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Gujarat CM 'fails' to address Vadodara river's eco-destruction by real estate developers

Counterview Desk
Rohit Prajapati, environmental activist with the Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, researcher and writer, in a letter to Gujarat chief minister Vijay Rupani and senior officials of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, Union of India, and their counterparts in the Gujarat, has said taken strong objection to the taking a meeting with concerned authorities on Vishwatri riverfront project despite objections by legal authority.
The chief minister should have instead concentrated on why Vadodara Municipal Corporation has continued with the dumping of fresh debris, discharge of untreated sewage, filling, levelling, allowing encroachments and construction, and such, along/in/around the river and its environs (banks, ravines, tributaries, ponds, wetlands, runlets, ditches etc.), he suggests.
"This process has resulted in illicitly increasing the real estate and encroachments of the natural components of the interconnected river system", he adds in a letter to Rupani.

Excerpts:

The Chief Minister of Gujarat organised an urgent meeting on Friday, December 20, 2019 for the Vishwamitri River and made an announcement through press release about the Detail Project Report (DPR) for the Vishwamitri River. We are utterly shocked and extremely surprised about the sudden urgency for such a meeting and that too, which did not put forth any ideas or direction for
(a) resolving the pending issues regarding the Vishwamitri River and
(b) addressing the utter failure of the Vadodara Municipal Corporation (VMC) even implementing various and repeated directions given by the concerned authorities.
Despite such glaring governance and lack of accountability issues, the CMO, with other concerned departments is discussing the possibility of a new project for the Vishwamitri River without mentioning about implementation of referenced directions.
We want to again put on record that repeated letters to the concerned authorities and our constant follow-up, the VMC had also received directions by concerned authorities, and that there are crucial orders by Supreme Court and National Green Tribunal (NGT) applicable to Vishwamitri River also:
  • Explicit directions, sent to the Additional Chief Secretary of Forests & Environment Department, Gujarat State, by the Central Government’s Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, National River Conservation Directorate’s Joint Director on 03.06.2019.
  • The Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB) direction dated 08.01.2018, the legal notice dated 12.07.2018 and 10.12.2018, and site visit to various site showing dumping and encroachments on 24.04.2019 by the Committee headed by Chief Justice (Retired) of Delhi High Court Justice BC Patel, and the Gujarat Pollution Control Board officials. 
  • Legal notice, dated 06.08.2019, to VMC, under section 15 of ‘The Environment (Protection) Act 1986’ by the GPCB.
  • Interim Order dated 25.05.2016 passed by the National Green Tribunal (Western Bench) of Application 49 of 2016 (Rohit Prajapati and Anr V/s Secretary MoEFCC & Ors).
  • Order No. SEIAA/GuJ/General/512/2016 dated 09.08.2016 passed by the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA), Gujarat, passed in the Withdrawal Application for VRDP Project No. SIA/GJ/NCP/4584/2015, dated 05/08/2016 of Vadodara Municipal Corporation.
  • Order, dated 22.02.2017, of the Supreme Court in Writ Petition (Civil) No. 375 of 2012 (Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti & Anrs V/s Union of India & Ors). 
  • National Green Tribunal, Principal Bench, Delhi, Order, dated 03.08.2018, 28.08.2019 in Original Application No. 593 of 2017, (Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti & Anrs V/s Union of India & Ors).
  • National Green Tribunal, Principal Bench, Delhi, Order, dated 06.12.2019, in Original Application No. 673 of 2018. 
The repeated waterlogging and floods in Vadodara are exemplary of systemic and deliberate failures that are caused by unbridled desire that reflect unsustainable greed and, possibly, corrupt collaboration for public and private development projects and related activities. These are devised and implemented without consideration of law of the land, common sense, and with complete disregard for nature / ecological systems.
Examples abound:
  • Allowing deforestation and indiscriminate land-use changes in the catchment area of the Vishwamitri River to accommodate development; 
  • Altering the course and resectioning of the banks of the river, its tributaries, ponds, and their connecting runlets and ditches;
  • Encroaching the floodplains and the ravines of the river by permitting construction of buildings of various types; 
  • Dumping of construction and demolition debris and other wastes along the river, its tributaries, nalas, ponds, runlets, ditches, wetlands, low-lying areas, and ravines; thus.
