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Citizens object to 'utterly destructive' activity for executing Vadodara riverfront project

Counterview Desk
Several concerned citizen of Vadodara have asked concerned authorities to to stop immediately “utterly destructive clean up activities undertaken” on the river passing through Gujarat’s cultural capital in light of the National Green Tribunal order, dated May 25, 2021.
In a letter to the Union environment secretary and his Gujarat government counterpart as also other officials, including the concerned authorities of the Vadodara city, the citizens insist on demarcation, protection of the entire flood plain zone of the river and maintaining minimum environment flow.
According to them, it is necessary to ensure integrity of the river, especially by taking ito account certain “consequential and incidental issues” like sewage treatment, management of waste, preventing encroachment and plantation.”
At the same time, they add, the Vishwamitri River Action Plan should also include “removal of unauthorised structures.

Text:

The current activity of using heavy machinery (JCB etc.) has caused severely destructive damage to the Vishwamitri River and its environs. The significant wild flora and fauna, including Scheduled I species like the Mugger and the turtle, and innumerable other amphibians, reptiles, birds, insects, and microscopic organisms are found in the Vishwamitri River habitats.
We have individually and collectively visited the location of the ongoing works on July 12, 2021, July 13, 2021, and July 14, 2021 to gauge the nature of the work being carried out by the Vadodara Municipal Corporation (VMC). Prima facie, it appears as an effort towards the resectioning of the river resulting in further encroachment on the river section through the dispersal and levelling of the soil; the debris and solid waste still remains.
Though the VMC contends that they have been guided by the Gujarat State Forest Department, Gujarat Pollution Control Board, and other authorities, we believe that these activities are in violation of the various Orders, directions, and Acts, specifically ‘The Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972’ and the NGT Order dated 25.05.2021. The NGT Order clearly acknowledges:
“1. [...] Of paramount importance in its ecology is the presence of the highly protected species, the Indian crocodile (Crocodylus palustris- Mugger Crocodile) and Turtles. The crocodiles, turtles and other species have been inhabiting and breeding in stretches of the Vishwamitri River for many years. This species is categorized as nationally ‘vulnerable’, subsequent to an assessment following IUCN criteria for threatened species (Molur and Walker 1998) and has the highest legal protection in India. It is listed in Schedule I to the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. 
"The importance of this species is illustrated by the multiple legal and policy efforts which have been developed by the Government of India to protect the crocodile population. ‘Indian Crocodile Conservation Project’ was launched as early as the late 1960s. Subsequently, the crocodile and Turtle have been included in Appendix-I of Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and brought under Schedule-I of The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. Any activity against the survival of the highly protected species, without approval by the State Wildlife Board/National Wildlife Board and the Government of India is illegal.”
This has been reflected in our letter dated June 7,.2021 and reiterated during our meeting on on the same day, where we had clearly mentioned:
“2. River Restoration Plan:
“… B. Map scientifically and accurately the locations and extent of areas of solid waste (including construction debris) dumping, untreated and ill-treated sewage disposal, waterlogged and flooded areas within the watershed, including the entire stretch of the river along with its tributaries and associated ravines and wetlands. This will help assess and document the type, amount, and extent of the dumping carried out over the last few decades so as to prepare, guide, and monitor the remediation of the damage done based on sound technical knowledge, know-how, and best practices.
“C. Employ genuine, scientifically, and technically correct, well-coordinated, measurable, time-bound, accountable, and participatory steps for the pre-, during, and post- clean up operations of all solid and liquid wastes entirely from all the water bodies and low-lying areas in the watershed...
“E. Follow the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972 for conservation of Scheduled species...
G. Devise high quality and comprehensive ecological restoration plans and bio-remediation measures of the river environs in accordance with latest sciences, best practices, and techniques.”

