In a letter to the Secretary, Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, Government of India, several prominent experts and activists have demanded stopping all activities of Vadodara’s Vishwamitri Riverfront Development Project, including the illegal filling, dumping, dredging, and any kind of construction. Text:
This letter concerns the Vadodara Mahanagar Seva Sadan’s (VMSS) proposed ‘Vishwamitri Riverfront Development Project’.
In the VMSS meeting dated 19 September 2015, those of us who were present were informed that the VMSS had in November 2014 issued a tender to appoint a consultant to conduct the ‘Environmental Impact Assessment’ for the ‘Vishwamitri Riverfront Development Project’ and that no activities and/or construction work in respect of the Riverfront Project will be carried out/commenced in the river and around river bank before EIA is prepared, Environment Public Hearing (EPH) is conducted, and before getting the Environment Clearance. As per our latest information, the process of assigning the contract for the EIA got over in this month.
It has now come to our notice that despite all the assurances at the meeting held on 19th September 2015, the work related to the ‘Vishwamitri Riverfront Development Project’ has commenced at site on or around Vishwamitri River hastily and mindlessly, without having conducted the mandatory Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) and Social Impact Assessment (SIA) and without obtaining Environmental Clearance in respect of the project, in complete disregard and violation of environment law. The “planned” Riverfront Project completely ignores the important characteristics of the River, its wetlands, ravines, inter-connectivity with other water bodies, biodiversity, flora and fauna, flood and floodplains etc.
Many times sophisticated language, images, and concepts are used in the feasibility report of the ‘Vishwamitri Riverfront Development Project’ and its propaganda, but if one closely examines the said report, it becomes abundantly clear that those words and ideas are intentionally misleading and not proposed or designed in their true ‘letter and spirit’.
The VMSS is using the public funds and/or allowing construction, and dumping activities in the river and its immediate environs, such as ravines, etc. in blatant violation of several laws of the land, including under the provisions of the following enviornmental statutes:
(1) The Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972.
(2) Environmental Impact Assessment Notification, 2006 under the Environment (Protection) Act 1986.
(3) The Environment (Protection) Act 1986.
(4) The Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules 2010.
(5) The Municipal Solid Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules 2000.
The aforesaid illegal, unauthorized, and arbitrary activities are also in violation of the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980.
The VMSS fails to understand the fact that the first step in any effort for the revival of the Vishwamitri River must acknowledge that a river is more than a channel carrying water; it is also a transporter of sediment; it consists of catchments, floodplains, river-bed, adjoining ravines, which along with the vegetation on both sides, is the river’s natural mechanism to retain the additional water, prevent floods and provide habitat for wildlife. A river harbours and interacts with innumerable organisms like plants, animals and microbes. It is a natural, living, organic whole; it is a hydrological part of a larger ecological system. A river is also a network of tributaries and distributaries spread over its basin and the estuary.
The Vishwamitri River originating from the Pavagadh Hills has a unique ecosystem bearing a plethora of beautiful ravines right from its beginning till its end. Of paramount importance in its ecology is the presence of the highly protected species, the Indian crocodile. The crocodiles have been inhabiting and breeding in stretches of the Vishwamitri River for thousands of years. 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 1960’s. Subsequently the crocodile has been included in Appendix-I of Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and brought under Schedule-I of ‘The Wild Life (Protection) Act 1972’, meaning that any activity which is against the survival of the highly protected species without having been approved by the State Wildlife Board / National Wildlife Board and the Government of India is patently illegal.
This brings one to the glaring fact that the activities carried out by the VMSS in the name of ‘Vishwamitri Riverfront Development Project’ especially proposed construction activities vis-a-vis JCB dumper, etc. have the potential to distruct the natural ecosystem and habitat (its breeding grounds and nests) of the crocodile and other species.
