban planning, creativity in governance, entrepreneurship in problem solving, public participation in alternatives search and display of sustainability concerns in managing and developing a city are highly rated attributes.
What made it possible? A number of factors including the political will on part of the Chief Minister of the state; the special purpose vehicle that made decision making focused and insulated from the partisan political wrangling that often characterize project management at the local authority; the administrative leadership at the AMC and the SRFDCL that, among other things, succeeded in transferring all related lands owned by the various authorities to the project, and consistent and vigorous follow up by the motivated professionals.
It must be noted, however, that much of the positive attributes of the project are the legacy of the past and on account of the vision that the political leaders, professionals, citizens, civic groups and officers displayed and not only due to the present set of professionals, administrators and decision makers, as being projected. The early contributors and pioneers were many. Those unnamed people in the city and the state government who built the Dharoi dam upstream of the river—albeit for the irrigation purpose--and the Vasna barrage downstream, which constitute the critical part of the support infrastructure that makes the pond-ing of the water in the city stretch of the river, the lifeline of the project, possible. At the top of the list among the visionary and the pioneers is Prof. Bernard Kohn, a French-American architect, who conceived the idea, put together a comprehensive project feasibility blueprint and advocated its implementation vigorously with the powers that be, working voluntarily and for the larger public good. The early pioneers also include the political leadership and the officers in the municipal administration and the state government who appreciating the vision, the project concept and its benefits to the city got the technical feasibility of the narrowing of the river width examined scientifically at the Khadakwasla laboratory. It also includes the River Front Development Group (RFDG), a group of professionals and NGOs, who took upon themselves to activate the project in the mid ‘80s and working voluntarily presented an alternative perspective—that reducing the river width, a high cost, high technology and somewhat controversial and risky looking option, need not be a precondition for the riverfront development; that the priority was not so much the reclamation of the river lands but cleaning the river and retaining clean water round the year, because if that happened the riverfront would automatically develop; that making the project self paying should not necessarily mean selling the riverfront land to private developers for private purposes; that developing the riverfront also meant creating and improving access to a number of existing public facilities on the river such as Ghats, temples, gardens and institutional properties on both the river banks and developing them appropriately; and that the project should be incremental in nature : from low cost to medium cost to high cost; from short term to medium term to long term solutions and responses. It is an immense legacy, a highly valuable one that is in the foundation of this project. And though not visible being buried in the foundation, it in no way reduces its significance or contribution. That also makes the Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project a citizen idea, a community initiative, a people’s project. And that needs to be remembered while assessing its worth, replicability and the ‘model project’ status.
Considering that it took fifty long years to bring the project to this near completion stage --Prof Bernard Kohn’s project feasibility blueprint was drafted in the early ‘60s; the Dharoi dam and the Vasna barrage were built even earlier, and the Riverfront Development Group ( RFDG) worked and made its proposals in the mid ‘80s—and almost two generations of Ahmedabad citizens have been deprived of the benefits of the vision and the investment, it is necessary that the project delivers the maximum public good now and for the future.
And there lie some contentious issues and the problem areas.
The first set of issues is in the way the project has been designed and implemented. They are in the process as also in the outcome.
A section of the experts and professionals are unconvinced about the land reclamation through the narrowing of the river basin despite the `safe’ certificate by the Khadakwasla laboratory. The concerns are on the reliability of the technical feasibility considering the peculiarity of the Sabarmati’s flood behavior and the relatively new climate change phenomenon that brings into the equation hitherto unknown factors and considerations, which did not figure in the Khadkwasla calculations and modeling tests in the ‘60s. Climate change was not such a prominent issue then. The change in the river ecology by filling in the water, the disruption of the dry-river ecology, neglect of the river—basin, banks and the water-- beyond the city stretch, the change in the traditional use pattern of the river bed (especially the river bed agriculture) and the river bank uses; summary eviction of all form of traditional river users; tempering with the naturalness of the river form through the straightening of the banks, the artificial and characterless retaining wall and, most importantly, downgrading of a natural river into a narrow and artificial ‘canal’ does not find approval of the purists and the ecologically learned and sensitive.
