Mula-Mutha riverfront development leaves Pune’s native communities out of the picture

Potters, worm collectors, cattle-rearers and other communities find their relationship with the rivers, as well as their livelihoods, at risk.

Throughout history, rivers have played a significant role in the development of human civilisation, not just as a source of water but also as centres of economic activity. But in these days of rapid urbanisation, rivers are recognised as part of the urban landscape, with urban local bodies looking to reap economic value through them. But what often gets ignored in the process is that more often than not, such rivers are already connected to the surrounding communities, who have traditional practices around them. Thus, they possess a certain heritage value in terms of historical structures and intangible cultural heritage. 

Take the Mula and Mutha Rivers flowing through Pune, for example. They hold great significance for the city, both historically and in the present. Pune originated along the banks of the Mutha River as is evident from the discovery of ancient human habitation along its shores. Over time, the city expanded to the left bank of the river to alleviate overcrowding and unhygienic conditions.

However, a major flood in 1961 caused settlements near the river to be relocated, leading to a shift in urban living patterns. There are stories that people used to jump off the Lakdi Pul (bridge) and have swimming competitions. The Bund Garden was built by the British, who used the river for game, fishing, and boating.

The Mula-Mutha River also plays a vital role in Pune’s cultural heritage. It was traditionally used for the immersion of idols during Ganesh Chaturthi. While immersions now occur in artificial tanks, the visarjan ghats and traditions still form an important part of the city’s heritage. 

Read more: In photos: Life along Pune’s Mutha riverbank in the time of COVID-19

Untreated sewage, chemicals from household use, garbage dumping, channelization, and encroachment have led to pollution and degradation of the river over the years. Once the lifeline of the city, the river is in terrible shape, and its capacity to sustain life has greatly diminished, even as it continues to support indigenous people.

Riverfront development as a panacea

Riverfront development is often seen as a solution to urban revitalisation, promising aesthetic enhancements, economic growth, sustainability and cultural preservation.

A shrine on the banks of the Mutha River in Pune.
Convergence of natural and cultural heritage along the banks of the Mutha River, Pune. Pic: Poornima Kotagal

In the case of Pune, the Municipal Corporation (PMC) has initiated a comprehensive project called the Mula-Mutha Riverfront Development Project (RFD) throughout the entire Pune Municipal Corporation region. The project seeks to address concerns over pollution and inaccessibility to the river by establishing a promenade along the rivers.

The proposal prepared by HCP Design, Planning and Management Pvt. Ltd. points towards concretisation of the entire 44 km stretch of Mula-Mutha riverfront. The project aims to control the river flow, build barrages, and develop the riparian zone for retail, entertainment and parking. The focus is primarily on beautification, with lined promenades, which may lead to homogeneity of spaces.

However, the Mula-Mutha riverfront development is currently being debated between the Pune Municipal Corporation and environmentalists concerned about the river’s ecology. A case was filed at National Green Tribunal (NGT) which disposed of a petition filed by environmental activists against the riverfront development project. It allowed the PMC to continue the ongoing work but has instructed them not to issue any new work orders until amended environmental clearance is obtained. 

Why environmentalists are worried

Geological records indicate that the river’s banks were once home to diverse wildlife, including elephants, aurochs and ostriches. Presently, the river sustains a variety of aquatic species and supports a thriving bird population, particularly in its wetland areas. Although the river’s natural heritage may not be widely recognized by the citizens of Pune today, it has historically played a crucial role in supporting livelihoods, cultural traditions and various ecosystems. 

The proposed RFD project mainly focuses on construction of embankments and reclamation of the riverbed, which would narrow the width of the rivers. The narrowing of river channels could lead to increased flood levels during heavy rainfall or dam water release, resulting in loss of habitats and destruction of the riverine ecosystem.

Read more: The many warnings that Pune ignored before it went under water (2019)

Also, the matter of felling trees which exist along the river banks has raised concerns. According to Pune Municipal Corporation, 3,110 trees would be cut and 4,429 trees would be transplanted for the project. Activists argue that the number of affected trees was not disclosed during public consultations, and they dispute the PMC’s claim of primarily cutting down exotic or invasive species. At present, The National Green Tribunal has instructed the Pune Municipal Corporation to halt tree felling for the riverfront development project until the next hearing on July 31. 

