Vadodara’s 40 concerned citizens* write to Gujarat chief secretary; principal Secretary, Urban Development and Urban Housing Department; Member Secretary, State Environment Impact Assessment Authority; and Municipal Commissioner, Vadodara Municipal Corporation, seeking independent judicial inquiry headed by a retired High Court Judge to investigate the Vishwamitri Riverfront Development Project Environment Clearance Application and its withdrawal, ultimately leading to the withdrawal of the project:
The ‘Vishwamitri Riverfront Development Project” (VRDP) was propagated by the Vadodara Municipal Corporation since 2008 and the hoardings of the same are still displayed on the city streets. A Feasibility Report Master Plan dated 16.12.2014 “Vishwamitri Riverfront Development Project: Presentation to Advisory and Technical Committee” for the VRDP was prepared by the consulting firm, HCP Design, Planning & Management Pvt. Ltd., Ahmedabad. The Application for Environment Clearance (EC) for the above project, dated 26.11.2015, was submitted to the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority, Gujarat State (SEIAA). A copy of the letter of the VMC and the Application is attached herewith. Queries for shortcomings were raised by the SEIAA on 05.12.2015 and the Vadodara Municipal Corporation resubmitted the proposal to the SEIAA on 14.12.2015. The State Level Expert Appraisal Committee (SEAC) accepted the proposal on 16.12.2015 and forwarded to SEIAA on 11.04.2016.
The Application No. 49 of 2016 filed by Mr. Rohit Prajapati and others, before the National Green Tribunal, Western Bench, questions the activities that were planned and had commenced within the area of ‘Vishwamitri Riverfront Development Project’ (VRDP) including demolition, dredging, digging, filling, levelling, construction, announcement of projects etc., by the Vadodara Municipal Corporation that were/are illegal in nature, since these are undertaken before the completion of due process of ‘Environment Impact Assessment’ (EIA) and ‘Environmental Clearance’ (EC) as per EIA Notification 2006.
The Hon’ble National Green Tribunal passed Order dated 25.05.2016 in the Application No. 49 of 2016.
“The Applicants claim to be pro-bon environmentalists and claim they are social workers. Through this Application they have questioned illegal activity of the Government instrumentality i.e. Vadodara Municipal Corporation (VMC) which is said to be proceeding with a project damaging river and its tributaries.
First Respondent – Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF), 2nd Respondent- Chief Secretary, State of Gujarat, 3rd Respondent- the Principal Secretary, Urban Development and Urban Housing Department, 4th Respondent – the Member Secretary, State Level Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA), 5th Respondent – the Collector, Vadodara, 6th Respondent- the Municipal Commissioner, Vadodara Municipal Corporation and 7th Respondent- Vadodara Urban Development Authority, are duly served.
Learned Counsel Mr. Parth Bhatt represent the Respondent No. 2 – Chief Secretary, State of Gujarat, 3rd Respondent- the Principal Secretary, Urban Development and Urban Housing Department and the Collector as well. Supriya Dangare learned Counsel represents Respondent No. 6 – Project Proponent (PP).
Applicant’s Counsel seeks interim order to restrain VMC from proceeding with the project on assertion that it has not obtained Environmental Clearance (EC) and there is no consent under law. She relied on several documents, including photographs depicting situation as it is at the time of filing of this Application. It is seen from photographs and other material that construction activity is in the area of Vishwamitri River. The said project being implemented is Vishwamitri Riverfront Development Project (VRDP) and in the process the VMC is alleged to be demolishing the river and its tributaries. It is carrying on work of demolition, dredging, digging, filling, levelling of the land.
The Applicant submits on verification they find the PP has no consent, no EC to proceed with the construction.
Learned Counsel representing Respondent No.6 now disputes that VMC – PP has not obtained the EC. Her contention is it has applied for grant of EC which is in process of consideration by the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC). She refers to communication dated 16.2.2016 and 17.11.2015 (Annexure – 2) which shows the SEAC is examining the project and is likely to issue EC. Learned Counsel for PP therefore, opposes grant of any interim order.
On perusal of allegations in the Application and submission of PP Respondent No. 6, that they do not have EC prima facie establishes that any construction activity especially in an area which is River and Riverbed and also its tributaries is wholly impermissible. We have satisfied there is prima facie case made out by the Applicant to restrain any construction activity affecting Vishwamitri River and its tributaries.