Transparency in agency selection
Even if these appear small minority activist views and the purists’ concerns, the most stringent criticism and disapproval rests with the physical design of the river space as a whole. While admitting that the design of a project like this is a subjective matter and the planners and the designers should have the needed freedom to do what they consider to be the best according to their judgment, concept and design/planning hypothesis, there is no denying the fact that a large public project of this nature, affecting the public life and shaping the public space of a city of five million, the first and the only of its kind, required greater transparency in selecting the designers and planners, on the one hand, and greater sensitivity and public accountability on part of the project authorities, acting as the clients on behalf of the city of five million, on what they selected, approved and why, on the other. No amount of RTI applications has revealed the secrecy of the process and the rationale for the selection of the agencies. The public consultations or public hearings, so necessary for the project of this dimension and importance were either not arranged or not publicized adequately or hushed up. Those who understand planning and design of this nature feel that the city has paid a heavy price for this lack of transparency in agency selection and absence of genuine participation in wetting the design proposals and the final outcome.
The design of Alienation
They are concerned that the planning and design has taken away the verve and the bounce of the river, the naturalness of the God’s gift to the city and tamed it into a dormant looking stream. The stark, lifeless and characterless concrete walls running into several kilometers on both the sides of the river, the defining feature of the new river front landscape, argued and imposed perhaps in the name of the modernity and contemporary idiom, lives up to its name by walling off the vision of the city to the river and acts as a physical and psychological barrier to the water, easy and uncluttered access to which—not only physical, also psychological-- is the essence of opening the river to the people. The wall isolates the river not only from its natural surroundings, however ordinary and unspectacular, it robes the river of its essential identity. The staircase profile that would normally adorn an individual home and looks good in a two storey institutional building has become the relieving features of the long blank concrete wall, replacing—eliminating-- in the process the cascading steps and stairways that always, without exception, ceremoniously lead to the river, the waters, gradually opening up in a visual embrace. My last visit to the Ganges in Banaras early this year was not only a spiritual journey also a visual spectacle, as the mass of humanity sitting and chanting on the steps of Dashashawamedh Ghat were integral and organically woven in my view of the river. The water, the rear profile of the mass of the people sitting on the steps and the distant river sand all merged in unison, as I approached the river, to bring me the ‘experience’ of the Ganges we all revere. The cascading profile of the land reaching the river through the steps is indispensible to that experience. Why is that experience, the elevating spectacle, familiar and known to almost every Indian taken away? What has been given as a substitute? How well does it compare with the known and the familiar? Has it been done in the name of a new, modern ‘form’ ? What is modern? Whose modern? Whose contemporary? There is nothing wrong with searching and playing with new forms and rejecting the old, the traditional ones. The question is when it is meant for the proverbial ‘faceless’ mass client, and the task is taking the people to the river and the water they revere so much, where ‘reaching’ and ‘seeing’ are as much physical as spiritual, where the relationship is ‘religious’ and soaked in emotions the feeling, the sentiment, the ritual, the culture, the known and the familiar cannot be brushed aside. As Mohan S Rao points out in his article “Sabarmati Riverfront Development: Alternative Perspective” (Landscape No. 36, 2012), “While one has to recognize that it is simply not practical to address every single view point in such public projects, it is critical that the vision in principle addresses a large spectrum of concerns that balances society, culture, environment and, of course, economics”. The end users, the citizens, are the real clients, not only the officers of AMC and the board members of Sabarmati Riverfront Development Corporation Limited (SRFDCL). Were they, the people, the end users, considered? Consulted? Does this design mean anything to them? Has anyone asked this question? A genuine consultation of the genuine stakeholders would have given appropriate answers. Even if the final design did not change much, there would be many design and details enriching ideas and suggestions, if there was a willingness and openness to listen, learn and incorporate on part of the designers, planners and the concerned authorities. Just about everything that is questionable on the project-- be that design, the wall, rehabilitation of the slum dwellers, displacement and uprooting of the Sunday Market, etc.—would have found acceptable solutions and creative accommodation had the people in charge of doing, advising and deciding had shown aptitude to listen, respect for the other view point and openness to adjust, so indispensible in large scale, multi stake-holding public projects. The designer in such projects is essentially a patient listener, a creative interpreter, an understanding facilitator, a divergent view synthesizer and a sensitive, imaginative and responsible persuader. That is no compromise on the designer’s creativity or his/her creative role. It is recognition of the ‘city of the five million as a client’ reality. Also acceptance of the fact that if an individual client required multiple consultations and sittings in finalization of a house design, a city in the client’s role, needs many more. Its needs must be understood and viewpoints must be respected. Also, alternatives must be put forward for the citizens to select and reject. Choice is their right. That can neither be negated nor neglected in arrogance or ignorance.
