Hyderabad’s Musi River: Why Do Technocratic Solutions Fail in Safeguarding Urban Waterbodies?

In complete contrast to its past glory, the Musi river which traverses through Hyderabad city, is degraded by indiscriminate disposal of waste and massive encroachments. The Telangana government had announced plans in 2017 to revitalise the river through a large-scale riverfront development project. By revisiting similar initiatives taken up earlier to resuscitate the Musi, the article argues that these techno-managerial solutions completely disregard notions of commons, only to normalise their exploitation.    

On 28 September 1908, water levels in Musi river rose to 16 feet and completely flooded Hyderabad, leaving behind a trail of death and destruction. Encroached and concretised, the river has shrunk into a drain ever since. Today, it crawls through the city carrying a deadly mix of drain water interspersed with patches of cattle grass, solid wastes, and poisonous fumes. To revitalise the river, the Telangana government announced the Musi Riverfront Development Project in 2017.  

The degrading condition of such ecological commons (such as waterbodies, air, wetlands, etc) in cities brings focus back to Hardin’s "The Tragedy of the Commons" (1968). According to Hardin, in the absence of well-defined ownership, individuals maximise their self-interests, which eventually results in the overexploitation of commons. But Hardin’s conceptualisation was eventually criticised, and many scholars over time pointed out its limitations. Elinor Ostrom, for instance, in her treatise Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Political Economy of Institutions and Decisions) (1990) demonstrates many instances where communities had enjoyed a stable relationship with common resources like water. However, in contemporary times, there are increasing number of instances where Commons are either expropriated or destroyed.  

The real tragedy of commons, today, is the utter disregard for the notion of commons. In absence of a robust framework to govern them, commons are being converted into colonised spaces of accumulation in the present development narrative (Maringanti et al 2012). While colonising commons is part of a wider “accumulation by dispossession” (Harvey 2003), they are also anchored in urban politico-ecological processes. Public perception of the Musi river is indicative of such processes. One of the respondents during our field survey shared,

When we were young, we used to swim in the Musi river after rain. Today it has been encroached and converted into a drain. There used to be a beautiful jasmine garden, and Musi river used to flow on both sides of it. We used to visit [the] garden often to collect flowers. The site of jasmine garden is now Mahatma Gandhi Bus Station. It was constructed on the river bed itself.

Reminiscences such as these contextualise the Musi riverscape in a historical and a sociopolitical framework. Urban commons are sites for power negotiations among various competing social actors who exploit them for their particular benefits. Construction of one of the largest bus terminals in the country on an island in the river is of environmental concern and violates the River Conservation Act 1884 (Reddy 2016). Flouting regulations, the power coalitions of state and private developers have encroached and degraded the urban commons over the years. The legalities of encroachment manufactured by state power can be selective and arbitrary (Ramanathan 2005).

Increasingly central to such legalities of urban development is the aesthetic vision of world-class cities (Ghertner 2011). The distorted futuristic visions for construction of urban spectacles as riverfronts have only commodified urban commons into prized real estate spots (Baviskar 2011). Resistance to such projects is, therefore, delegitimised, co-opted, or managed by ambivalent approaches, adversely affecting the needs of population concerned (Desai 2012).

For constructing urban spectacles, techno-managerial tools are employed to make urban commons institutionalised and governable. This gives an illusion that natural processes can be put under social control, as if nature and society are separate from each other. Such binary of nature and society is potentially depoliticising as it glosses over the complex interrelationships and only externalizes nature as opposite of urban. But in reality, nature and society are intertwined in spatial-temporal processes of energy and material flows (Swyngedouw 1999). Mobilisation of these processes such as land use change in expanding cities produces a distinct relationship of the social and nature. These processes take place in societal power structures, in which social actors negotiate for their own environments (Davis 1995).    

Through an analysis of the changing riverscape in Hyderabad, this article investigates the interaction of urban spaces and development. The visions of riverfront development have sociopolitical and historical dimension. The degradation of the river by indiscriminate disposal of waste and encroachment of the riverbed is driven by the idea of seeing cities as engines of growth. But the irritant stink and flow of green/black sludge in the middle of the city does not align with images of a world-class city. This profoundly contradictory nature of the neoliberal urbanisation undermines the pre-existing socioecological assemblages, such as network of streams which existed before human settlements came up. Thus, I argue that depoliticising technocratic visions of riverscape push the socioecological factors into the periphery. There is a need to reject these depoliticising acts and put the socioecology at the centre of debate for examining the power struggles and socio-ecological transformations of commons.

