I’ve not had much time to put a blog together as this year I have mostly been…in India! I’ve been working on a joint research project with colleagues in the Faculty of Management at CEPT University, Ahmedabad in Gujarat. We’ve been exploring the impact of urbanisation on the Sabarmati River in Ahmedabad. I’ve actually written about this when I was initially awestruck by the new riverfront development – and not in a good way. The river was once a monsoon river, with a riverbed which was often dry for much of the year. This has recently been dramatically changed. For over 40 years, slum dwellers had settled on the riverbanks making lives for themselves in a location that was precarious because when the rains came, the flooding could be severe. The slum dwellers were moved on from the river and the resettlement process for the riverside slum dwellers was at best, flawed, and at worst, negligent. Other better-informed people than me have written about this. Alongside this, the river has been changed to what has been described as a canal, a pond, a swimming pool and a lake. It has irrevocably changed the ecology of the river, with little understanding of the implications therein.
The setting of the river has changed so much. The use of concrete is excessive and oppressive, particularly in the heat of the day and when there is little shade to be gleaned from the neem trees which are not growing so well along the riverfront.
But having said all this, it is hard to ignore that the redesigned riverfront has controlled the flooding – however heavy-handed an approach it might be. It is also proving to be a success as a social space, with families and particularly young people who have limited choices is where they can meet as couples and as groups of friends in public. There has long been a dearth of public space in central Ahmedabad and this is certainly providing them with much-needed open space.
Access to, and use of the riverfront is mostly public, but it is controlled throughout – in the same way that the flooding and encroachment have been controlled. For example, people wanting to celebrate the Hindu festival of Ganesha Visarjan or the Muslim festival of Muharram which make offerings to the river, now have to request permission and the submersion of idols is now closely controlled. The long-held traditions have to change in the 21st century – in part because awareness of pollution is growing. Hundreds of painted Plaster of Paris Ganesha idols laying submerged at the bottom of the Sabarmati is no longer acceptable by the authorities (regardless of whether there’s any ecology left in the ‘lake’). So can long-held rites and rituals around the river survive in today’s urbanising India?
There are further complexities that we are examining – where are the past uses of the river and the river bed now? The dhobi (laundry) ghats? The cattle driving? People swimming and bathing in the river? Where and does this all still happen? This project aims to deepen our understanding of the river in urbanising India, and will report back with more blogs. In the meantime, on 19th March 2016, we will be holding a seminar at CEPT University, Ahmedabad and a celebration of the Indian river on the Sabarmati Riverfront. For details, contact Nicola on N.Dempsey@sheffield.ac.uk
Nicola is Principal Investigator, with co-investigator Prof. Manvita Baradi on the research project: Reflecting on the river: rapid urbanisation and representations of Indian cultural heritage (2016). This is funded by the AHRC and ICHR.