Wrong priorities causing distortion in design
A good consultative and a participatory design/planning process would also have resolved a design dilemma—how not to sacrifice the functionally required width of the water touching lower promenade, the pedestrian plaza, to accommodate the four lane roads on both sides of the river. Either the roads would have been voted out as unnecessary and ill-fitting as most concerned planners are suggesting, including the father of the idea, Prof. Bernard Kohn, or the road width would have been slashed to accommodate a much wider, much relaxed, much useful and a grander civic plaza at that level, immensely enhancing not only the functional value of that space but also elevating the overall design. People in know recognize that to be an excuse of a `space’ for the purpose it is meant and feel that it has been sacrificed at the altar of an interest group serving and the river front destroying road proposal. It appears a case of the private interest winning over the public good and is there to serve an influential minority constituency: not just the car user, mainly the real estate developer. Unfortunately there was no ‘public’ to defend its right or interest while the private interests hovered around the designers and the decision makers as it always happens in this kind of planning exercises and development projects.
The treatment meted out to the river bank slum dwellers does no justice to the project aspiring to be a model for the country and claims to put Ahmedabad in the ranks of the world class cities, as argued by Prof. Navdeep Mathur of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad in his evidence filled scholarly article “On the Sabarmati Riverfront: Urban Planning as Totalitarian Governance in Ahmedabad (Economic and Political weekly, December, 12). The introduction to the article says: “The efficiency of the administration showed an active anti-poor stance in the court proceedings and in the violence of actual evictions and post-eviction suffering. The evidence presented here also shows how “world-class” urban planning has facilitated yet another blatant instance of “accumulation by dispossession” via the flow of the Sabarmati.” It adds, “The deposition and testimonies of representatives of the evicted or soon to be evicted communities showed how urban renewal at the riverfront had imposed new layers of illegalities on the informal settlers and informal workers in the city due to need for real estate development on the riverfront and other parts of the city.”
No one really believed the claim that the resettlement and rehabilitation of the river bank slum dwellers was done satisfactorily as the numbers involved, both the official and the activists estimated, were large; rehabilitation of that nature and on that scale is intrinsically complex and difficult; the city had no comparable experience (the last such slum relocation/rehabilitation project involving 2300 families, the Integrated Urban Development Project at Vasna, was way back in the mid ‘70s) and the organizational support available for the task was inadequate. Yet, the irrefutable evidence that the slum dwellers themselves, community workers and the social activists produced that the rehabilitation effort fell much short of expectations and hurt the poor people badly, was ignored and remained un-responded in form of mitigation. Listening to the people, patience with dissent, transparency, multi-option solution model, information sharing (as against secrecy) and a strategic stakeholder partnership would have enhanced the social justice part and the overall reputation of the project. The stone walling strategy, whatever the internal rationale and perception, did no good to the project credibility, especially as money was not a big problem (a project estimated to cost Rs. 700 crore is reportedly touching Rs. 1200 crore mark) while a responsible and satisfactory relocation/rehabilitation was a public promise and commitment. For people like us this insensitive handling of the slum matter is particularly distressing, as working with the same Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation we had designed and implemented a project to relocate and rehabilitate 2300 river bank slum families in the mid ‘70s. The Integrated Urban Development Project, called Sankalitnagar at Juhapura, Vasna, earned national and international recognition for its humanitarian approach, participatory and creative design, low cost, people centeredness—not a single family was forced to relocate—and integration of transport, skill upgrading and income augmentation aspects. The city had done a community sensitive rehabilitation some 40 years ago. And some of the decision makers at SRFDCL were a party to that project and experience also!
The handling of the Gujari, Sunday Market, issue reflected adamancy unbecoming of a public service project and insensitivity to a six century old institution of the city. A city seeking heritage status had no value for its common people’s unique heritage institution. It brought out clearly that the alien concepts of professionals held sway, that the people and their views—and sentiments—meant little, that the history and tradition counted for nothing and that the heartless and characterless concrete wall was not only a landscape feature, also a symbolic of the attitude and belief pattern in the working and decision making of the project.
Well, there is little that could be done to change or alter what has been constructed already, though it does not absolve the authorities from the responsibility to answering the transparency and accountability questions. It would also help a great deal, if the public questions are answered on the matters of concern without dodging and defeating the spirit of the RTI inquiries. The project is anything but over and it is a ‘good governance’ obligation and the moral responsibility of the authorities to revisit the slum rehabilitation cases that have been denied justice and proper response. It will be a highly useful learning experience for the city as the Sabarmati Riverfront Development is not the last public project of Ahmedabad. There are many more to come and the transparent and accountable systems will result in better outcomes.
