History is replete with examples of cities taking shape about the banks of rivers. From commerce to irrigation, to basic survival, the reasons are in plenty and often easy to comprehend. But as the cycle of life progressed, some Cities
moved beyond the rivers and left trail of neglect towards the very cause of their existence. Fortunately, while moving full steam towards the future, Ahmedabad has decided to pay tribute to its roots. We believe that the Sabarmati Riverfront Project is the third most important confluence in the history of Ahmedabad. The birth & the almost
instantaneous growth  of the City and the arrival of Gandhi being the other two.

It Began with a Folklore …

The legend goes that Sultan Ahmed Shah, while camping on the banks of the Sabarmati river, saw a hare chasing a dog. The sultan was intrigued by this and asked his spiritual adviser for explanation. The sage pointed out unique characteristics in the land which nurtured such rare qualities which turned a timid hare to chase a ferocious dog. Impressed by this, the sultan, who had been looking for a place to build his new capital, decided to found the capital here and called it Ahmedabad. The year was 1411.

But the debate has never ceased about the “actual birth and history of Ahmedabad city”. While a public discourse is always welcome, the debate, unfortunately often takes religious overtones.

A few studies point towards the occupation of the site from a much earlier period than that of Sultan Ahmed Shah. The studies and their supporters claim that it was known in ancient times as Ashapalli or Ashaval. Later, in the eleventh century the Solanki King Karandev I, ruler of Anhilwara (modern Patan), waged a war against the Bhil king of Ashaval. After his victory he established a city called Karnavati on the banks of  Sabarmati at the site of modern Ahmedabad. Solanki rule lasted until the thirteenth century, when Gujarat came under the control of the Vaghela dynasty of Dwarka.

Gujarat was then conquered by the Sultanate of Delhi at the end of the thirteenth century. In 1487 Mahmud Begada, the grandson of Ahmed Shah, fortified the city with an outer city wall six miles in circumference and consisting of 12 gates, 189 bastions and over 6,000 battlements to protect it from outside invaders. The last Sultan of Ahmedabad was Muzaffar II.

Gujarat was conquered by the Mughal emperor Akbar in 1573. During the Mughal reign, Ahmedabad became one of the empire’s thriving centres of trade, especially in textiles, which were exported to as far as Europe. Jehangir, son of Akbar, visited Ahmedabad in 1617 but did not like it and called it Gardabad, the city of dust. Shahjahan spent the prime of his life in the city, and also built the Moti Shahi Mahal in Shahibaug.

In 1753, the armies of the Maratha generals Raghunath Rao and Damaji Gaekwad captured the city and ended Mughal rule in Ahmedabad. A famine in 1630 and the constant power struggle between the Peshwa and the Gaekwad virtually destroyed the city. Many suburbs of the city were deserted and many mansions lay in ruins.

The British East India Company took over the city in 1818. A military cantonment was established in 1824, a municipal government in 1858, and a railway link between Ahmedabad and Bombay (Mumbai) in 1864. Ahmedabad grew rapidly, becoming an important center of trade and textile manufacturing.

The struggle for independence from the British soon took roots in the city. In 1915, Mahatma Gandhi came from South Africa and established two ashrams in the city, the Kochrab Ashram near Paldi in 1915 and the Satyagrah Ashram on the banks of Sabarmati in 1917. He started the salt satyagraha in 1930. He and many followers marched from his ashram to the coastal village of Dandi, Gujarat, to protest against the British imposing a tax on salt. Before he left the ashram, he vowed not to return to the ashram until India became independent.

After independence, Ahmedabad became a provincial town of Bombay. On May 1 1960, Ahmedabad became a state capital as a result of the bifurcation of the state of Bombay into two states of Maharashtra and Gujarat.

A large number of educational and research institutions were founded in the city in the 1960s – largely by the efforts of the father of modern Ahmedabad, Vikram Sarabhai.

In February 1974, Ahmedabad occupied the centre-stage of national politics with launch of the Nav Nirman agitation. It started as an argument over a 20% hike in hostel food bill in the L.D. College of Engineering, but ignited an agitation which later snowballed into the Nav Nirman movement. This movement caused the then chief minister of Gujarat, Chimanbhai Patel, to resign and also gave Indira Gandhi one of the excuses for imposing the Emergency on June 25, 1975.

Clearly, Ahmedabad has always been an important city. And to think of it, it had all started with the sight of a hare chasing a dog away!

… and Went On to Become the Global Signpost of Truth

When Gandhi and his associates had first come to the location where the Sabarmati Ashram is presently located, the land was far from the city of Ahmedabad, surrounded by jungle full of snakes, and situated along the steep rugged cliffs of the Sabarmati River. Nearby, was a British Prison filled with the sounds of iron chains of the inmates engaged in manual labour. Thunder, lightening, and heavy rains marked the day of Gandhi’s final decision.

He said, ‘ This is the right place for our activities to carry on the search for Truth and develop Fearlessness – for, on one side, are the iron bolts of the foreigners, and on the other, thunderbolts of Mother Nature.”

