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Good urban planning is good economics, says Keshav Varma (IAS- Retd), Chairman, Sabarmati Riverfront Development Corporation

Good urban planning is good economics, says Keshav Varma (IAS- Retd), Chairman, Sabarmati Riverfront Development Corporation

Why was the need for a Riverfront project along River Sabarmati?
Sabarmati is the River of History and is the spine of Ahmedabad city. It finds mention in mythology as well as in literature of 11th century. The city of Ahmedabad was founded in the 14th century and River Sabarmati runs through this city. This river is not a perennial river. It is a monsoon-fed river. The river was wild and unruly and the river bed filthy. During the dry period, ie, when it is not the rainy season, farming was done along the riverbed. Children used to play cricket. There were around 13,000 to 15,000 families along the river. But when flash flood came, they were exposed to the danger of flood. Water often used to enter the houses though the sewage system, and go into the toilets. It was a highly unsanitary and unhygienic situation. After the monsoon the water will dry up. There was no way to conserve the water. And the other reason for coming up with Sabarmati Riverfront project is, the people of Ahmedabad were very attached with their rivers. During the monsoon they would all come on the bridges and watch the river. The people wanted to be connected with their rivers, but there were no ways to approach the river and there was no river after the monsoon. The Sabarmati River flows exactly in the middle of the city.
I took over as the Ahmadabad Municipal Commissioner in November 1994. I found this river in a very bad shape. Untreated sewage flowed into the river through storm water outfalls and dumping of industrial waste posed a major health and environmental hazard. The river banks were used by squatters. Just 3-4 months into my tenure as Municipal Commissioner, the idea to have a riverfront project was implanted in a meeting I had with French architect Bernard Cohen. We discussed having a riverfront project along the Sabarmati River on the lines of the one at Seine River, France. We made a trip to Paris to study the Seine Riverfront project. After coming back, a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) with Dilip Mahajan as the Managing Director was set up to establish a riverfront project along the Sabarmati River. 

What were your initial thoughts when the Sabarmati Riverfront project was taking shape?
The conceptualization of the project happened during my tenure as Ahmadabad Municipal Commissioner. Then I left for the World Bank. Narendra Modi was elected as the Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2001. It was he who saw this project see the light of the day. This kind of project requires visionary political leadership. This project went through a lot of challenges. It was his persistence and guidance that made the project possible. This was the first riverfront project in India. There were a few riverfront projects that could not see the light of the day for want of an able administrator. We are assisting Tawi Riverfront Development Project modelled on lines of Sabarmati Riverfront in Jammu. 

When did you rejoin the Sabarmati project and what were the challenges you faced?
I rejoined as Chairman of Sabarmati Riverfront Development Corporation (SRFDCL) in 2018 to re-engage with the project and to mature it further and bring it to fruition. The second phase is under implementation. There are various challenges. One, the quality of water, because if you are doing a riverfront the river has to be clean; it can’t stink. When I took over, the river water had very low oxygen percentage. There was no life inside the river. The aquatic life has disappeared. The first priority was to bring the river back to life. We worked hard on this front and we were successful. From almost zero percent oxygen to nine percent oxygen, we were able to bring back aquatic life. Two hundred species of birds have come back. Migratory birds are flocking to Sabarmati riverfront. The challenge on the waterfront is still there. It is not completely clean. You can’t go for a swim on this river.
The other challenge is to position the river basin as a people-friendly riverfront. The riverfront should be easily accessible. It should have a safe and secure environment. There should be enough lighting. People should hang out here till late evening. And it should be spotlessly clean. Third challenge is on the monetary front. The entire riverfront and its surroundings should be planned meticulously taking into consideration the inflow of people and vehicles. There various nodes – transport, commercial, cultural - should be planned well in advance. Infrastructure planning, especially social infrastructure, is extremely important. While planning this riverfront, we included all the good practices we learnt from Seine Riverfront. The idea of a 15 minutes city was one of them. 15 minutes city means the distance between home and workplace in just 15 minutes’ walk. While coming back, recreation and sports facilities are somewhere in the middle of 15 minutes’ walk.
In the second phase of the riverfront project to ensure clean drinking water we have come up with wier to store water for 15 days. The whole system is planned in such a way that people coming here enjoy every moment they spend over here. To give more value-added benefits and to encourage people to come to the riverfront, we have started yoga classes. We have put up 20 open air gyms. There are tracks for jogging and cycling. The second phase will have stepped promenades, floating restaurants, boat rides, yacht club and water sports. National Cadet Corps and Army are already conducting their drills over here. We want the Sabarmati Riverfront to be the most happening place. 

How has the Sabarmati Riverfront project helped the Ahmedabad city?
Once you create a world class infrastructure with a clean and aesthetic riverfront investment starts coming in. Right now, we are going through this phase. Lots of high rise residentials and commercial buildings have come up along the riverfront. These buildings are designed by renowned architects. They are selling for a premium. The whole place along the riverfront is up for development. The Sabarmati Riverfront project has acted as a catalyst for this gigantic development going on. We have tied-up with real estate consultant JLL India to assist in monetizing of lands, around 15 mn sq ft of the 200 hectares of the Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project. We have already spent Rs.1100 crores on this project and about Rs. 2200 crores more will be spent on it for the riverfront development.
Monetization is not the only motive. The prime agenda of developing the riverfront project is to enhance the quality of life of the people of Ahmedabad. We have brought in various recreation facilities to improve the quality of life. Visually too the places along the riverfront have undergone a change. Now, it is more aesthetic. The whole landscape along the river has undergone a change for the better.
Good urban planning is good economics and cities like Ahmedabad are engines of economic growth. We want iconic investment coming in showcasing new technologies, new construction standards and new architectural design. We have to cater to the needs of the people through urban planning. When the Sabarmati Riverfront project was in its initial stage, close to 40 thousand families staying along the river basin were rehabilitated in an extremely sensitive manner in multi-storied buildings, keeping their sensitivity, occupation and culture intact.

When it comes to riverfront projects you are an institution, elsewhere riverfront projects have yet to take off or have failed. Your take on this
Riverfront project is a huge project. It requires meticulous planning for years, atleast for a couple of years. The foremost thing a riverfront project requires is vision, persistence and an able political and administrative leadership. You can’t start the project and forget it. It requires gigantic investment. The planning should take into consideration the entire return on investment, in monetary, emotional, social and in environmental terms. Creating riverfront infrastructure requires exceptional leadership for success of the project.


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