The Brand-new Riverfront and the Historical Centre: Narratives and Open Questions in Contemporary Ahmedabad, India

The European Journal of Creative Practices in Cities and Landscapes. Vol 2, no 1 (2019)
ISSN 2612-0496

The Brand-new Riverfront and the Historical Centre: Narratives and Open Questions in Contemporary Ahmedabad, India

Gloria PessinaPolitecnico di Milano (Italy)

Gloria Pessina is an Italian urban planner, PhD and adjunct professor in Analysis of the City and the Territory at Politecnico di Milano (Italy). She is currently working as Postdoc researcher at the same university in the framework of the research project on “Territorial fragilities” of the Dpt. of Excellence of Architecture and Urban Studies.

Submitted: 2018-12-04 – Published: 2019-12-20


In 2002, the city of Ahmedabad (India) was profoundly shaken by severe interreligious riots. Subsequent years saw deep transformations in the image of the city and the consolidation of the right-wing Hindu nationalist party in the local and supra-local political arena. This article investigates some of the spatial manifestations of an urban transformation involving the valorization of historical heritage. The article focuses in particular on the large-scale Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project, which began in 2005 and remains ongoing, and on the inclusion of the historical center of Ahmedabad in the World Heritage List in 2017. The two developments have profoundly reshaped the image of the city and its river. The article offers an analysis of the city’s transformations and of the related rhetoric promoted by the local governing coalition. It highlights the city’s role in shaping a vision of a global, sustainable and historic metropolis.

Keywords: water heritage; displacement; riverfront development; UNESCO World Heritage.

1 Introduction

In 2011, the Indian city of Ahmedabad celebrated its 600th anniversary and announced initiatives to valorize the history of the city, including heritage walks, theatre shows celebrating the city’s past, and publications on Ahmedabad’s history. The city was experiencing the most radical transformation since its industrial decline, both in economic and spatial terms. The largest riverfront project of India, the Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project, was under construction, extending for around 10 kilometers in the core of the city, and several new residential and industrial developments were being built, mostly by private actors in the outskirts of Ahmedabad. It is in this context that the city center, located on the eastern side of the river, was proposed for inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage List by a local governing coalition led by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation and supported by local professionals. UNESCO added the area to the list in 2017.

Fig. 1 and 2 Localization of Ahmedabad and of its city center (source: Google Earth, Image © 2019 Digital Globe).
Fig. 1 and 2 Localization of Ahmedabad and of its city center (source: Google Earth, Image © 2019 Digital Globe).

Drawing on recent theoretical work in critical geography and sociology of valuation, the article explores the simultaneous attention to the conservation of heritage and the development of large-scale projects promoted by the local governing coalition. The article analyzes how the governing coalition developed a new identity for the city after a period of traumatic events that included interreligious riots and attacks against the Muslim population. That violence has been extensively studied and this article includes a brief review of that literature in section 4.1

What image of the city has emerged from the combination of new large-scale developments and the simultaneous recognition of the historical significance of the city center? Who can find a place in this new vision for the city and who is excluded? In addressing these questions, the article focuses in particular on the period between 2010 and 2013. This was the period in which the main transformations of the riverfront took place and when the city celebrated its history to mark the 600th anniversary of its foundation in 1411. The article elaborates on part of the materials collected during two periods of fieldwork conducted in Ahmedabad in 2010-2011 and in 2012-2013, drawing in particular on in-depth interviews with architects, academics, lawyers, historians and public officers.

The article does not investigate the reasons behind the apparent absence of an organized conflict around the creation of the Sabarmati River Front Development Project, which was the focus of a previous publication.2 The photographs included in the following pages highlight the physical transformation of the riverfront and of the surrounding spaces between 2010 and 2013; not included are the visual materials that can be easily found on the UNESCO reports,3 in numerous history of architecture and conservation studies,4 as well as in the promotional materials of both the heritage city5 and the riverfront.6

The next section lays out the theoretical framework used to answer the research questions, highlighting the complementarity between theories of critical geography and of sociology of valuation and introducing the theory of “heritigization” elaborated in the anthropological debate by the English anthropologist Michael Herzfeld and others.7 The third section focuses on the specific case of Ahmedabad, describing the context in which a new vision for the city was elaborated and how it was translated into development and conservation projects. The conclusion highlights Ahmedabad’s particularities with respect to other waterfront development projects, which are the object of recent and forthcoming studies. The conclusion also reflects on the ways in which the theories explored in the second section are helpful for understanding similar cases. It emphasizes the need to integrate theoretical perspectives in urban and heritage studies.