The Ashram that followed on the 36-acre site came to be known as a human laboratory where Gandhi could test his moral and spiritual hypotheses. The main objectives of the Ashram, as now well documented across the globe, were: education, truth (non-Violence and love), celibacy, control of the palate (no liquor or meat), no stealing, non-Possession (simple living high thinking), use of home-made articles, conquer of fear and the eradication of untouchability. What was the germ at the banks of Sabarmati river almost 100 years ago is now a philosophy for the evolved world.

On being asked the reason behind his choosing a place in Ahmedabad, Gandhi is reported to have said, “being a Gujarati, I’ll serve my country best through the use of the Gujarati language. As Ahmedabad was the center of the handloom in early days, the work of spinning wheel (charkha) could be done in a better way, I believed. Being the capital of Gujarat its wealthy persons will also make a larger contribution, I hope.”

As ironical as it may sound, the biggest moment of the Ashram was the time when Gandhi had bid farewell, albeit unknowingly, to the place while embarking on the famous Dandi Salt March on March 12, 1930.

Gandhi had said he would never return to Sabarmati until India achieved its independence. And like most times in his life, he kept his word.

Unfortunately, little did anyone know that while he would be able to see India’s independence through his own eyes, his eyes would be closed when he would visit the Ashram next. It took a moment of madness from a fanatic to force Gandhi to go to another journey- but not before resting his body at the Ashram for a while.

Gandhi the flesh is no more. Gandhi, the philosophy is still alive in pockets. One need not agree to every word that he had said. But it would not hurt to read about “his experiments with truth”. The rest of the world does that. No wonder, the Ashram is Ahmedabad’s biggest global icon.

And Now, the Sky Unlimited …

Once upon a time, on the banks of a river called Sabarmati, the foundation of a city was laid. Or relaid, depending upon the school of thought that you belong to. The city flourished almost instantly – almost entirely because of the dextrous people of the area. But not till about 500 years later did it get the recognition from the nation that it often got from foreign travelers. With handloom workers getting their share, the municipal corporation getting a mighty leader like the Iron Man of India and the people getting an ideology of peace and truth, the city flourished all over again – this time,  in terms of its stature and character.

And then, sixty years later, the city found itself running the mundane marathon of life. It found itself putting together random stones; following random thoughts and generate randomness of an all encompassing nature. The city was the seventh biggest human capital of India, but the stature wasn’t quite the same. Other small groups were stealing the thunder from right under its feet.

It wasn’t exactly the darkest. But it still found the first break of dawn very soon. And how.

Jignesh bhai, Jigna ben and all other GLOVADIs, the future of Ahmedabad is taking shape right in front of our eyes. And it is called Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project.

But before we get into the dream tunnel, let’s relive the truth that the present moment carries.

At present the Sabarmati riverfronts, on either side of the river, lie in state of neglect. Part of the reason is attributed to the unplanned development about the river. And while we are habituated to seeing it dry for most part of the year, it shall come as a surprise to the youth of the city that it is a major source of water for the city!  Add to that sewage contaminated storm water out-falls and the dumping of industrial waste, and you get the complete picture of the state that the river is in today. And we aren’t yet talking of the major health hazard that the state of affairs it poses to residents living close-by.

Though the riverbanks and bed provide a place to stay and source of livelihood for many poor citizens, the riverbank slums are disastrously flood prone and lack basic infrastructure services. The slums located along the riverbed also pose a major impediment to efficient management of monsoon floods in the river.

All the while, it has long been agreed by everyone that appropriate development of the river front can turn the river into a major asset. Quite like London (not to mention Venice) and other great cities by the river, it has often been argued that through the development of Sabarmati river front, with one stroke, the environment, efficiency of infrastructure and the quality of life of Ahmedabad can be turned around for good.

With that view, in May 1997, the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation established the Sabarmati River Front Development Corporation Limited (SRFDCL) under Section 149 (3) of the Companies Act 1956. The SRFDCL was provided with seed capital of Rs. one crore and charged with the responsibility of developing the Sabarmati Riverfront. In August 1997, the SRFDCL appointed Environmental Planning Collaborative (EPC) a city based not for profit urban planning and urban development management consulting firm to prepare a comprehensive proposal for the development of the Sabarmati river front.

It has long, long been coming …

All the feverish activity around the project that we witness while crossing the river or reading city publications might make us think that it is a recent project. Well, if the commencement of work is the real benchmark, then it is a new project. But if you take into account the various proposals and studies being made about the project, you would be astonished to learn that the project was first mooted in the year 1961 – ‘only’ about 46 years!

Yes, as early as 1961, a French architect residing in Ahmedabad,  Bernard Kohn, had presented a  ‘Proposal for Integrated Planning and Development of the Sabarmati Riverfront’ – aiming at development of the Sabarmati river-front with a mix of commercial, recreational and residential developments along both the banks of the river from Gandhi Bridge to Sardar Bridge.