VMSS is also trying to invoke the “PPP development model” to ‘justify its activities’. All VMSS projects require environmental clearance for execution, even PPP projects undertaken by VMSS in and around Vishwamitri River. Hence any planned construction activity or any other activities by VMSS or sanctioned/approved by VMSS in and around the river bank/water bodies also need to be stopped immediately because they currently violate the need for an EIA clearance process.
It becomes abundantly clear that in the absence of any EIA or scientific study on the potential impacts to the protected and threatened crocodile, and the mandatory approval from the appropriate authorities, Vadodara Mahanagar Seva Sadan is in blatant violation of ‘The Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972’. The said activity would amount to “hunting” as defined in Section 2 (16) of the said Act as follows:
“(16) “Hunting” with its grammatical variations and cognate expressions, includes:
Killing or poisoning of any wild animal or captive animal and every attempt to do so;
Capturing, coursing, snaring, trapping, driving or baiting any wild or captive animal and every attempt to do so;
Injuring or destroying or taking any part of the body or any such animal or in the case of wild birds or reptiles, damaging the eggs or such birds or reptiles, or disturbing the eggs or nests of such birds or reptiles.”
Now there is no dispute about the fact with the concerned authorities that the ‘Environmental Clearance’ is required under the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification dated 14th September 2006 is applicable to the ‘Vishwamitri Riverfront Development Project’. And that is why the VMSS has, in November 2014, issued a tender for a consultant to conduct the ‘Environmental Impact Assessment’ for the same.
At the following location and many other locations VMSS and / or with the consent of VMSS illegal activities—that is, without EIA, environment clearance—were started and are still continuing in some areas such as Sama talav, Bhimnath talav, Kalaghoda area, Bahuchraji nala, Bhookhi nala, Masia nala, Sanjay Nagar area, Kalyan Nagar area, etc.
Regardless, the project proponent has gone ahead with construction and other activities despite the fact that Section 6 of the EIA Notification of 2006 explicitly states, “An application seeking prior environmental clearance in all cases shall be made in the prescribed Form 1 annexed herewith and Supplementary Form 1A, if applicable, as given in Appendix II, after the identification of prospective site(s) for the project and/or activities to which the application relates, before commencing any construction activity, or preparation of land, at the site by the applicant.”
The environmental risk posed by the impugned Project is further amplified by the fact that the same is being constructed on the wetlands of River Vishwamitri. Allowing the Project to continue without environment impact assessment and social impact assessment will result in irreversible damage to the ecology of the said wetlands which are sought to be protected by the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2010.
The highly meandering and slowly flowing Vishwamitri river system consists of the main river corridor and its associated tributaries, ravines, nalas / kaans (small streams/creeks), wetlands, ox-bows, and human-made ponds.
Historically, this system as a whole provided ecosystem (environmental) services such as natural flood water control, ground water recharge, habitats for different flora and fauna, promoting biodiversity, and ameliorating adverse climatic conditions. They also served various communities as alternative sources for irrigation, water supply, food, recreation, and livelihood. Vishwamitri River and its associated water bodies are also unique because they are home to threatened or endangered species of flora and fauna (ravan taad, crocodile, etc.). Having a crocodile in the river habitat in the middle of Vadodara city is also extremely unique situation in itself. Instead of taking pride in it and protecting its habitat, VMSS seems to be bent on destroying it.
Years of encroachment and dumping, effectively sanctioned by urban planning and urban governance decisions made by the local governments (VMSS and Vadodara Urban Development Authority to be precise), further threaten this interconnected watershed level system. This is evident in the way these water bodies are encroached upon and/or contaminated with all kinds of dumped waste materials, including construction debris, municipal and industrial waste, dead carcasses, untreated or inadequately treated sewer water, and even buildings are constructed on ravines and nalas.
For example: 1. Karelibaug – Vadodara Urban Development Authority (VUDA) Building and adjoining constructions, 2. Karelibaug – Ratri Bazaar, 3. Sayajiganj – Bhimnath, 4. Along the three major nalas – Bahucharaji, Bhookhi and Masia, and 5. On or near ponds such as Manjalpur, Bhimnath, Sama, etc. These are filled with all kinds of waste dumped by the VMSS and other non-documented illicit, small and big, violators that are not stopped or punished by the local authorities.
