‘Fixing’ the River: Political Ecology of Changing Water Flows and Infrastructuring along the Godavari Riverscape in Nashik

Shilpa Dahake (shilpabd26@gmail.com) is an Independent Researcher.
28 April 2022

Technocratic managerialism has a long legacy of infrastructuring the Godavari river to maintain the hydraulic order of Nashik city. The implementation of hard infrastructures in the riverscape has been the dominant governmentality in the city. As the city started expanding and began to spatially fix itself with more permanent roads, housing complexes, and other public infrastructures, the moments of overflow and no flow of water in the river flood and drought became incongruous with Nashik’s emerging modern urban life. In other words, they became disruptions giving rise to the need to fix the unruliness of the river. 

Here, the word fix implies two ways of engaging with the river – to repair by managing and manipulating its flows and to place or anchor, by presuming it to be a distinct line between land and water. The fixing of the Godavari through infrastructures focused on the re-engineering of the riverscape to manage the excesses of water during the monsoons and water scarcity during the dry seasons. In contemporary times, the Godavari riverfront is also rendered as “a place of commodified value” (Baviskar 2011) with aesthetic significance that is (re)producing the riverscape as a desirable place for capital accumulation. Following the Marxian political-economic logic, that suggests, in order for capital to grow and circulate it must be spatially fixed in the form of a built environment (Harvey 1982; Smith 1984). In this vein, the riverscapes have emerged as a site that serves the purpose of periodical spatial fixation of capital flows through large-scale development projects.

Meandering through diverse cultural backdrops, in a journey of 1,456 kilometres (km) (About Godavari Basin nd), Godavari witnesses several remarkable happenings throughout its course. Proximate to its origin, in the Brahmagiri mountains of the Western Ghats, the Godavari encounters a religiously significant and rapidly urbanising city of Nashik, in Maharashtra, India. With a population of ~1.4 million, Nashik is the fourth largest city in the state, after Mumbai, Pune, and Nagpur (Census India 2011). Nashik and Godavari are coevolving and (re)shaping each other in myriad ways. Their relationship is manifold, linking economy, religion, development, and waste and pollution. 

Derived from ethnographic fieldwork spread across 2015-19 in Nashik, along the Godavari, this photo essay narrates the frictions between the notions of flows and fixities emerging at the land-water interface in the city. It not only investigates the various forms of fixities that have emerged in relation to the Godavari, but also unravels new emerging ecological flows of the river. In the process, the essay traces how the river itself reworks the land-water distinctions by “acting back” (Helmreich 2011) on the infrastructures and the city that seek to control it. Beginning with the Kumbh Mela of 2015, this photo essay engages with the ecological imbalances surging after the festivities to unpack the entanglements between the flows and fixities in Nashik.

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The religious-cultural cosmos of Nashik is concentrated around a ~2 km stretch of the river, locally known as Goda Ghat or Godavari Ghat. These ghats experience a thorough transformation in a cycle of 12 years, with every Kumbh Mela. The attempt of the Nashik Municipal Corporation (NMC) to revive the Godavari Ghats for the Kumbh Melas, to accommodate the influx of pilgrims, resulted in the channelisation of the natural course of the river by concretisation. As illustrated by a local activist, “Concrete equals development. This notion has been deeply engrained in our policymakers’ minds as well as in the public conscience.”

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The activist added, “In the name of development, the NMC has literally poured concrete in the riverbed of the Godavari.” This was done by the administration in 2002, during the preparations for the Kumbh Mela of 2003. Like in other host cities (Allahabad, Haridwar, and Ujjain) of Kumbh Mela, even in Nashik, it has become a mega event. The preparation of the mela attracts huge funding from the state as well as the central government. To showcase the utilisation of these funds in a short period, in 2002, the NMC concretised the banks of the river and riverbed in Godavari Ghats.

 

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By concretising the Godavari Ghats, the administration attempted to produce a fixed riverscape with stable surfaces to ensure the easy movement and connectivity of the pilgrims converging along the river. However, in doing so, the administration, as highlighted by one of the activists, “destroyed the historic kunds [stepwells] and the natural ecological make-up of the Godavari.” In this stretch, the river is no more a river. It has been reduced to a controlled and restricted stream of water in concretised pools.

 

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The concretisation of the riverscape in Nashik did not stop in 2002-03; it continued in 2014-15 for the Kumbh Mela of 2015. This time, the NMC extended the concretisation done in 2002-03 to the area downstream of the Godavari Ghats and built more ghats and platforms along the river. By cutting the natural and porous riparian edges of the river, the hard surfaces were created to cater the needs of religious commodification of the Godavari.

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The commodification of Godavari in Nashik is not only limited to the religious domain. Under the guise of river conservation and bank protection, a 3 km long stretch of the Godavari’s left bank upstream of the Godavari Ghats was developed as Goda Park. This initial version of the project was formulated in 2005-06, under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission. However, the project did not succeed as it ignored the by-laws of construction within the floodlines, resulting in seasonal destruction due to flooding of the river.

