Re-envisioning Riverscapes and Urban Riverfronts in India: Toward Ecological and Social Harmony

By Namrata Kabra & Sanya SarohaonMay. 02, 2024in Environment and Ecology


As India undergoes rapid urbanization and experiences a surge in urban population, the issue of urban water security, intertwined with impacts of climate change, looms larger than ever. Amidst these pressing needs, a concerning trend to “develop” and “beautify” riverfronts in urban areas has emerged.

This trend is perhaps best exemplified by the much-heralded Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project, which is located in Ahmedabad in the State of Gujarat, western India, and claimed to provide a meaningful waterfront environment to reconnect the city with river.[1] This is a highly arguable model that has not only exacerbated drought-like conditions in the Sabarmati River but also led to inadequate groundwater recharge. These cost-intensive riverfront development (RFD) projects involve alteration of the natural course and ecosystem of rivers and raise questions about the misallocation of public investments. These projects are ecological and social disasters, as indicated by a multitude of protests, legal proceedings, and poor results from preliminary studies assessing their effectiveness. For over a decade, experts in river ecology have been warning against prioritizing cosmetic beautification of rivers over their genuine restoration and revitalization.[2] Himanshu Thakkar, an environmental activist working on water related issues with South Asia Networks on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), highlights the importance of considering a river’s “character, purpose, and cultural value,” stating that neglecting these factors could result in more problems than solutions.[3]

The misallocation of public funds for such projects neglects alternative approaches such as Rights of Nature governance for river restoration and rejuvenation initiatives, which would better serve environmental conservation and community interests. The Rights of Nature approach is increasingly recognized as a vital alternative to anthropocentric models. This shift paves the way for justice and environmental resilience, viewed through an ecocentric perspective. It not only acknowledges the obligations owed to people affected by the deterioration of river ecosystems but also lays the groundwork for climate resilience and adaptation, ensuring a more promising future for humanity and the planet. For example, the right to healthy drinking water, a human right, is dependent on rivers’ inherent rights to fulfil their ecological functions and flow freely in their floodplains. Disturbing river ecologies disrupts the natural balance and also exacerbates climate risks, heightening the threat of disasters and endangering species, both human and non-human. Governance and policies need to prioritize inclusive and sustainable practices to maintain the delicate balance of river ecosystems, ensuring the well-being of both the environment and the communities that depend on rivers.

Ecological and Social Fault Lines of Riverfront Development Projects

Riverfront development is perceived as an avenue to reconnect urban residents with rivers[4] and claims[5] to be addressing environmental improvement;[6] mitigating floods; cleaning, retaining, and replenishing rivers; creating a continuous public realm; strengthening surrounding public amenities and projects; supporting social upliftment; and effecting sustainable development and beautification of the area. However, these claimed goals come at the expense of disrupting the natural flow of the river. Such disruptions elevate flood risks by interfering with floodplains, heighten vulnerability to climate-related hazards, and jeopardize aquatic biodiversity and the well-being of local communities that subsist on these rivers. Rather than creating a direct connection between people and rivers, such RFD projects can lead to further distortion of and alienation from rivers.

The livelihoods and shelters of millions of people are being displaced, and river streams are being diverted, causing huge impacts to ecology, hydrology, and native biodiversity. For instance, the Sabarmati RFD project led to the relocation of around 5000 families.[7] Likewise, the transformation of the Gomti River in Lucknow in the State of Uttar Pradesh, Northern India, following riverfront development has resulted in a notable decline in fish species, with significant repercussions for the livelihoods of fisherfolk. In 2013-14, the river was known to support approximately eight distinct fish species; it now harbours only one species.[8]

The indiscriminate copy/pasting of the Sabarmati RFD model across 100+ cities in India, devoid of genuine stakeholder engagement, is encountering widespread resistance across the country, as evidenced in cities such as Pune, Kota, Ahmedabad, Delhi, and more. These resistances have culminated in legal battles at the National Green Tribunal (NGT) and various State/Federal High Courts, indicating serious discontent and opposition to such dangerous projects. The NGT has taken suo motu cognizance[9] in challenging environmental violations in the Netravati RFD in coastal city of Mangaluru in the State of Karnataka, Southern India, and the Joint Committee constituted by NGT against the Chambal RFD in Kota, in the State of Rajasthan, North-Western India has found violations of green norms.[10]

Initial findings from the compilation of ten RFD projects paint a concerning picture of widespread destruction affecting livelihoods, biodiversity, rivers, and public finances.[11] Consider the following list of RFDs in different Indian cities and the projects’ associated social, ecological, and economic challenges:

Source: Authors’ Analysis, referenced citations from 12 to 27.

