Sold down the river

A darker Sabarmati flows southwest of Ahmedabad

Hirenbhai Raval at the Vasna Barrage. Untreated sewage and industrial effluents are discharged into the Sabarmati river near the barrage, causing health hazards in nearby villages.

Hirenbhai Raval at the Vasna Barrage. Untreated sewage and industrial effluents are discharged into the Sabarmati river near the barrage, causing health hazards in nearby villages.


The Sabarmati riverfront project set out to reconnect Ahmedabad to its river. And it seems to have done a commendable job. The promenade, which stretches 10.4km along the city, was inaugurated three years ago and has become the pride of the state. For a moment, it seemed the Sabarmati was the cleanest river in the country.

However, about 3km downstream, there is a stark change in its colour, freshness and ambience. This is where the city vomits its waste. A journey through the villages on the banks of the Sabarmati shows the ugly and, perhaps, real side of the river. While the city enjoys the clean waters and the walkway, pictures of which light up social media sites, more than 30 villages on the outskirts live on the banks of a filthier version, leading contaminated lives.

According to a survey conducted by Ahmedabad-based NGO Paryavaran Mitra last February, a sample collected from the river had 530mg/l of suspended solids and 720 mg/l chemical oxygen demand (a test used to measure the amount of organic pollutants in water). These were way above the standard 100mg/l and 250mg/l, respectively.

Even without the cold statistics, the state of the river is evident in Gyaspur village. Just 5km south of the hyped riverfront, the Sabarmati turns black. Gangaben, a resident of the village, shows utensils that have turned black and sticky. “See, I just cleaned these utensils three days ago. If these lifeless objects lose their charm at this rate, what would happen to my body?” asks the 63-year-old, who has been battling tuberculosis for the past 15 years. “My lungs are choked. Slowly, with time, we will all vanish, just like this river.”

Like Gangaben, most villagers who depend on the river suffer from one or more medical ailments. Among them is 70-year-old Ratan Singh Chouhan. “We have no choice,” he says, showing me his wounded leg. “We know that this water is poisonous, but what else will we use for farming and drinking? Sometimes I feel that we are the most cursed people of Gujarat!”

When the glitzy riverfront was built, the state had promised slum dwellers they would be rehabilitated. However, many of them still live in shoddy houses with no facilities or any help from the authorities. About 170 families have been living in one such rehabilitation site, Ganesh Nagar, for the past 12 years.

Continuing downstream, I reach Shahij, another village fed by the Sabarmati. Here the river narrows and becomes a dark drain. The black, sticky water struggles to flow. “Whenever I step into these waters, I get a headache,” says Rameshbhai, a resident of the village. He shows me his leg—dry, dark and hard as a rock. “My legs become numb for three to four hours and I am not able to move around.” He says going to the river is like committing suicide.

People who have witnessed the deterioration of the river seem helpless. Says Hirenbhai Raval, a resident of Ahmedabad: “The water that flows at the riverfront is not our own. It is pumped from the Narmada. The Ahmedabadis have no right over this clean water. We are snatching it from people from other parts of drought-affected Gujarat.”

At Vautha village, which hosts a huge annual fair thronged by more than a lakh pilgrims, the situation is no better. “This is no more a holy river,” says Vikram Rathod, a resident of the village. “This is the gutter of Ahmedabad city. Forget taking a bath, we do not even dare to put our fingers in the river. Who wants to be down with fever and risk burning their skin?”

Environmental expert Mahesh Pandya, who is part of the Paryavaran Mitra team, says he was shocked at what he found. “The condition is awful. The water has very high COD and BOD (biochemical oxygen demand). The BOD [a test similar to COD] is 288mg/l against the standard 30mg/l,” he says.

The waters have made many villagers vulnerable to skin diseases. Says 50-year-old Kalubhai Vaghela of Paldi Karanj village: “Some other villagers complain of health issues like poor vision and problems of skin, liver, womb, abdomen and lungs. I know my legs are heading to the graveyard, but we have to use this water till I reach there. I know that this water is terrible for us and it is like slow poison. But we have to accept this curse as it is given to us by our mother, the Sabarmati.”