The impact on communities

The Mula-Mutha river silently nurtures and sustains the livelihoods, traditions, and cultural heritage of the indigenous communities, Sadly, their invaluable perspectives and voices often go unheard amidst the bustling development plans that overshadow their existence. 

Kumbhars: In Pune’s Kumbharwada, the echoes of the potter’s wheel once filled the air, symbolising a craft dating back 1500 years. For centuries, the craftsmen, called kumbhars, spun their potter’s wheel along the banks of the Mutha river, where they shaped clay into exquisite forms, preserving an ancient craft steeped in tradition. Today, their workshops have moved and the kumbhars have turned to modern techniques.

Dhangars: On the banks of the Mutha river, dhangars and their cattle find solace amidst the urban hustle of Pune. These green stretches serve as vital grazing grounds, providing the local milkmen with a source of nourishment for their buffaloes.

Buffaloes grazing on the river banks of Pune.
Buffaloes owned by the ‘dhangar’ community using the river banks as grazing grounds. Pic: Poornima Kotagal

Fisherfolk: Once thriving with diverse fish species, the Mutha river’s aquatic population has dwindled drastically over the years. The disappearance of over 60 species, including the once popular Mahseer, has left a diminished ecosystem dominated by resilient or invasive fish like tilapia. For the residents of the old city, fish has long been a dietary staple. But now fishermen rely on released dam water to sustain their livelihoods.

Vegetable and herb collectors: The river banks hold hidden gems of nature, where valuable vegetables and medicinal herbs like Brahmi and Ghol thrive. Local vendors carefully gather these precious treasures, bringing the essence of nature’s healing power to the bustling local markets. 

Worm collectors: Amidst the murky sludge of the polluted river, a dedicated group of worm collectors braves the filth to harvest the elusive Tubifex worms. Armed with nets and plastic bags, they navigate the contaminated waters, sifting through the riverbed to gather these peculiar creatures. Though their earnings barely sustain them, the value of these worms has skyrocketed in the world of aquariums, for which they are much sought after.

Focusing on the ‘river’ in riverfront development

Many riverside projects primarily focus on real estate development and aesthetics of the riverbanks, often neglecting the crucial aspect of river restoration. These projects lack comprehensive social and environmental impact assessments and a democratic decision-making process. Instead, they tend to commodify rivers, disregarding the ecological and social significance of rivers and the unique challenges they face.

The Sabarmati Riverfront project in Ahmedabad, for instance, which aimed to transform the river into a model riverfront like the Thames or Seine has faced criticism for inadequate rehabilitation of displaced communities, lack of transparency and neglect of environmental concerns.

While perceiving rivers in urban areas as natural heritage may be challenging, it is essential to recognise that civilisations have thrived alongside rivers for thousands of years. In the case of Pune, rivers have not only contributed to the intangible cultural heritage of the city but have also served as vital sources of livelihood for certain communities. The displacement of the kumbhar workshops from Kumbharwada, for example, has severed their connection with the river, impacting their traditional practices and cultural heritage.

The challenge lies in revitalising this relationship and acknowledging the loss caused by urbanisation and pollution. The revival of practices or continuation of activities associated with the river would depend on the lenses of development that influential authorities choose to wear. Effective urban heritage management should prioritise fostering socio-cultural connections that have long been intertwined with natural sites. By acknowledging and nurturing these linkages, we can ensure a more holistic and sustainable approach to the preservation and utilisation of urban river systems.

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  1. Kiran Satyabodh Kalamdani says:

    Very good Poornima! In 2007 we had formed a group called Pune River Group which was a consortium of local consultant offices and laid out the conceptual framework for the Urban Design plan which included anthropology experts, environmental science knowledgeable persons, hydrology experts and won the first prize. However there was a lot of political pollution which we had not imagined. After sixteen years the project is yet to arrive at a consensus. Clearly we need to rethink the method and apparatus for decision making and action.

    • Poornima Kotagal says:

      Thank you for your insights sir! Yes, it is important that the process involves various experts and leads to a holistic and sustainable development.

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