The Change Agenda now
Not only that. It will also lead to a fairer assessment and better handling of the pending issues of the remaining part of the SRFD project. These are being debated publically in various forums. The Chief Minister and the board members of the SRFDC Ltd. have been repeatedly requested for intervention for rethink on many proposals and decisions. These relate to altering the present orientation, design and decisions on the following : (a) removal of traffic carrying roads from both sides of the river (b) the scarce public resource –the riverfront land—remaining in the public domain (c) shelving plans for the multistory private construction on the riverfront lands (d) Development of Ashram Road as a new CBD as a substitute (e) greening of the river through thick forest plantation on the lands earmarked for the roads, and (f) contributory and participatory multi source resource mobilization to pay for the project cost
Removing Roads: Planting one lakh trees instead
The two wide, four lane traffic carrying roads proposed on the two sides of the river, using mostly the reclaimed and other riverfront lands, are not needed, at least at this stage of the city’s development. They are eminently avoidable. Even if the proposal cannot be shelved altogether, it is certainly possible to differ road building until the city growth and the traffic problems make it absolutely necessary and unavoidable. It appears that there is no need to use over 1/5th of the riverfront land (it is officially declared that the roads consume 21% of the project land) reclaimed at a very high cost for traffic carrying, polluting and noise making roads at a place which has the potential to become a quiet, unpolluted and serene. Why bring noise, pollution and chaos to a place which could be quit clean and serene?
Currently the Ashram Road needs no relief with the business and other related activities having shifted first to the C.G. Road and more recently to the Gandhinagar -Sarakhej Road. The traffic intensity on the Ashram road has visibly declined. And on the Eastern side of the river the proposed road will add little to the traffic efficiency. And even if it is needed, options that use less critically needed lands could be explored.
The most important rationale on putting off the road construction now on the river is that it can be done at any time in the future without much cost, without much cutting and chopping or displacement or protest, as the alternative suggested use of the land where the roads are planned now is tress and the forest. If required in the future the roads can always be built there. If the city builds and widen roads by cutting and dismantling existing and in-use structures such as homes, shops, offices, other pucca buildings and even roadside religious places, there should be no difficulty building roads by removing trees in the distant future. The roads should be built only when they are critically needed, ten or fifteen years down the line, not now. Till then, let the citizens enjoy the forest and the trees , on one hand, and noise and pollution free river front , on the other.
Ahmedabad has many roads like any other city but no forest and no major tree cover anywhere. The most recent Tree Census survey by the AMC and the Forest Department of the State has revealed that compared to the norm for a big city that prescribes 15 percent of the geographic area for the green and the trees, Ahmedabad has just 4.66 percent. Therefore every planning event and development proposal needs to answer first the question: “How green is the plan and how green is the development?” before even asking how green are the buildings there. And “greenness” must be the very soul of the Sabaramati Riverfront Development Project. It has been created, among other things, to give a “breathing lung’ to the city. And not to the walled city alone, as Prof. Bernard Kohn had envisaged in the ‘60s. Giving breathing lungs to the walled city was valid objective 40 years ago. Now, the entire city is choking with pollution and therefore needs greenness, trees and open spaces. The river front’s openness is no longer a valued asset for the walled city alone. It is for the entire Ahmedabad. The city periodically remembers the need to green itself. The new campaign for tree planting has been announced most recently by the AMC. The river banks are its most logical and visible destination as they offer an opportunity to develop a “city forest” not only planting a few trees, as in other parts of the city. A “City forest” parallel to the river will not only be a landscape transforming feature, it will be a major contribution to the city as it will contribute to improving the micro-climate of the entire city. The river plays a big role in keeping the sub-soil water level high despite heavy and indiscriminate pumping of the ground water. Similarly the river side forest will go a long way to taking the greenness across the city. By one estimate, anywhere between 70,000 to 100,000 tree can be planted on the lands on which the roads are planned. The river filled with the water and the river banks filled with the trees and the forest will take the project benefits to all parts of the city.