On behalf of State of Gujarat, it is urged that the project of VRDP has two and three parts. Second part is not covered under the provisions of Environmental Laws requiring EC. The PP is proceeding with that part of the project and therefore, it may not be rightly stating that construction activity will not cause damage. Though such submission is made on behalf of Respondent Nos. 1 and 4, on verification we find that the State has appointed SEAC, who is examining the proposal for grant of EC, but no final decision has yet been taken. It is not impugned on record to show that the present construction activity does not require any EC or ECs or consent.
At this stage, Supriya Dangare representing the PP submits the Tribunal may give her sufficient time to oppose interim relief by written counter. This request is unreasonable for the reason we had already made it clear on the last hearing that we are not granting interim relief till Respondents file their response. Despite that the PP has not filed counter/reply.
On perusal of records, it is seen the photographs show that the Respondent No. 6 is proceeding with construction activity in blatant violation of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 and the Notifications issued the under particularly Notification in 1994/2006, it has commenced construction activity more than a year ago without obtaining prior EC and he has continued such illegal activities. It is also admitted that they have applied for EC only after starting construction, which show their conduct of defiance to mandatory law requiring EC. In the circumstances, even if the PP gets ex post facto EC, we got to examine whether grant of EC was justified especially in view clear photographs which show that its construction activity is virtually destroying River Vishwamitri and its tributaries. Hence, interim order.
- The Respondent No.6 is hereby restrained from proceeding further with any construction or development activity within the area of Vishwamitri Riverfront Development Project (VRDP).
- Liberty to Respondents to seek modification of this order is reserved.
- The Respondents shall file their counter/reply and complete their pleadings within next four (4) weeks.
List it on 1st July, 2016.”
A copy of the Order is attached herewith. The liberty to Vadodara Municipal Corporation, to seek modification of this Order, was reserved but no application was made before the National Green Tribunal for the modification of the Order and no Civil Appeal is filed by the Vadodara Municipal Corporation in the Supreme Court till date.
Therefore, as the Vadodara Municipal Corporation accepts the contents and the observations of the Order and has been willfully disobeying the said Order, an Execution Application No. 45 of 2016 was filed by Mr. Rohit Prajapati and Others in the National Green Tribunal, Western Bench at Pune.
To avoid the non-compliance of the Order dated 25.05.2016 the Vadodara Municipal Corporation chose to file the Withdrawal Application for the Environment Clearance, dated 27.07.2016 and online application dated 05.08.2016 to withdraw the ‘Vishwamitri Riverfront Development Project’ and same was accepted by the SEIAA with the restrictions,
“…. SEIAA hereby permits the withdrawal of the Application No. SIA/GJ/NCP/4584/2015, dated 14.12.2015, with following conditions:
The Vadodara Municipal Corporation shall maintain status quo and shall not carry out any further construction and development enabling activities within the area of Vishwamitri Riverfront Development Project until and unless the prior Environmental Clearance is obtained for the said project.”
The Withdrawal Application No. 410/1/16-17 dated 27.07.2016 sent to the Member Secretary, State Level Expert Appraisal Committee clearly states:
“The application, it appears, was made in haste and clearly at a premature stage by the Corporation.
The Corporation has, therefore decided not to pursue the application at the present stage, and shall file an appropriate application at an appropriate stage when the project plans have been determined and decided by the Corporation.
… Project is still at a nascent stage of conceptualization, would not be appropriate, and in fact result in wastage of resources.
The Corporation express its gratitude to the Committee for the indulge shown by the committee members on the application made by the Corporation for a public project, and regrets any inconvenience that may have been caused to the Committee by the decision of the Corporation to withdraw the application.”
A copy of the Withdrawal Application No. 410/1/16-17 dated 27.07.2016 is attached herewith.
In the Feasibility Report of the Master Plan dated 16.12.2014, “Vishwamitri Riverfront Development Project: Presentation to Advisory and Technical Committee” for the VRDP, The Consultants of VMC, HCP Design, Planning & Management Pvt. Ltd., Ahmedabad had claimed to address multiple objectives as stated below:
- Increase the flood carrying capacity
- Clean the river to make it pollution-free
- Retain and replenish the water
- Create a safe habitat for crocodiles
- Integrate with slum redevelopment policy
- Increase groundwater recharge
- Create public and recreational spaces
- Strengthen the river edge
- Improve accessibility and connectivity
- Generate resources to pay for all of the foregoing
- Integrate with city development
Of the above objectives, the primary focus of the project remained flood mitigation. In this too only 1000 cumecs of the 2300 cumecs that the city is expected to get, as per their calculations, during a very high flood occurrence. Also, the proposal of “safe” habitat for crocodiles and strengthening of the river edge using diaphragm walls were proposed to be done without in-depth knowledge and understanding of the ecologically sensitive riverine system or wildlife sciences. We have not only pointed out the failure in meeting the objectives in a sustainable and holistic manner. This “business as usual” approach due to negligence is also a reason in the weakening the VMC case for promoting the VRDP, resulting in the eventual withdrawal of the project. Hence, professionally, the Consultants have failed to perform their duties in a manner that would respect the river system as whole in an ecological manner that would also address the so-called flooding issue in totality. It merely adopted a preconceived design model on a river system that is totally different in character.