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Despite the initial failure, the project was revised in 2013 by the then ruling party, and foregrounded the idea of building a “world-class” Godavari riverfront, a project as an initiative towards conservation. This revised version was envisioned as a 13.5 km long project with laser shows, musical fountains, multipurpose facilities, parks, etc, to be developed upstream of the old Nashik city along both the banks of the river. Due to lack of funding, in 2013, the NMC without any public consultation handed over the project to a private corporation. However, till date, only ~500 m stretch of the project has been constructed.

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Promoted and advertised as an infrastructural project to uplift the urban image of Nashik, the riverfront development project was instead imposed on the city as the performance of the aspirations of modernity and development. The underlying purpose of the project was to commodify the riverfronts. This process was undertaken simultaneously by the government and the private developers. The intention was to capitalise on the land along the river. As the government acquired land along the river for the project, the private developers started buying farmlands in the vicinity of the project sites.

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In the summer of 2016, before the culmination of the year-long festivities around the Kumbh Mela, the local and national newspapers in Nashik were filled with headlines like “First time in 139 years, Nashik’s sacred Ramkund dries up” (Sarkar 2016). As per official figures, on 15 June , 2016, there was a reserve of only 3% of waters in the 11 dams across Nashik district (PTI 2016). The Gangapur Dam complex, which fulfils the water needs of Nashik city, had only 12% of its water stock left. The course of the river traversing through Nashik had turned into a trickle, with no water in the religious stretch for the pilgrims to take a holy dip.

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With the drying of the river, the view of the ghats was dominated by the greys of concrete. Adding to this greyness, some workers were building a concrete weir-like structure in the riverbed, close to the Ram Kund (a stepwell where all the rituals are carried out). As there was no water in the river and due to water shortage, to meet the needs of thousands of pilgrims visiting the Ram Kund to perform various rituals, this wall was being erected to contain water within the Kund. Moreover, the municipal corporation (re)created the river by filling the kund with borewell water to facilitate the celebrations of Gudi Padwa (Maharashtrian New Year).

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As the locals were overcoming the shock of the drying of Godavari, during the monsoon of 2016 the river flooded twice. The first episode was a flash flood that occurred without any discharge from the Gangapur Dam, whereas the consequent one resulted from heavy rainfall, coupled with additional discharge from the dam. 

Owing to these drastic fluctuations in a span of four months, a young resident highlighted the changing perceptions and relations with the river by suggesting, “People of old Nashik used to rejoice and welcome the flow of the Godavari in the monsoons. But things have changed now … now, people fear the floods.” He further added, “This attitude shift is a result of the changing behaviour of Godavari. And, the Godavari has changed because we have kept nothing natural in the riverscape.”

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In Nashik, extreme fluctuations of the water flows in the river laid open the gaps in the bureaucratic determination of infrastructuring river or, as anthropologist Tania Li (2007) describes the constant “will to improve” the riverscape. People of Nashik started highlighting these gaps in the technocratic interventions by asking “what they seek to change” and “what is accomplished” (Li 2007: 1). These interventions often produce specific unintended outcomes or feral enactments (like flooding), while sometimes aggravate the very issues they intended to resolve.

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Attempts to harness and control the Godavari through different infrastructure projects for various purposes – as a resource, a religious entity, a symbol of modernity, has been (re)producing the river as an infrastructure. The riverscape, as an accretion of infrastructures, has been serving as a location for the manifestation of aspirations, provisions, and technical progress. The institutional management of the flows of water, which includes the material infrastructures and technological devices and (dis)connections, may seem to regularise the hydraulics of the city. However, they have impacted various processes of, and within, the Godavari riverscape. As a result, the inherent materiality of water to flow has no place to manifest itself in the riverscape.

 

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The occurrences of flooding and drying within the re-engineered riverscape induce ruptures at a particular sociopolitical moment in a sociocultural context. These ruptures highlight the limits of the visions of modernity and development, and become an opportunity for locals to question the state and re-engage with the river. The extremities of 2016 led to the emergence of civic movements demanding deconcretisation of the riverscape. After three years of legal battle, now, the locals have finally succeeded in forcing the administration to free the flow of riverscape from the shackles of concrete.

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Analysing the changing patterns of water flows through the riverscape is one way of understanding the materialities of the anthropogenic Godavari riverscape. The river has internalised the anthropogenic interventions, and the obduracy of infrastructures has become an integral part of the flows of the river. With each infrastructural layer, the river started modulating its ecological flows around the materiality of the infrastructures. Such technocratic interventions repeatedly tried to fixate the boundaries of land and water, restrict the river in a particular place, or fix the river. 

 

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In conclusion, though, the economic logic of commodification is rendering value to the Godavari. However, the inherent fluidities of the Godavari continue to defy fixities, commodification, and highlights the limits of capital. Moreover, the river not only remains a medium through which political power is expressed, rather, the river itself becomes political when it starts (re)shaping the political subjectivities of the locals in Nashik.

Shilpa Dahake (shilpabd26@gmail.com) is an Independent Researcher.
28 April 2022