There are other good reasons why the roads must go. All over the world the cities are struggling to take traffic away. Architect Planner Moshe Shafdie’s new book on the cities talks about the cities without traffic. The cars are seen as destroying cities and city life for the ordinary people, as they are not only polluting the environment and contributing to global warming but also eating into the pavements, footpaths and cycle tracks, where cycling and pedestrian movements are still the dominant mode of covering distances--not only by the poor, as generally believed, but by all class of people. In cities as rich as Utretcht (Netherlands) and Copenghan (Denmark) nearly 40 percent of the population uses bicycles for their daily mobility. Our own BRTS is being praised and rewarded world over as it is showing potential to emerge an as an option to the private car. What is being hailed is its contribution, to the realization of the “sustainable city” concept. Reducing cars, if not eliminating them, and restricting car based-- and biased—traffic is an ambition of every good city. In that almost universal scenario, why are we imposing cars, traffic, noise and pollution at a place where it is not even needed? And why are we eating away so much expensive--scarce and precious also-- riverfront land to build 4 lane roads? Building high traffic roads on the riverfront lands to relieve the Ashram Road is a proposal hard to digest, as it is a contradiction in terms. And if the roads are not only to relieve the Ashram Road but also to boost, promote, support and service the proposed commercial development on a part of the reclaimed land, then it is obviously a questionable land use plan and development objective. We Guajarati’s should instinctively know that it is a bad business—‘Khot no Dhandho’. Using 21 percent of river front land in making roads that will service 14 percent of the land in commercial development is a losing proposition, even thinking just financially and commercially, forgetting the social, environmental, human and opportunity cost to the city and its citizens. And it should be realized that in the modern day globalized city, the real costs are those costs—environmental, human and opportunity costs. The parameters to judge the greatness of cities have changed.. They are more human wellness focused now. The river front development project, along with the BRTS, has the potential to put Ahmedabad in the company of the cities which are modernizing creatively and in an eco-friendly manner. Rejecting the roads designed for the cars and using the lands earmarked for the roads for environment friendly movement modes —pedestrian walk ways, cycle tracks and other non-motorized and easy paced movement modes, interwoven in the thick green forest cover--and people friendly development design will add a great deal to its ‘sustainable development’ character.
It is admitted that to invent the need for and argue the case of a road on the river is not very difficult. It requires no great genius. However, it requires quite some ingenuity and creativity to find ways to avoid—or at least defer and delay—such roads at such a place. The riverfront land, through the history of its making—two generational wait for a city of 2 million (then) and 5 million (now)—and its opportunity cost to 5 million people now and 7 million people in 15-20 more years, makes it more than just ordinary ‘land’ or a piece of real estate. It is the most treasured and valued asset of the city community as a whole, a joint property of 5 million Amdavadis. And therefore its use must have a high priority in the eyes of the people. Given a choice, the most optimum use of this land -- yes, this particular land on the river front-- could not be some additional high traffic carrying roads, especially when they are not critically needed and eminently avoidable. And this judgment rests on the fact that (a) Ahmedabad is probably one of the most open space starved city anywhere ( the largest public park is not more than five acres and the open space to population ratio in the city, in view of the international standards, is embarrassingly low) (b) that the walled city is one of the densest and probably one of the most polluted settlements anywhere, and (c) that the city has thousands of miles of roads but no contiguous open space of the kind created at a high cost and public investment on the river. Imposing these roads on the river will be a curse and an insult to the common sense.
The rationale for removing or deferring construction of the roads on the above grounds is compelling. The argument, however, would be that the die is cast, that the work on the roads has already commenced or completed. Even if some base work has been done, even if a part of the road construction work is done, there are compelling reasons to go back on this terrible planning mistake. As argued elsewhere, the cost of undoing the roads and creating a river side forest to the city is not much. And therefore whatever has been done should not come in the way of planting trees and making a forest there, on the lands earmarked for the roads. It is still a plant-able land. The tree cover will add to the beauty and the quality of environment much more than the roads. And there are many openings on both the sides to access the river.
Stop selling the riverfront land
In the light of the above presentation there is also a need for a serious rethink on the proposal to sale the riverfront land for private commercial development for offices, apartments, shopping and other high rise, high cost commercial development to pay for the project cost.
It is not fully known but the story is that the River Front Development Project has cost Rs. 1200 crore to implement and that a part of the money has been borrowed from HUDCO. Right from the early beginning of the idea, from the early days of Prof. Bernard Kohn’s proposal, it has been suggested that a part of the riverfront land should be sold to defray the project cost. That is the suggested way of making the project self paying.
The argument that the project should be self financing and a self paying venture is logical and attractive. However, it is necessary to examine ways to sub-serve that objective differently: in a manner that while raising the required funds for the project it also saves the precious river front land for wider, more appropriate public uses for now and the future. Expensive high rise apartments, offices and other commercial buildings, as private property for the private use, it is submitted here, is not an appropriate ‘public’ use and therefore deserves a re-think.