Subsequently, the Vadodara Municipal Corporation has endorsed the Ecological Revival Approach and is committed to pursue the National River Conservation Plan (NRCP) approach. This is also indicative of the Consultant’s incompetency. Inspite of this, as per our information, the VMC continues to consult the same firm for related projects like Town Planning Schemes for the Vishwamitri River.
As per our information, already Rs. 1,23,59,738/- has been paid by Vadodara Municipal Corporation to HCP Design, Planning & Management Pvt. Ltd., Ahmedabad for the VRDP work.
In the above mentioned context, it is important to recover the following vital documents from the Vadodara Municipal Corporation:
- Resolution by the Vadodara Municipal Corporation’s Standing Committee or relevant authorities stating the terms of reference for the VRDP and to engage the Consultant to prepare VRDP Feasibility Report 2014;
- Resolution to file Environment Clearance Application for the VRDP;
- Copy of the Environment Clearance Application with all the relevant documents;
- Copies of the all resolutions and correspondence between and amongst the concerned authorities and consultants for the VRDP Project;
- Resolution of the Standing Committee to withdraw the project as a whole.
- Resolution and Minutes of the Vadodara Municipal Corporation to withdraw Environmental Clearance Application and copy of the EC withdrawal Application by the VMC to SEIAA;
- Details of the all expenditure and payments made toward any VRDP related work;
- Resolution, inquires, and action taken against defaulters, officials of the Vadodara Municipal Corporation, and the Consultant ‘HCP Design, Planning & Management Pvt. Ltd. Ahmedabad’ who had prepared the Final Feasibility Report.
Given the above stated facts and chronology of events pertaining to this matter, we strongly feel that the above documents are required to verify the veracity of the Vadodara Municipal Corporation and its decisions and actions regarding VRDP.
The Consultant of the VRDP, along with the EIA Consultant, irrespective of the scope of services by the Vadodara Municipal Corporation, should have done their due diligence in understanding the ecological conditions and values of the river and its natural habitat for the crocodiles as claimed in their feasibility report. This is especially critical since it is the VishwamitriRiver is a unique habitat for ‘Schedule I Species’ as listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The reasons stated by the Vadodara Municipal Corporation for the withdrawal of Environmental Clearance necessitates action against the concerned officials of the Vadodara Municipal Corporation and the Consultants who prepared the ‘Final Feasibility Report’ as well as the EIA document.
It is important to note that the preparation of the Final Feasibility Report and Environmental Clearance Application has resulted into not only wastage of public money but also erosion in credibility and raises questions about the competency of the VMC and its officials. This demands harsh and exemplary action against all responsible officials of the Vadodara Municipal Corporation and its Consultants.
In this context we demand that:
- Independent judicial inquiry headed by a retired High Court Judge should be ordered to investigate the VRDP Project’s Environment Clearance Application and ultimately Withdrawal Application of the Environment Clearance Application.
- Based on the findings of the Report an exemplary action should be taken against all the concerned officials of the Vadodara Municipal Corporation and its Consultants for the damage caused to the environment along with wastage of money, time, and human resources.
*Rohit Prajapati, Environment Activist; Hitarth Pandya, Educationist; Dr Jitendra Gavali, Botanist; Arun Mujumdar, Engineer; Prof Shishir R Raval, Landscape Architect and Ecological Planner; Neha Sarwate, Environmental and Urban Planner; Dr Ranjitsinh Devkar, Zoologist; Dr Deepa Gavali, Wetland Ecologist; Shakti Bhatt, Water Resources Expert; Dr Arjun Singh Mehta, Biotechnologist; Rutvik Tank, Civil Engineer and Urban Planner; Dhara Patel Mittal, Landscape Architect and Architect, others