Musi River and Hyderabad City

The city of Hyderabad has witnessed rapid growth in the last few decades. The population of Hyderabad Metropolitan Area (HMA) shot up from 57.8 lakh in 1991 to 76 lakh in 2001 (32% increase) and to 96 lakh in 2011 (23% increase). It is projected to touch 1.9 crore by 2041 (HMDA 2013). Further, haphazard urbanisation has led to rapid concretisation of the city. On the one hand, total urban built-up area had increased by 436.07 sq km between 1989 and 2011 (Wakode et al 2014). On the other, the area under water bodies had decreased by 11.84 sq km in the period from 2001 to 2015. Specifically, the area under river/streams had declined to 16.62 sq km in 2001 and further to 15.32 sq km in 2015 (EPTRI 2015). Consequently, with depleting water resources, Hyderabad city is finding it difficult to address its growing demand for water.  

Besides the water scarcity, Hyderabad is also witnessing an increasing frequency of floods. Thanks to rapid urbanisation and haphazard construction activity, the city was ravaged by floods in 2000, 2008, 2016, and in 2017. The Musi river divides Hyderabad city into two halves with the Old City settlements along the southern bank of the river. The river originates in the Anantagiri Hills in Vikrabad and traverses through Hyderabad city before joining Krishna river at Vadapally in Nalgonda district. The entire course of the river has been encroached and the water has been turned into dark sludge owing to continuous disposal of untreated waste into the river. Recently commissioned Rehabilitation and Strengthening of Sewerage System in Old City project south of Musi in Zone I and Zone II is treating 94.01 million litres per day (MLD) out of the projected outflow of 482.49 MLD. However, such arrangements of sewage treatment are hardly sufficient and the environmental hazards persist (CAG 2017). Untreated waste from upstream finds its way into the Musi in addition to the sewage it receives from hospitals, textile industries, and refineries (Vijayashree et al 2009).

Upper catchment areas of the river have seen rapid concretisation in last two decades with the development of Hitech City, Outer Ring Road and SEZs (Special Economic Zones). The international airport came up in the catchment area of the Himayat Sagar lake, also known as Esi river and the tributary of Musi river. All these developments have come at the cost of vanishing lakes, disturbing the pre-existing network of waterbodies in the city. The riverbed is further encroached by mounds of debris, gravel, and huge concrete structures. Poor execution of building regulations and environmental laws have resulted in large-scale encroachments by both private and public agencies (Ramachandraiah and Prasad 2004).

Musi Riverfront Development Projects: Misguided Approaches to Tinker with Nature

The encroachment of the riverbed and the indiscriminate disposal of untreated waste into the river have resulted in shrinking of the river. The blocking and destruction of natural drains have led to frequent floods in the city. The current attempts to beautify and develop Musi riverfront have to be seen in a historical context. In the aftermath of the Great Musi Flood of 1908, modern technology was employed to build the Osman Sagar and Himayat Sagar lakes. The river flow was brought under control. Riverside was raised and congested parts of the city were demolished (Cohen 2011). On the new riverfront, the High Court and City College were constructed along the south bank in 1919 and 1922 respectively, and Osmania Hospital came up on the north bank of the river (Prasad 1986).

Nearly a century later, when river had been turned into a stinking drain, attempts were made for development and beautification of the riverfront. In 1997, the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh government launched Nandanavanam Project. In complete disregard of ecological aspects, the said project diverted all the water by building a central channel in the river. Both squatters and landowners on the banks of the river were evicted in June 2000 to make way for riverfront development and beautification (Kranthi and Rao 2010). As many as 14 organisations representing the interests of people living on the riverbank had launched Musi Bachao Andolan (Save Musi Campaign). It received support from far and wide including from Medha Patkar who spearheads the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Hindu 2000). In 2000, Hyderabad faced severe floods, destroying various structures built as part of the Nandanavanam project. Finally, the government had to give up the project under the pressure of rising corruption allegations and the ill-conceived design (Times of India 2001).