Due to such “sanctioned” or illicit activities, not only the banks and ravines of Vishwamitri river but also many other water bodies have also disappeared or despoiled and diminished on a daily basis.
The much drummed up “flood” stories from Vadodara are also actually less about natural floods and more about human follies and official negligence. Vadodara city’s terrain has less than five percent slope on average (i.e., almost flat) and it is interspersed natural water bodies (mentioned above, with many ponds that are interconnected by natural courses of nalas and kaans).
Since 1994 (in the last 21 years), there have been eight years when Vishwamitri River’s level at the Kala Ghoda bridge gauging station showed its level above 26’ –the “Red Signal” flood alert level. These years are 1994 (35’), 1998 (27.3’), 2003 (28.3’), 2005 (35.6’), 2006 (30.7’), 2008 (28.5’), 2013 (29.9’) and 2014 (34.9’).
During these years, flood waters inundated low-lying parts of Vadodara city resulting in severe misery for the underprivileged people living in such areas. Newspaper reports and some studies have shown that many of these so-called floods were the result of mismanagement in operations of gates at the Ajwa reservoir dam during heavy rainfall days and reliance on old calculations for the storage capacity of this dam. This is especially true for the 2014 floods when there was less rain fall (116mm) than the 2005 (315mm) flood days and when the Kalaghoda gauge level of water was 34.9’ –about nine feet above the “Red Signal” level.
A more hidden and far less publicized reason is that over the past several decades, the VMSS/VMC has itself filled up the ravines of the river in Vadodara city with solid waste and has turned blind eyes on those who do so illicitly. If these ravines were not filled in with various kinds of solid waste and were left natural as seasonal wetlands, heavy rain fall waters would have natural space to spread out and cause less damage to the city. Vadodara city must learn lessons from the December 2015 Chennai floods otherwise it will very likely face similar or more calamitous situation.
In this terrain indiscriminate dumping, dredging, and/or constructing (e.g., raised roads and building plots with inadequate culverts or bridges) have been going on for decades, often by the local government agencies. These have choked up the ravines and wetlands and blocked the natural channels (nalas/kaans). The net result is severe water-logging in many parts of the city.
The situation gets exacerbated during heavy rains in the upper catchments and authorities don’t manage the water flows out of the dams (mainly the Ajwa reservoir dam) that are built on the tributaries of Vishwamitri River. Instead of protecting the natural water bodies and managing the reservoirs and flows, the local governments also contribute to this onerous and avoidable situation by allowing all kinds of city and neighbourhood level development (roads, bridges, buildings, etc.) and proposed town planning (TP) schemes without the use of contour plans. In fact, the authorities do not have any contour plans of Vadodara City.
Unless well thought-out, well-coordinated, and multipronged strategies (with teeth) are adopted soon, a day is not far when Vadodara, like many other cities, will face disaster similar to what Chennai has faced in the first half of December 2015. In the face of unpredictable climate change patterns, that disaster is well recognized as a failure of urban planning and urban governance and so will be a similar, costly and avoidable, disaster in Vadodara.
The river experiences frequent flooding which is due to water logging and human induced activities. The time to act is now, well before the Vishwamitri Riverfront Development Project and many other projects affecting the natural water bodies and flows of the Vadodara city and eco-regions are planned and implemented. Or else, it will be too late and too costly to amend our follies later.
The riparian vegetation along the banks of the Vishwamitri river, not only nurtures a rich biodiversity but also plays a crucial role in retaining water during heavy rainfall and in ground water recharge – particularly the ox-bows. This also plays an important role in regulating the micro climate of the city. Engineering the banks as per the Vishwamitri Riverfront Development Project plans would convert the river into a huge open ‘pipe’ which would lead to a further increase in flooding and obstruction to the natural course of ground water recharge.