Inappropriate Importation of European Riverfront Development Project Models

Many of India’s contemporary urban RFD projects are inspired by the designs of European models such as the Thames and Seine River fronts. Such imported models, however, fail to recognize the unique paths carved by Indian rivers. Rivers in South Asia, often originating from mountains, carry a lot of silt and sedimentation. The meandering of such rivers not only adds to the beauty of the landscape but also renders many ecological and social services and slows down the flow of the gushing rivers. The sediments deposit in the plains, creating the riverbanks that sustain millions of lives and livelihoods. Through the sedimentation process, rivers store and recharge the groundwater along their paths and thereby feed the lifeline of India.

By 2025, it is anticipated that one out of every two Indians will live in cities.[28] Concrete and grey infrastructure such as is incorporated in the RFD models contradict efforts to revitalise rivers and mitigate urban flooding effectively. Rejuvenation of rivers is necessary, and restoration of public spaces around rivers is needed beyond aesthetics. River fronts in cities must be open public spaces that allow for social-cultural-spiritual engagement and connection with rivers. “What” kind of river fronts are designed, and “who” designs them for the benefit of “whom,” is key to ensuring the public places are enjoyed by everyone. The current trend of RFD is catering to only particular aesthetics and sects of the society. The booming real estate market (riverview apartments) and tourism activities along the riverfront means that low-income residents, particularly those displaced by the project, no longer have equitable access to the river.[29] Digvijay Singh, CEO of Indore Smart City, touts the Kahn River project’s success, citing a 40% rise in property prices while disregarding access to housing for the marginalized.[30] The social and ecological fault lines of such RFDs lead to exclusive access, further marginalizing those whose livelihoods depend on the rivers.

Embracing Rights of Rivers and Ecological Flow of Rivers

​​Rights of Nature is emerging as a governance approach for protecting our ecosystems and their inhabitants. It essentially recognizes Nature—in this case, rivers—as legal entities with intrinsic rights, akin to human rights, to protect them from environmental degradation and exploitation. This approach seeks to shift the legal paradigm from viewing rivers solely as resources for human use to recognizing them as living entities with their own rights.[31] Around the world, the movement for granting rights to rivers is growing and is believed to lead to more responsible environmental stewardship and a more holistic approach to conservation and development.[32]

The legal Rights of Nature movement in India[33] stemmed from judicial decisions from several State High Courts.[34] These began with a landmark judgment from March 2017 (In Mohd. Salim vs. State of Uttarakhand & Ors., Writ Petition (PIL) No. 126/2014) by the Uttarakhand State High Court, granting legal recognition to entities such as the Yamuna and Ganga Rivers.[35] This recognition was soon extended to their tributaries and glaciers by another order from the Uttarakhand High Court (In Lalit Miglani vs. State of Uttarakhand & Ors., Writ Petition (PIL) No. 140/2015).[36] However, the Uttarakhand High Court orders were quickly stayed by the Supreme Court (In State of Uttarakhand vs. Mohd Salim & Ors., SLP (Civil) 16879/2017), in April 2017.[37] The Uttarakhand Government had argued for reversal of the order for reasons including the impractical imposition of duties on the rivers and concerns about transboundary jurisdictional issues. While this matter is yet pending before the Supreme Court, other judgments granting legal rights to nature have been passed by various other High Courts of India. For example, cases related to the following subjects:

  • Animal Kingdom (In Narayan Dutt Bhatt vs. Union of India & Ors)[38]
  • Sukhna Lake (In Court on its Own Motion vs. Chandigarh Administration)[39]
  • Mother Nature (In Periyakaruppan vs. Principal Secretary to Government & Ors., WP (MD) 18836/2018)[40]

Historically, India has always and continues to revere nature through customs and traditions, although many of these practices have now become symbolic. Court rulings such as that from Uttarakhand may not offer immediate solutions to prevent the exploitation of natural resources, but they hold the potential to shift legislative paradigms towards prioritizing environmental protection over developmental projects. For example, local and Indigenous communities preserving ecosystems via practices such as protecting Sacred Groves are safeguarded by laws like the Forest Rights Act (FRA), enacted in 2006 in India. The FRA empowers tribal (Indigenous communities known as Adivasis) and other forest-dwelling communities to assert legal ownership over ancestral forest lands.[41] It rectifies historical injustices by granting them rights previously denied, including management authority and access to forest resources.

