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Vishwamitri river: 'Destructive' activities continue despite CPCB objection to GPCB

Counterview Desk 

In a letter to the Municipal Commissioner, Vadodara, with copies to several senior Government of India officials -- including secretary, Ministry of Jal Shakti; secretary, Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change; chairman, Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) -- and their Gujarat counterparts, several concerned citizens of Gujarat’s cultural capital have insisted upon stopping what they have called “utterly destructive” clean up activities at the Vishwamitri River banks, continuing since July 10, 2021.
The letter regrets that despite their meeting with the mayor, the municipal commissioner, the deputy mayor, and the standing committee chairperson, as also communication with top city officials regarding to the “ongoing illegal work through various modes”, as also National Green Tribunal (NGT) order dated May 25, 2021, the use of heavy machinery (JCB etc.) “has caused severely destructive damage to the Vishwamitri River and its environs.”
The activities continue despite existence of “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”, it adds.
The letter has been sent even as the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), the Government of India's anti-pollution watchdog, asked its state counterpart, Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB) "to examine the suggestions" offered by one of the signatories of the letter, environmentalist Rohit Prajapati, who had approached NGT to stop all activities along Vishwamitri.
CPCB in its communication to GPCB on July 16, 2021 said, the NGT order dated May 25, 2021 should  not only be complied with, an action taken report (ATR) on this should be sent to NGT, with a copy to CPCB at the earliest. 

Text of the letter:

We have individually and collectively visited the location of the ongoing works on 12.07.2021, 13.07.2021, and 14.07.2021 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 07.06.2021 and reiterated during our meeting on 07.06.2021, 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 25.05.2021 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 12.07.2021. 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.
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, 7 June 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.
---
Signed by Concerned Citizens of Vadodara

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