These are examined here in some detail as they are contentious and have a significant impact on how the project fares and is seen.
For the purpose of raising funds to pay for the project cost a three part strategy is suggested
Strategy 1: Sale of other public lands in the city
The current plan is to sell a portion of the riverfront land, about 14% of the total, for commercial purposes and to make it more paying and remunerative, to fetch higher price, it is also proposed to give it additional FSI (the AUDA’s Draft Development Plan for 2013-2021 suggests FSI of 5.4; almost 66% of it on the ‘purchasable FSI’ basis) and other development incentives. If the idea is to sell the public lands with incentives for higher price, why should it be the critically located riverfront land which is required for multiple uses for 5 million citizens of Ahmedabad now and 7 million Amdavadis in 20 more years? Why not sale other municipal/public lands in the city, with special FSI provision to fetch higher value, to pay for the project? Such an approach will deliver three other advantages:
One, the most important, advantage is it will keep the strategically located riverfront lands for the public purposes in public hands -- be that open space, garden, park, museum, art gallery, playground, Gujari Bazar, stadium, open air theater, cultural center, land based water sports, etc.--- instead of it getting into the hands of a few privileged private hands through private commercial and residential buildings. These private buildings could be built elsewhere in the city. They need not be on the river.
Two, it will provide an excellent opportunity to develop attractive neighborhoods in other parts of the city with high quality development and ultra modern facilities. The new Gandhinagar-Sarkhej road or even Prahlad Nagar area provide good evidence that for such developments to happen—posh multi-storey buildings, offices, apartments ,malls, shops and restaurants-- you neither need river nor water nor center city location. Especially if it is done in a decentralized manner, at more than one location, it will have an advantage of high quality urban development spreading across the city. A multi-nodal development is a desirable development goal. Raising money for the river front development project will become a cause and excuse for developing other parts of the city.
Also, the ‘public lands’ need not necessarily be the municipal land or the property of AMC. It could be the government land in possession of Gujarat Housing Board, Slum Clearance Board, Ahmedabad Urban Development Authority or any other public agency or body. This will deliver the third advantage by bringing in the market some of the public lands which have remained locked for a long time with various public agencies/authorities for multiple reasons. It is a wellknown fact that the public agencies and authorities such as the Gujarat Housing Board and Slum Clearance Board in whom the public lands have been vested, have not been the most efficient custodians and managers of the public assets and the best users of the government given lands in the name of public purpose.
If this happens, the positive consequences of the riverfront development will spill over the entire city. Not only will the river develop, the city will develop with it too.
Strategy: 2 :Ashram Road: a new CBD
This strategy includes giving higher FSI and other development incentives to trigger market based renewal/redevelopment of the Ashram Road and thereby raising a part of the required project development funds suggested in strategy 2.
This strategy could serve multiple purposes and should be seen in the urban design context of the riverfront development project — building a beautiful sky-line along the river front and creating a high value, high prestige CBD—Central Business District. This could be done, without eating into the newly created riverfront lands by declaring both side of the Ashram Road as a Special Development Zone (Central Business District) with higher FSI and other development incentives, development plans and development controls. Done properly and imaginatively, this will change the face of Ashram Road. The existing development on theses stretches of land has been haphazard, uneven, unplanned and largely unattractive, having happened over a period of time in an unprofessional manner, mostly for the utilitarian purposes. Most of the buildings on the Ashram road and the other side are no great statement on the enterprise and architecture consciousness of the city that Ahmedabad is. Creating a “business environment” that motivates causes and facilitates de-construction and reconstruction of Ashram road and other Eastern side properties, on the market principles, is the best and the most productive way of developing the attractive skyline and CBD. Something on this line has been proposed in AUDA’s Draft Development Plan for 2013-2021. All big cities develop through such recycling and renewal processes. Beautifying the river front is not only adding beauty, it is also removing and replacing ungainly and not-so-attractive. And that requires not only constructing new, modern and beautiful buildings on the virgin lands. It also requires creating an environment and conditions to replace and upgrade the existing.
That is also the way to raise at least a part of the required funds to pay for the riverfront development. The proposed higher FSI on these properties will not only bring them in the market for renewal and new buildings, it will also generate resources for the city to pay for the riverfront development scheme, through special development charges and purchasable FSI scheme. Considering the sky rocketing land prices in the city this will generate enough income for the city. And this will be the real ‘earned’ income as it will come from the direct and immediate beneficiaries of the river front development.