After that, a lot of other studies have been undertaken on behalf of the government; with one of most recent ones being ‘Sabarmati River Front Development – Feasibility Report, CEPT (1997)’.

The flooding of late 2006 and the resultant damage to the ongoing work had sparked fears of the project suffering again. Luckily, after another review of the various technical aspects of the project by National Institute of Hydrology, Roorkee (NIH), the project has gathered steam all over again.

Needless to add here, a project of this magnitude always keeps going for regular checks and reviews. For, the time take for completion of such works might see change in few variables.

So, why is this one so great?

A simple tar road can make a world of difference to the inaccessible parts that it connects to the mainland.
A simple park can make life infinitely more enriched for land-locked  children and senior citizens alike. (We’ll leave the amorous couples for a later date. ;-)).

A small but road-facing shop can turn around the fortunes of a family; and so can a business center for a young entrepreneur.

And hey, what’s life without getting some time to share with your loved ones. And in a world of tight schedules and costly traveling, imagine what a picnic a month with the entire extended family to the city’s central park can do to the quality of life of a group of souls!

In today’s space-crunched, concrete jungles, a comfortable drive in one’s own vehicle or a short travel by public transport can be termed as a mirage.

Small things all. That make a big, big difference to individual and collective lives.

Imagine all of those small things coming together to form a gorgeous big picture! Yes, that’s Sabarmati Riverfront Project for you.

Any public project has to be viewed in terms of the quantum of difference it makes to the lives of maximum possible number of people, while causing discomfort to the least number of people.

Furthermore, what gets overlooked during the evaluation of an infrastructure project of this magnitude or, for that matter, of spectacles like Summer Olympics, is the spin-off effect – both in terms of present and future times.

For example, building of a single highway does a world of good to the following: 1. daily wage earners, commuters, 2. cement industry and its dependents, 3. automobile industry (better roads, more sale) and its associates (auto parts, for example) 4. Engineering & Architecture graduates 5. Travel & hospitality industry (better roads, more people traveling by inter-city buses and more the traffic, more the number of roadside motels and eateries) 6. Farmers (easier transport means less wastage of crops) 7. Consumers (more crops, lesser prices in general market) 8. General economy (savings on grocery means buying of other things) and so on and so forth.

The point being, urban design and planing is an exercise that keeps in mind of that and the aesthetics of it too. It is about providing an aesthetically pleasing and functionally convenient life to the citizens of a city. Sabarmati Riverfront Project seems to have extracted a lot from the belief. And that is why we believe it is a great story.

SRF, Ahmedabad and the outside world:

Kevin Pietersen is considered to be the ‘show pony’ of the English Cricket team. Largely because he is a cocky, flamboyant character. But a good part also because Pietersen stands for everything that the English Cricket and its supporters aspire to be – confident, classy (while batting), talented (limitlessly) and never afraid to make a statement, both with his bat and his hair. And it would not be an exxageration to say here that Pietersen is holding up English Cricket at the moment, from sliding into oblivion. No, the game of Cricket would not die in England. There would still be endless county matches played there. The Twenty-20 cup would still draw houseful evenings. But it would stop offering hope of upsetting India or Sri Lanka, let aside Australia.

That is the power of symbolism. It offers hope, courage and self-belief. And those are the three things that eventually lead to victory in big games.

The same holds true for showcase projects of the magnitude and stature of Sabarmati Riverfront Project. It is not only about what facilities it promises to offer. That, of course, is the first and most direct purpose of the project. But what is equally important from the point of view of future evolution of Ahmedabad city, is the postcard message that project would send to the world outside the city limits.

If Indian tourists bring back postcards of the Sydney Harbour Bridge or Trafalgar Square when they visit Australia and England, respectively, imagine the consequence of foreign nationals – and indeed other non-Amdavadi Indians – carry a couple of stunning ‘Sabarmati Riverfront Postcards’ back home after they stay in Ahmedabad. It would do more than a million square foot of advertisements in news dailies and magazines put together. (Ouch! Did we just lose out on some business in terms of SRF advertisements in League? ;-))

Would it or would it not:

It goes without saying that the graphic images here are mere representation of the vision. Though, ‘mere’ is probably not the word there. For, what good is the execution that does not have a clear and inspiring vision to work upon.
And yet, while the Amdavadi skyline, as shown in the images, is dependent upon the nature of clients and properties that are being sold / planned there, the gardens, promenades, public utilities and roads are almost definitely going to achieve the dream-like vision. Hey, doesn’t the statement above, in a way, mean that at least three fourths of what you see in the graphic images are bound to be certainties in the coming couple of years?

As we watch the work go ahead at full steam and hope that the vision of the project turns into a reality soon, in almost the manner that the graphic images speak, let’s wish all the players of the project the best of luck. The third confluence at the Sabarmati River might just shape the future of Ahmedabad.


Author. Entrepreneur. Filmmaker. Journalist.

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