Monday, November 19, 2007


You don’t make a road in the river to solve a traffic problem just as you don’t blow a hole through your head if you have a splitting headaches, writes PANKAJ SEKHSARIA
From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 4, Issue 45, Dated Nov 24, 2007

A RIVER IS meant for water to flow. Yes, the statement sounds absurd, because it states the obvious. Rivers carry water, and our earliest civilisations grew along their banks.
Even today human settlements all over the world — whether big or small — are usually situated along rivers and streams.I live in Pune, the cultural, educationaland industrial capital of Maharashtra, rich in history and tradition. Some believe the city was originally called Punya Nagari or Holy City when it was founded on the banks of Mutha river. Indeed, Pune is fortunate to have two rivers, the Mutha and the Mula, which meet here before flowing south to join the Bheema and then the Krishna river. It is therefore a matter of double shame for Punekars that the Mula-Mutha today is little more than a sewer into which huge amounts of industrial and domestic waste are thoughtlessly dumped every day.

This particular story goes back about six years, when a local court ordered the PuneMunicipal Corporation (PMC) to stop work on road construction inside the river. Yes, a road, not on the banks of the river, but inside, on its bed — that part where the water flows. The court’s ruling came in response to a Public Interest Litigation arguing that the road was illegal and damaged the environment. The road was being built at a frantic pace and a large stretch of it, which stands even today, had already been completed. A senior PMC official had made it clear that he wanted the project completed before environmental groups got into the picture and delayed it. Unfortunately for him, and fortunately for the city, environmental groups did find out and the court took cognizance of their complaint.
The PMC argued that the road was beingconstructed as part of the Mutha River Improvement plan and to ease the city’s growing traffic problem. So, a road was being constructed in the riverbed as part of a supposed “river improvement” plan. Could things get any more absurd? Pune does face a big traffic problem. Not because the river occupies too much area, but because the vehicle population here has grown astronomically. While Pune’s population has gone up five fold since 1960, the number of vehicles in the city has increased almost 90 times. The city’s public transport facilities are going from bad to worse and, currently, over 1 lakh vehicles are being registered here annually. It comes as no surprise then that the widening of roads has been the single biggest activity in the city in recent times. Trees, footpaths, shops, houses — all are being swept aside to make way for bigger roads. Conservative estimates suggest that at least 50,000 trees have been chopped down in Pune in the last five years, many for accommodating the increasing traffic. Pedestrians and cyclists, the two sets of people who occupy the minimum road space and causezero pollution, have become second-class citizens. There is little space left for them to navigate their way on the roads.
The river is the newest casualty of this breakneck car boom and the city’s administrators seem hell-bent on treating the symptom instead of the disease. The huge increase in the number of vehicles is the problem and reducing them the only viable solution. Anything else amounts to just tinkering around. River development plans, riverfront redevelopment plans, river improvement schemes, river beautification schemes — be it the Yamuna, the Sabarmati or the Mula-Mutha — are no longer aimed at improving the quality of water or helping the river life. They are merely euphemisms for real-estate development and promoting commercial activity. Pune has reportedly been allocated Rs 200 crore for river beautification under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission.
IT IS hard to believe that in our zeal to “modernise” we have forgotten something as elementary as the fact that rivers are meant to carry water, not roads and cars. They are complex ecosystems performing vital hydrological and ecological roles — like recharging ground water, flushing and breaking down our waste, and enabling clean air to come into the city. Unfortunately, many people seem unaware of just how vital rivers are to our well being. Here is an example from the blogosphere: “The environmentalists are holding up this plan [for the road] saying it will harm the ‘oxygen channel’ running along the river. My foot. Any sane person wouldn’t call it a river in the first place…”But the fact is, even today, the Mula- Mutha supports a large diversity of microscopic floral and animal life. Thousands of migratory waterfowl still visit the river every winter, flying from places as far away as Siberia. Even a hopelessly polluted river can be alive and throbbing with life. The least we can do is not destroy it further.
You don’t make a road in the river to solvea traffic problem, just as you don’t blow a hole through your head if you have a splitting headache.

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