Strategy: 3 Public Contribution for `Community Ownership’
Raising a part of the required funds from public contribution—from the corporate, industry, business and common citizens-- is the third strategy. Besides raising money for the project, more importantly it will widen the support base of the project and community ownership of the project.
The Sabarmati River Front Development Project’s uniqueness also rests on its ‘people’ contribution, as the idea itself is the product of the spirit of ‘voluntarism’. Prof Bernard Kohn and a number of students of the School of Architecture, the first institution of the current CEPT University, worked voluntarily in shaping the idea. They were neither engaged professionally by the Municipal Corporation nor were they paid by anyone else. It was all in the spirit of service and contribution to the development of the city. The River Front Development Group—RFDG—which was formed and worked in the mid ‘80s to reactivate, redesign, rethink and advocate implementation of the project also worked voluntarily. It is possible to activate and engage this citizen spirit in raising a part of the project development funds.
People of Ahmedabad and Gujarat enjoy reputation as generous contributors to the public causes. That public sprit and giving nature manifests prominently at the time of natural disasters such as earthquake and floods. This public sprit can be directed towards the development tasks and projects too. The suggestion here is for the SRFDCL to launch a
Sabarmati Riverfront People’s Forest Development Fund.
It could be named Mahatma Gandhi or Saradar Patel Nadi Tat Van Vikas Abhiyan (River Front Development Fund) for the corporate, industry, business and common citizens to contribute. Approached imaginatively, the chance is that most of the above will contribute. The Industry Van, Corporate Van, Professional Van, Business Van, Institution Van, Senior Citizen Van, Kamdar Van, Nari Van, Bal Van, etc. A bird chirping green forest in place of cars and rickshaws with honking horns and polluting smoke would change the face of the riverfront. It is an entirely different imagery of the project. And one that so eminently suits the enterprising Ahmedabad and the `people’ initiated Riverfront Development Project.
A partnership between the state and local government, corporate, industry, business and common citizens in funding the river front development project will be a huge value addition to the physical development of the place.
The idea is that the newly beautified river and the newly created riverfront should be the gift of the city to its citizens, to its 5 (now) and 7 ( later ) million people, the open space starved people. They need and deserve it, as they have been denied playgrounds, gardens and open spaces for a long time. Roads they have. Tall buildings and office spaces they have. Pollution and noise they have in plenty. But the forest they have not seen. This is a unique opportunity, unlikely to happen again in the future, as there is only one river and only two banks, to give the city and the citizens what they do not have. And therefore every foot of that land should remain in the public domain. Taking away even a small part of the scarce public asset, the riverfront land (and 35 percent--21 percent for roads and 14 percent for private buildings- is no small part) for a few privileged people, as against the millions of common citizens, is not the best use of the public resource, considering the un-elasticity, scarcity and a huge opportunity cost. Also not a good example of sustainable development, especially as there are feasible and workable alternative ways to finance the project. This riverfront land deserves to be kept away from the usual commoditization and demands not to be seen in terms of exploitable and profit centered real-estate. To value it in money terms is to devalue it in human and ‘value’ terms, as the larger public good is a big value in itself.
Viewing the city in the present tense alone is wrong and trading its rare, precious and unique resource for some money or to pay for some development is being shortsighted. Planning and developing a city needs a constant gaze on the future, on the tomorrow’s needs. That is what the “urban sustainability” and the “overall sustainability” are about. Even before we realize Ahmadabad city will grow to 7 million and more people and there is no way that the land in its center, in its heart, will grow. Keeping that land for the future, which is neither far nor imaginary, therefore is not being just a ‘visionary’, it is simply being ‘practical’.
The new vibrant mindset in resource mobilization
With many special initiatives such as the Vibrant Gujarat with its theme of entrepreneurship and global partnership the state government has rearticulated the concept of ‘cost’, changed value of money and redefined ‘crores’. Things have changed drastically in the years since Prof Bernard Kohn suggested the ‘self-paying’ scheme or even since the project implementation started. The new confidence and the vision for the future must reflect in the way activities are seen and the projects are financed, especially when the project is once- in—a--life-- time ---nature. The state government is to find Rs. 2000 crore for the statue of Sardar Patel on the Narmada River. In a scenario like that, should the city sell this unique public asset to raise one thousand crore, especially as there are viable—and more value added-- ways to raise the required money? Is that a good a reason to waste the precious and scarce public land on high-rise private office and apartment buildings for a few rich and build roads to service them? Should we as people—and political leaders and business entrepreneurs - not be little more enterprising in this matter?