The rights of rivers primarily include the right to flow freely without pollution and the right to flood its floodplains. Therefore, implementing urban floodplain zoning and preventing encroachments in buffer zones are crucial steps to enable rivers to swell and shrink through changing seasons. A case in point is the August 2023 heavy rainfall and floods in New Delhi in the Yamuna floodplains.[42] No plan or action has been put in place to address these issues with an understanding of “pattern of rainfall and pattern of land use,” making this a recurring phenomenon.[43] Concurrently, the Yamuna RFD plan is underway for a 22 km stretch of the floodplains with the goal to enhance the area’s beauty, rejuvenate the floodplains, and provide better public access.[44] An increase in grey infrastructure over and around rivers has created a huge disturbance with the flow of the Yamuna river. There are currently 14 bridges on the riverbed for roads, railways, and metro, and two more in the planning stage.[45] The recent flooding, during which the Yamuna reclaimed its centuries old original course, serves as a significant lesson highlighting the importance of understanding floodplain dynamics and the potential hazards linked to altering the natural flow of rivers through concretized encroachments.

Over the years, with an increasing number of dams for hydropower generation and rising impacts of climate change, Indian rivers, especially in urban areas, are facing the dichotomy of water scarcity and flash flooding. The solution to both problems lie in ensuring that the ecological flow of rivers (linear, horizontal, and vertical) across all the seasons is maintained. It has been recognised and legally mandated by the National Green Tribunal in OA 498 of 2015, “all States to maintain a minimum environmental flow of 15-20% of the average lean season flow in their rivers.” While the minimum of 15-20% can be challenged itself, the recognition of maintaining ecological flow of the river is a welcome decision. In their Action Plans for rejuvenating polluted rivers, the River Rejuvenation Committees have mandated maintaining ecological/environmental flows.[46]

Advocating Action for Harmonious Coexistence with Rivers

Rivers are beautiful, life-giving, productive, self-restoring natural ecosystems on which our survival, and that of all lifeforms, depends. Rivers have inherent ecological functions, such as to feed and be fed by their aquifers and to provide home to aquatic natural biodiversity. As city dwellers in rapidly urbanizing India, we must stand up in action for rivers against maladaptation practices, such as cosmetic encroachment upon rivers and their hydrology, that threaten water security, cultural significance and reverence, climate resilience, and equal access to rivers. The loss and damage caused by urban flooding is a result of throttling the rivers by narrowing their channels for concretized development and recreation.

To truly restore rivers and enjoy their beauty, we need to create and sustain democratic participatory processes that include mapping hydrology and stakeholders (including non-human) of the rivers. Thereafter, we need to successfully implement Rights of Nature by recognizing rivers’ right to exist and regenerate, as seen in the Ecuadorian Constitution, and the protection of the rights of local communities and Indigenous Peoples (Tribals/Adivasis in India) who have historically safeguarded nature.[47] It is compelling that we prioritize bioregional governance and strategies for addressing the looming climate and biodiversity crises. By embracing the solutions offered by nature, we can pave the way for restoration and regeneration and secure our future.

At the policy level, the River Cities Alliance in India serves as a platform facilitating the exchange of best practices and lessons among river cities.[48] Drawing insights from the challenges encountered in RFDs, particularly concerning social and ecological concerns, offers valuable learning opportunities for other river cities to avert similar pitfalls. As the leader of the Global River City Alliance, India has the opportunity to demonstrate its leadership through action and ideology by setting a precedent for advocating a river-centric perspective and endorsing the rights of rivers as fundamental principles for the 275+ global cities within this alliance.[49]



















































First Published by Earth Law Centre on 25 April, 2024.

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