2 Theoretical framework

A city vision encompassing new large-scale projects and valorizing part of the existing heritage in Ahmedabad can be read from different perspectives. In critical geography, the American geographer David Harvey8 and the American urban theorist Neil Brenner9 see urban space as the “spatial fix” needed for the perpetuation of capitalism, that is, “a relatively fixed and immobile basis upon which capital’s circulation process can be extended, accelerated, and intensified.”10 In the sociology of valuation, the French sociologists Luc Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre (2015, 2017) develop the notion of an “economy of enrichment,” by which the authors mean “the act of improving the value of something” and “the economic exploitation of the past.”11

Harvey recalls the theories by the French philosopher and geographer Henri Lefebvre12 in his work on the condition of postmodernity13 and stresses that the “production of space” should be considered both in material and immaterial terms. Drawing on Karl Marx’s classic works, Harvey describes the production of space as a necessity within capitalism, since its survival depends on the existence of a variety of physical and social infrastructures. Moreover, the built environment itself, defined by Harvey as a “capital spatial fix,”14 guarantees profits to those with privileged access to it, by providing opportunities to direct the surpluses of the capitalist economy to further spatial development and thus avoiding the crisis towards which capitalism would tend, i.e. the over accumulation of capital followed by devaluation. Each socio-spatial configuration is therefore constantly dynamic, as Harvey explains in his book The Urbanization of Capital: “the inner contradictions of capitalism are expressed through the restless formation and re-formation of geographical landscapes. This is the tune to which the historical geography of capitalism must dance without cease.”15

In line with Harvey’s theories, Brenner has also focused on the built environment and in particular on science parks, financial centers, waterfronts, Special Enterprise Zones and other large-scale developments, defined as “new state spaces”16 in order to underline the relevant role played by government authorities in their creation. Even though much of the literature about globalization and world cities has tended to depict states as weak actors losing their power in a growing “space of flows,”17 Brenner argues that the state is actually just “re-scaling,”18 that is, changing its (spaces of) action, as suggested by Lefebvre19 and as further elaborated by the Belgian geographer Erik Swyngedouw.20 In Brenner’s view, “cities throughout the world economy are being promoted by their host states as locational nodes for transnational capital investment”21 and the case of Ahmedabad is not an exception to this trend.

Critical geographers mostly refer to new spatial developments promoted by local and national governments as exceeding capital flows. To understand a case in which the creation of new urban spaces goes hand in hand with the valorization of heritage, it is also helpful to consider works by Boltanski and Esquerre on the economy of enrichment, including the social construction of the value and the price attributed to objects, including the built environment, as well as the impact of such an economy on different social classes.

The economy of enrichment is the term used by the authors “to refer to the forms of wealth creation that are based on an economic exploitation of the past, in the form of craft, heritage, tradition, identity or, more largely, culture.”22 Following the approach of the Indian-American anthropologist Arjun Appadurai to the “social life of things,”23 the authors reflect on the social construction of value, highlighting the relationship between critical socio-economic moments and the simultaneous need to valorize the past (e.g. creation of a “France” brand, made of castles and expensive wine and cheese in a moment of crisis in the late 1980s and again at the beginning of the 21st century). Interestingly, Boltanski and Esquerre observe that the promotion of “the memorial force of things,” including that of historical buildings and urban areas, depends on the creation of “value narratives focused on traditions, genealogies, identities and pedigrees,”24 which can be appropriated and promoted by nationalist parties in the political arena, as seems to have happened in Ahmedabad.

Fig. 3 Map of Ahmedabad and of its surroundings in 1866 (source: The British Library @ Flickr Commons. File from the “Mechanical curator collection”).
Fig. 3 Map of Ahmedabad and of its surroundings in 1866 (source: The British Library @ Flickr Commons. File from the “Mechanical curator collection”).