The times have changed otherwise too. The time has come for the cities to earn money from the carbon credit trade than the land sale. If we save our riverfront from the unnecessary high-rises and the polluting roads and use them to grow trees and forests and playgrounds, we will probably make more money the carbon credit way. And if we make a multi-fronted partnership in financing its development—PPPP (Public, Private, and People Partnership) we will make our riverfront development very unique. The unique-ness will not only be in the product, it will be in the process as well. We need not copy any one as in investing in the people, in the environment and in the future will make the city, its managers and planners the true winners.
Place for the informal sector
Though the mindset fixed on the ‘landmark’ nature of the project and the ‘world class’ city imagery and revolving round a dream to creating a ‘unique skyline’ by planting high rise towers (higher the better would be the slogan and the byline for the competition) for the rich and the elite by the real estate players would reject it outright, it must be said the SRFD project presents a unique, never before, opportunity to fulfill a long standing promise to the hawkers and the vendors of the informal city economy to provide them a safe, secure and workable business place (ask SEWA about the long history of promises). The clean slate nature of the land, the mid city location and recognition of the informal sector role in the city economy make it desirable and do-able. However, the experience in case of Gujari, the Sunday Market, a heritage institution and the slum rehabilitation, give little hope for such a land use and development in favour of the less fortunate and influential, despite the pretty pictures produced for public consumption showing stalls for the vendors in the hawking zone on the riverfront. There would be a symbolic corner somewhere as it is a done thing. However, all that has happened till date on the project would give little hope for a better response to the need and the opportunity. .
People and environment friendly city
While planning to sale the public land to the private developers to make a new skyline on the riverfront, let us also see the new signals the great global cities are flashing. This one is from Paris. A newspaper headline a few years ago told the story: “Paris moves from tyranny of taxis to being a City of Bicycles”. It added, “ Five years after launching a widely copied bike rental scheme, Paris is stepping up efforts to turn itself into a bicycle friendly capital on par with the cycling heavens like Amsterdam and Berlin. Hundreds of kilometers of bike lanes are being rolled out on the streets of the City of Lights, cyclists are winning new road rights and the public bicycle service launched by the socialist Mayor, Bertrand Dealnoe, in 2007 is expanding to encourage more Parisians to ditch their cars and pedal……..”. This is the new direction and approach to becoming a great and people friendly city. Should not Ahmadabad use the opportunity? And does not the Riverfront Development Project offer a very special opportunity?
The issue is not so much the project, but the city; not only the present, but the future; not money alone but society; the wider systemic definition of the cost and in the globalised and unequal world, equality and inclusiveness.
Viewing the city in the sustainability framework demands, among other things, a vigorous rejection of the car. It is a bigger political statement and reflective of the new societies which are emerging, propelled both by the shame for the harm we have caused to the planet earth and the new morality which brings in a fresh focus on the democratic values, equality and inclusiveness. But we are not building new cities, only repairing, reshaping and reforming them piece by piece, corner by corner. And therefore the big, showpiece projects in our cities are not only engineering solutions with neatly worked out outgoing –incoming resource flows, but also statements on the philosophy and the vision of the new society we are creating and becoming. The BRTS and the River Front Development Projects, which are seen to projecting Ahmedabad on the world class city map, are just not a more efficient bus system or better care of the neglected and abused river, it is much more—a statement on our understanding and response to the climate change phenomenon and our new economic status which must allow us to factor- in the future of our children in meeting the present costs. Our responsibility is no longer local, it is global. That is the price we must pay for having scaled the height. We have to think big, think values and think future. And in the case of Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project what we do matters, as we are already a “model” for other cities to follow. These are no longer city projects. They are national projects. Thinking correct and acting with the future in the backdrop is our new obligation. The ‘rethink’ suggested here and communicated to the decision makers reflect that awareness and responsibility.
The staff of the ‘Project for Public Spaces’ ( PPS) after examining more than 200 urban waterfronts around the world concluded that “ A truly great urban waterfront is hard to come by.” They said this after studying the cities on the sea (Hong Kong, Vancouver, Miami, Athens); river towns (London, Paris, Buenos Aires, Detroit), and lakefronts (Milwaukee, Chicago, Cleveland and Zurich) and many more. The conclusion is that it is “exceedingly rare to find waterfront that succeeds as a whole, although there are promising elements in all of them”. The effort for the planners, authorities and the people of Ahmedabad is to enhance, add to the “promising elements” to stand counted among the world’s great urban waterfronts. As these articles have tried to project, given the will and attitude to listen it is eminently do-able. The question is: will they listen?