Further, it is a well known fact that both municipal waste and untreated municipal sewage are routinely being dumped into the Vishwamitri River in contravention of the Municipal Solid Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules 2000. The impugned project should not be allowed to progress in the absence of a comprehensive plan to stop the dumping of untreated sewage which is a health and environmental hazard, to protect its banks, remove the existing municipal waste that has been dumped, and return land which is currently being used for dumping back to the river.
We have also come to know that demolition of the slums was part of the impugned project. Further, the impugned Project and related activitieshad already displaced more than 5,000 people, and many more are expectedto be displaced by the Riverfront Project. The slums – Sama – Sanjay Nagar (1&2), Indiranagar 2. Manjalpur – Bajaniyavaas, 3. Chhani – Soniyanagar, 4. Jamwadi – Sayajiganj, 5. Sainathnagar – Danteshwar, 6. Fatehganj – Kalyan Nagar, etc. – were demolish as part of ‘Vishwamitri Riverfront Development Project’.
Lastly, the creation of real estate to ‘mitigate’ or off set the cost of the project as proposed by VMSS has to be validated by the ‘need’ of land for development. There are ample properties in Vadodara that are vacant or ‘for investment’ purposes. A thorough market analysis must be carried out to justify the creation of land for commercial development (CBD). The residents of Vadodara are paying the costs of such dead investment. Further, clearing the vegetation and building the banks would only add to the heat island effect and micro- climate of the city.
The river, lake and water bodies systems offer a tremendous opportunity to reduce pollution, increase green cover and, in turn, our ground water table. However, in the absence of holistic planning, application of legal mechanisms and scientific thought this opportunity will be thrown to the wind and there will be neither river nor riverfront left to speak of.
The matter is now urgent because the VMSS has commenced work in the river and around river bank for the impugned Riverfront Project, despite lacking an Environmental Impact Assessment, Social Impact Assessment, Environment Public Hearing, nor any steps in preparing a management plan, including appraisal, monitoring and compliance mechanism have been ready with the Vadodara Mahanagar Seva Sadan for the impugned project.
It is shocking that filling up of lakes is carried out across Vadodara. Gujarat High Court in its judgement dated 2 August, 2002 in SCA No. 10621 of 2000 (SHAILSH R SHAH V/s STATE OF GUJARAT) clearly stated that
“It was then stated in paragraph 3 that, in deference to the suggestion made by this Court, the State Government will notify in the Gazette the water bodies and will ensure that no lands forming part of the water bodies be alienated or transferred by the various Area Development Authorities or the Local Authorities and will oversee that the water bodies are maintained and preserved as water bodies…
“The Local Bodies and Area Development Authorities will be requested and instructed to see that desiltation may be undertaken in a phased and gradual manner and encroachment is removed also in a phased manner. Care will be taken that water bodies are not converted to any other use in the town planning schemes/development plans that may be made hereafter and the Local Authorities and the Area development Authorities will be instructed to ensure that no debris of buildings is dumped by any person or institution in the existing water bodies. The General Development Control Regulations which are now framed take care as regards the distance to be maintained between the development zone and the water bodies, which was minimum of nine meters, as stated in that affidavit. The Regulations also provide for percolating well to be provided if the area of building exceeds 1500 sq. mtrs. and upto 4000 sq. mtrs. The State Government in that affidavit assured this Court that proper monitoring would be undertaken to oversee the preservation and maintenance of water bodies.
“To sum up we issue the following direction:
“The State Government and all Area Development Authorities and local Bodies will protect, maintain and preserve all the waterbodies in the State which are identified as per the development plans, town planning schemes and the government records and which will be notified in the official gazette, as waterbodies and they will not be alienated or transferred or put to any use other than as waterbodies. […]
“The State Government, the Area Development Authorities and the Local Authorities should take urgent measures to rejuvenate the water bodies which are to be notified in the gazette by undertaking a declared phased programme of desiltation and make adequate provisions for recharging them by appropriate storm water drains and other feasible means and to take measures against pollution of such waterbodies.”