  • Reducing the water carrying capacity and habitat values of these interrelated components of the river system;
  • Constructing retaining walls or hard pitching around the river, ponds (invariably in the name of so-called “beautification”), and boxing and channelizing the tributaries and nalas and well-thought of old, human-made or natural storm waterways (ditches, etc.) are all interventions that destroy and disrupt the river system from functioning effectively; and
  • Disconnecting and disrupting the ecosystem services of the entire river system.
Despite all this and repeated requests from our side to take corrective and proactive steps, the Vadodara Municipal Corporation, instead of removing the dumped debris, had continued with the dumping of fresh debris, discharge of untreated sewage, filling, levelling, allowing encroachments and construction, and such, along/in/around the Vishwamitri River and its environs (banks, ravines, tributaries, ponds, wetlands, runlets, ditches etc.). This process has resulted in illicitly increasing the real estate and encroachments of the natural components of the interconnected river system.
On top of all such undesirable actions and outcomes caused by the concerned authorities, there appears to be a well-organized propaganda about how Vadodara suffers from frequent floods and how crocodiles become dangerous for humans and these, in turn, are used for justifying more ill advised projects.
Has anyone among the concerned authorities even attempted to learn from experts the scientific and technical reasons for what causes “floods” or why crocodiles are found in human habitats in Vadodara?
What happens in Vadodara is not flood as much as waterlogging and man-made floods because of incompetently devised and badly implemented Town Planning Schemes and infrastructure projects; decreased water carrying capacity of the Vishwamitri River and and its environs (banks, ravines, tributaries, ponds, wetlands, runlets, ditches etc.) due to indiscriminate dumping of debris and solid waste; and inapt management of Ajwa reservoir during heavy rains.
Unfortunately, the true price of such top-down decision-making, that reeks of ignorance as well as arrogance verging on stupidity, is paid very dearly by the have-nots of the society and the tax-payers.
We have repeatedly cautioned, suggested, recommended, alerted, offered to work with, and notified the concerned authorities regarding the worsening conditions of the natural system of the city and the increasingly dire situation of the city. These efforts reflect our genuine and sincere concerns towards the city and its citizens. The waterlogging and inundation of July 31-August 1, 2019 and recently in 2005, 2006, and 2014 are a testimony of our warnings.
Any further negligence on part of the responsible government entities or individuals in addressing and rectifying the above stated actions, will make certain increased number of and more severe disasters in future, especially in light of the ongoing uncertainties and insecurities that come with the on-going Climate Crisis.
We must equip ourselves with the right kind of and accountable administrative structure with genuine, transparent, and proactive participation of experts and citizens in the city’s development of all kinds, from inception to post-implementation evaluations and required corrections.
We strongly believe that our city deserves better. The current situation will only worsen if the City, as a collective whole and with the help and coordination with the State, does not take any substantial, participatory, proactive, and accountable initiatives in the right direction.
Hence, before initiating any new project for the Vishwamitri River and asking for Detailed Project Report (DPR) without the necessary Feasibility Report before it, we demand that the CMO, the VMC, and all other concerned authorities:
  • Put on hold the directives given by the states’ highest authority.
  • Investigate thoroughly the shortcomings toward and causes for the non-implementation of the explicit directions given on 03.06.2019 by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, National River Conservation Directorate’s Joint Director, and sent to the Additional Chief Secretary of Forests and Environment Department, Gujarat State; GPCB direction dated 08.01.2018; and legal notices dated 12.07.2018, 10.12.2018, and 06.08.2019
  • Implement the Order, dated 22.02.2017, of the Supreme Court in Writ Petition (Civil) No. 375 of 2012 (Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti & Anrs V/s Union of India & Ors) and National Green Tribunal, Principal Bench, Delhi Order, dated 03.08.2018, and 28.08.2019 in Original Application No. 593 of 2017, (Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti & Anrs V/s Union of India & Ors) & National Green Tribunal, Principal Bench, Delhi Order, dated 06.12.2019, in Original Application No. 673 of 2018 in letter and spirit.
  • Make accountable and prosecute all the officials responsible for the inaction across all levels of bureaucracy and the private sector players. 