Picking up pieces from the earlier failed project, Save Musi campaign was launched in 2005 and had access to funds from the National River Conservation Plan (NRCP) and the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) (Pakapati 2010). It envisaged building sewage treatment plants (STPs) and developing ecological, heritage, and developmental zones along the river. Two projects namely, the Abatement of Pollution in Musi (APM) and the Musi Revitalisation Project (MRP) under the National River Conservation Directorate (NRCD) and JNNURM scheme respectively were finalised. Separately rubber dams were built for promoting tourism through boating and leisure activities. But, due to the delay in upstream STP in Attapur, rubber dams were rendered inoperable and downstream STPs ineffective. Further, the campaign faced protests in acquiring land and ran into a litigation with the residents of Ramanthapur village (Rohit 2012). After multiple delays and missed deadlines, nothing much had changed under the Save Musi campaign.  

The latest project was conceived by the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) government by setting up the Musi Riverfront Development Corporation in 2017. The project vision was finalised in February 2018 and a drone survey was completed in March 2018. The project aims to revitalise the Musi river along a 57.5 km stretchIt also proposes to develop a Musi Corridor with east-west connectivity by building a skyway. Additionally, river conservation and beautification from the outfall of Himayat Sagar and Osman Sagar on the west to the Outer Ring Road at Gowrelli on the east is also part of the project (Siasat Daily 2018). 

The degraded condition of the river; opaque, unplanned interventions, and forceful land acquisitions in the name of river beautification have troubled people of the city. One of the respondents during our field survey pointed out that construction waste was dumped on the banks of the river where an open ground once stood. The alternative narratives of discontent have found a voice through various fora such as the Society for Preservation of Environment and Quality of Life (SPEQL), Forum of Better Hyderabad, Hyderabad Greens, etc. People are also turning to the judiciary for relief. Based on a petition, the National Green Tribunal gave interim orders to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and the Telangana State Pollution Control Board (TSPCB) to conduct a hygiene survey of Musi river (Reddy 2019). On the Telangana High Court’s direction to curb illegal dumping of building waste in the river, the MRDC responded by simply installing CCTV cameras along the river (Deekshith 2019a). Hearing a public interest litigation, the High Court further observed that it was, in fact, due to the works being taken up by the authorities in the name of riverfront development and beautification the river was shrinking (Hindu 2018)The work of the latest riverfront development project has been put on hold (Deekshith 2019b).

Overall the changing Musi riverscape offers insights into the power dynamics of social and political forces that work to put urban commons to use. Neoliberal commodification of urban commons and technocratic visions delink their political, historical, and social identity only to result in ecological degradation. 

Way Forward: Towards Ecological Sustainability

Multiple stakeholders particularly related to housing, livelihoods, and environment would be affected in any (re)development of the Musi (Ramachandraiah 2007). It is essential to include multiple narratives rather than furthering singularly-focused technocratic consensus under the rubric of development agenda to normalise the control of urban commons. Struggling to make sense of complexities in a city, techno-managerial solutions are a simplistic fallback option. In the process, as Jane Jacobs (1961) notes, "Nature, sentimentalized and considered as the antithesis of cities, is apparently assumed to consist of grass, fresh air and little else,  and this ludicrous disrespect results in the devastation of nature even formally and publicly preserved in the form of a pet." 

The lens of Musi riverscape highlights the need to bring the ecological and social aspects of sustainability at the centre of the planning process. Fortunately, there is a growing sensitisation among the authorities concerned to have demarcation of maximum flood levels, to improve capacity of STPs, and to protect river from encroachments and indiscriminate waste disposal. The way forward is the realisation of negative externalities of mindless accumulations and the real tragedy of commons. Understanding that waterbodies exist in a network, any attempt to tinker with the flow of even one particular waterbody is bound to create a system-wide negative impact. Therefore, instead of focusing on just the riverfront beautification, there is a need to plan for a river catchment area and its network of natural flows. Such realisation by all stakeholders will repoliticise the urban commons to move towards socioecologically sustainable, bottom-up and participatory governance of commons.


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