Boltanski and Esquerre highlight different social actors taking advantage of the past and marketing it, or, on the other end of the spectrum, being affected by such actions, through gentrification, for instance. In their view, a rising “patrimonial class” has an interest in recognizing the value of their historical assets with the support of experts such as historians, architects, art critics and communication specialists. Meanwhile, the part of the population traditionally active in historical centers tends to be displaced and dispossessed of its own past through processes of gentrification and eviction.

Similarly, the Italian anthropologist Chiara De Cesari and the Macedonian anthropologist Rozita Dimova25 highlight the increasingly close relationship between heritage valorization - or heritigization, as defined by Herzfeld26 - and gentrification, stressing how such processes tend to affect the most vulnerable members of the population (in terms of class, religion, race and gender), who often end up being displaced and losing their main sources of livelihood. Even though the controversial effects of heritigization have been already shown by some scholars,27 De Cesari and Dimova notice that the simultaneous processes of heritage valorization and gentrification, as well as the role of various institutional, private and professional actors within these processes, have not been adequately studied, especially by urban and heritage scholars.

Helping to fill the gap in the urban studies literature on the relation between heritage valorization and increasing urban inequalities, this article considers the relationship between the creation of new state spaces28 such as the Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project, and the economy of enrichment29 resulting from the valorization of the historical center. These two processes, which resulted in gentrification and displacement for the most marginal parts of the local population, proved to be part of the same political vision, a vision promoted mostly by the right-wing Hindu nationalist party (BJP) not only for the city but also for the whole state of Gujarat and, more recently, for the entire Indian nation, ruled since 2014 by Narendra Modi. The BJP leader, who was confirmed as the guide of the nation in 2019, started his career in Gujarat and became known across India for making Ahmedabad an aspiring global city with a historic heart, gaining the support especially of the rising Hindu middle class. How the two processes of development and heritage conservation have been intertwined in Ahmedabad and who has been excluded from such processes will be the object of the next section of the article.

3 A “new state space” at the heart of Ahmedabad: the Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project

The governing coalitions have justified the development of the Sabarmati riverfront and the valorization of the historic city center of Ahmedabad with a variety of narratives, including those about a need for development to compete with other global cities, about a need to protect the population from both natural hazards and social disorders, and those involving purity and cleanliness, which has been strongly bound to tradition, heritage valorization and religion. Such narratives contributed to a new image for Ahmedabad, but also were promoted on a larger scale. Narendra Modi, who served as Gujarat’s Chief Minister from 2002 to 2014, drew on these narratives in initiatives such as the Vibrant Gujarat biennial summit. The summit, aimed at mixing “culture with commerce, trade with tradition, enterprise with entertainment,”30 was imagined since its inception in 2003 as a showcase of investment opportunities and heritage valorization,31 both in material and immaterial terms, and it took place during Uttarayam, one of the most important Hindu festivals of Gujarat.

Around the time the Vibrant Gujarat summit started, the state also began promoting new investment opportunities through the creation of Special Economic Zones, Special Investment Regions and other new state spaces.32 In Ahmedabad, the narrative around development and global competition was materializing in a major urban infrastructure: the Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project. Conceived in the early 1960s by the French architect Bernard Kohn, the project was redesigned at the end of the 1970s by the office led by the Indian architect Hashmuk Patel (HCP), based in Ahmedabad. Both proposals remained on paper until the late 1990s, when a special governing body—the Sabarmati River Front Development Corporation Ltd (SRFDCL)—was created by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) to manage an updated and extended version of the riverfront’s project.33

The new project was elaborated by the Environmental Planning Collaborative (EPC), a team of experts involving several members of the HCP Design, Planning and Management Pvt. Ltd and led by the architect Bimal Patel.34 The proposal consisted in a ten-kilometer long redesign of the portion of the river within Ahmedabad’s boundaries. Concrete embankments would be created to protect the city from floods and the river bed would be narrowed (from 600-300 m to 275 m), resulting in the reclamation of vast amounts of land (160 ha., later increased to 200 ha.) to allow the development of new private buildings and public facilities.