  • Implement immediately, in letter and spirit, ‘The Construction and Demolition Waste Management Rules, 2016’ and ‘The Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016’. We have been raising the questions in this regard and we now need reliable answers and verifiable action on ground. As needed, study and adapt already exisiting best practices in India and elsewhere to achieve goals of these Rules. 
  • Prepare immediately, technically correct and accurate contour survey, digital elevation models (DEMs), plinth levels, and other physical and biological factors, with advise from experts, for the entire VMC and Vadodara Urban Development Authority (VUDA) areas. This will help in conducting a holistic landscape suitability analysis and preparing better Area/Development Plans and site-specific designs and details. 
  • Ensure devising and implementation of proactive and sound Action Plans for proper and well-monitored remediation and restoration; future waste management by sorting, recycling, reusing, and upcycling; and awareness and advocacy programs for both the public and the officials from all the concerned government agencies.
  • We insist on a complete re-look, re-design of all the ongoing, and not-so-well thought out demolition activities, clean-up drives, and the so-called development projects. All the projects should be comprehensively integrated with overall Development and/or Master Plans and apt management strategies. 
  • No project or above stated activities must be imposed or implemented as isolated interventions handled by different departments and agencies in an uncoordinated manner. Local residents’ inputs also must be taken into account in devising and implementing any plans or activities anywhere in the Vadodara city area and the entire watershed of the Vishwamitri River. We must adapt and create our own the best practices to realize all these by adopting time-bound, transparent, well-advised, and well-monitored processes.
  • Establish immediately a semi-statutory body, with legal teeth, that would include subject experts (ecologists, geologists, hydrologists, biologists, environmental / ecological planners, wetland specialists, landscape architects, legal and legislative specialist) as well as knowledgeable and experienced members of the community at-large, to guide and monitor the remediation of the damage done and any new development initiatives that the government would undertake proactively with the help of this body to improve the quality of the local ecosystems and lives of the citizens of Vadodara. This is a very high priority demand.
  • Establish a fully functional, effective, and knowledgeable Urban and Environmental / Ecological Planning Department in the VUDA and/or VMC that also includes experts from various related fields (such as ecologists, environmental and civil engineers, and landscape architects) for ensuring better plans and detailed designs for the city. 
  • Prepare Disaster Mitigation Plans for the city by using the landscape and ecosystem approaches right from the origin of River Vishwamitri and include all the villages and towns in the watershed of this river. 
  • If and as needed, remove, retrofit, and/or restore parts of the city. Cosmetic and ill-advised interventions or projects, implemented in piecemeal and uncoordinated manner within the VMC or VUDA limits only. This will not solve the problems arising from the currently practiced inadequate way of envisioning, planning, and developing the city, but rather they will exacerbate them further. 
  • Revisit and revise all the so-called “beautification” plans and projects, including installation statues in the lakes, demolishing of buildings, road widening, flyover construction, etc. by the authorities.
  • Set up a recycling and upcycling plant, at the earliest, to treat the debris (concrete waste) and other household waste and convert it into a usable form. This will help us to take necessary steps to move away from the current throughput economy to a new, regenerative economy. 
  • No new permissions for reconstruction of old buildings should be allowed till well-devised, official permits and protocols for demolition as well as well-designed and fully operational recycling and upcycling plants are devised and established. 
  • Implement appropriate rainwater harvesting structures as per the micro-level geology-hydrology of the area to harvest the excessive water available while maintaining the e-flow of the river and natural water bodies. 
  • Work towards bringing about a paradigm shift in the way we redefine “development” and envision, govern/administer, and plan our cities and other areas. It is time also to redefine administrative boundaries (like wards and districts) according to the boundaries of watersheds and subwatersheds. 
Though seemingly difficult, it has been done elsewhere and provides a better model for well-conceived development that honors nature and human aspirations.
We look forward to your positive response and immediate action to protect, restore, enhance, and nurture the environment while following sounder and saner paths to holistic development that will add to the brand value of Vadodara city, nationally and internationally, as well as instill a sense of pride for taking responsible actions resulting from collaboration all stakeholder. If these demands are not met soon with evidence, further action may be taken.

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