The NGT Order dated May 25,.2021 directs:
“7. ... Demarcation of the entire flood plain zone of the river needs to be undertaken. Further, steps are required for plantation and maintaining the integrity of the river in totality. While directing consideration of all the issues by the applicants, we reiterate the direction for implementation of the “Vishwamitri River Action Plan” including the steps for removal of unauthorised structures, demarcation and protection of flood plain zone and other action points as per the river restoration plan. They may give a consolidated representation within two weeks listing all pending issues on which consideration and action be completed by the concerned authorities within three months. The applicants will be at liberty to take appropriate remedy if any further grievance survives.”
Our concerns, objections, and recommendations were also sent to the Mayor on July 12, 2021. Despite this, the destructive work continues, inflicting additional severe damages to the river and the habitats, especially during the monsoon season, exacerbating severe erosion of the exposed banks that will, in turn, increase siltation of the river channel and further damage the unique habitats along the river. We would like to emphasize that these damages are a result of the absence of a ‘local expert empowered committee’ to guide and implement the NGT Order in letter and spirit.
Concerned citizens at river the river bank
During our meeting with the Mayor, Municipal Commissioner, Deputy Mayor, Standing Committee Chairperson and other VMC officials on 15.07.2021, we expressed our concerns to stop the ongoing destructive activity and explained in detail their implications on the integrity of the river system.
Our Suggestions and/or Demands:
  • Stop, immediately and completely, all the so-called “clean-up” activities in and along the banks of the River Vishwamitri and its tributaries. Demonstrate that the concerned authorities are working in concert to address various issues such as debris dumping, pollution, and habitat destruction and comply, in letter and spirit, the NGT order dated 25 May 2021 in measurable, verifiable, accountable, and time-bound manner.
  • Put on hold, refrain from the “clean-up” operations in the river stretch between which is still intact in its current conditions. This patch should be used for comparative, experimental studies to learn from and guide future activities of any kind in the river within and beyond VMC boundaries.
  • Respond officially to all the suggestions we have made / listed in our comprehensive letter (“Consolidated Representation for..”] of Monday, June 7, 2021.
  • Work collaboratively and proactively with our team and other knowledgeable people of our city to stop any such ad-hoc activities like “clean-up” with obvious and insidious negative impacts.
  • Work out more systematic ways to deal with river flow, inundation (“flooding”), water-logging, habitat integrity and protection, and other issues related to the River Vishwamitri and its associated ravines, tributaries, ponds, wetlands, etc. related matters at the watershed and site-specific levels with viable, sound, and authentic designs and details through Ecological Planning, Landscape architecture, and other experts using the latest technology and participatory methods.
  • Prepare and implement a complete, comprehensive, well-monitored plan for recycling, upcycling, and reusing the discarded solid and liquid wastes, including the debris removed during this clean-up.

In Conclusion:

As we have repeated in our previous letters to the concerned authorities there is a need to relook and redefine ‘development’ and its associated decision-making processes and policies. Together and proactively, let us establish and address eco-regional development as well as protection, conservation, and restoration goals that will benefit the current and future generations of all species.
We are reiterate and reemphasize an urgent need to establish an empowered an effective, functional, well qualified quasi-governmental/ semi-statutory body/ task force, that includes subject experts (ecologists, geologists, hydrologists, flora and fauna experts, wetland specialists, environmental/ urban/ ecological planners, environmental/ civil engineers, landscape architects, wastewater specialists, other built environment professionals) as well as other knowledgeable experts and experienced members of the community at-large. This body should not merely be a teeth-less and perfunctory advisory body.
Such an interdisciplinary and empowered body will go a long way in ensuring transparent, participatory, and proactive processes for holistic development of our city and the Vishwamitri River watershed. This body, with its own office, budget, and well-qualified staff, will help determine development priorities, prepare apt policies and plans as well as guide, monitor, and evaluate implementation of diverse ideas that will help us to truly and uniquely make our watershed and city work better for every being and for specific and larger purposes, now and in the future.
We look forward to a collective and positive response from all the concerned authorities at all levels now and in the longer term. Please take much needed immediate actions to protect, restore, enhance, and nurture the river environs in entirety and stop the “clean-up” activities immediately.
We acknowledge that this is a complex task and prone to misinterpretations or discomfort in the status quo. Therefore, we insist on working together in a systematic manner to realize the values, vision, and goals expressed in this letter.
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