Accordingly, in addition to being illegal and in complete contravention of environmental law, the present action of the VMSS is also in complete violation of this Gujarat High Court judgement and the civic body is guilty of contempt of the court.
Under these circumstances we call upon MoEF&CC to:
- Direct the Vadodara Mahanagar Seva Sadan to take adequate and necessary measures to ensure stoppage of all construction work or any sort of activities in the Vishwamitri river and around river bank in the name of ‘Vishwamitri Riverfront Development Project’, or any component thereof and any other State Government or Privately initiated Projects/activities in and around Vishwamitri river and/or river banks.
- Direct the Vadodara Mahanagar Seva Sadan to stop the untreated municipal sewage from being dumped into the river.
- Direct the Vadodara Mahanagar Seva Sadan to immediately remove the municipal waste which has been dumped into the ravines of Vishwamitri River and take steps to prevent the further dumping of the same.
- Direct the Vadodara Mahanagar Seva Sadan to immediately stop dumping activities—their own and those of other private entities—that fill upponds (particularly Bhimnath, Motnath, Harni, and Sama ponds) and associated water bodies.
- Initiate legal action under Sections 15 and 16 of the Environmental (Protection) Act 1986 against the concerned individuals, partnership firms, companies, etc., whoever have started any sort of work or activities in and around the bank of the River Vishwamitri without conducting environment and social impact assessment and without obtaining environment clearance.
- Initiate legal action under Section 17 of the Environment (Protection) Act 1986 against the concerned officers who have failed to ensure complete compliance of the Environment (Protection) Act 1986 before commencement of the work in respect of ‘Vishwamitri Riverfront Development Project’.
- Direct the Vadodara Mahanagar Seva Sadan to submit the status report of present ‘Vishwamitri Riverfront Development Project,’ including a transparent reporting of the money spent for the project and activities on the site carried out by them up till now.
- Direct the Vadodara Mahanagar Seva Sadan to take all necessary steps for restitution of the project area to its status quo ante.
Thus we call on you to cease all ‘Vishwamitri Riverfront Development Project’ and related activities in Vishwamitri River, around river banks and not commence any further works / activity / construction work until due process of environmental clearance is undertaken. If ‘Vishwamitri Riverfront Development Project’ and related activities are not immediately stopped, you will invite legal action and be liable for the expenses incurred for the same.
In case you do not reply to this letter, should we assume your agreement with the points we have raised in this letter? We look forward for your urgent action.
*Signatories to the letter are: Rohit Prajapati, Engineer, Researcher, Writer and Environment Activist; Nakul Pradhan, Advocate; Dr Shishir Raval, Landscape Architect, Ecological Planner (Natural Resource Management), Architect; Neha Sarwate, Architect and Environmental and Urban Planner; Smita Pradhan, Member, Wildlife Advisory Board, Gujarat and Ex-Director, WWF- India, Gujarat; Sonia Nair, Landscape Architect and Architect; Surekha Sule, Development Journalist and Researcher; Tanaya Ambadkar, Student-Cell and Molecular Biology; Kareena Kochery, Architect; Pratik Lakadawala, Wildlife Activist; Vishnu Kolleri, Architect; Punita Mehta, Architect and Urban Designer; Deepali Ghelani, Engineer; Reshma Vohra, Social Activist; Kauseen Motiwala, Landscape Architect, Architect; Tanvi Chaudhari, Architect; Kanak Mishra, Urban Designer, Architect; Dhara Patel Architect, Master’s Degree Student; Krishnakant, Environment Activist; Sanjay Soni, Wildlife Expert; Anand Mazgaonkar, Environment Activist; Swati Desai, Social Activist, Co-Editor of ‘Bhumiputra’ Magazine, Wildlife Expert; and Dr Trupti Shah, Economist, Writer and Researcher