Stop tree felling, dumping of debris, discharge of untreated sewage in Vishwamitri River

vishwamitri

Several senior environmentalists and academics* of Vadodara have written an open letter to the Municipal Commissioner, Vadodara Municipal Corporation – copies of which have been sent to the secretary, Union ministry of environment, forests and climate change, and Gujarat chief secretary and other senior officials of Gujarat government looking after environment and urban development departments – to immediately stop  demolition, tree felling and clearing of vegetation, dumping of debris, discharge of untreated sewage, dredging, digging, filling, levelling, construction, etc. along the city’s Vishwamitri river and its environs.

Seeking to thoroughly relook the “development” works going on in and around Vadodara city, the letter says that the activities around the river are in violation of the Gujarat High Court Order dated February 2, 2002, interim order of the National Green Tribunal dated May 25, 2016; and the order of the Supreme Court dated February 22, 2017.

Accusing the administration for refusing to comply by the Vadodara Municipal Corporation (VMC) of the Order dated August 9, 2016, passed by the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA), the letter states, VMC is also violating the Construction and Demolition Waste Management Rules, 2016, as also direction of the Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB), Gandhinagar dated January 8, 2018.

Text of the letter:

The Vadodara Municipal Corporation has been and is still allowing demolition, tree felling and clearing of vegetation, dumping of debris, discharge of untreated sewage, dredging, digging, filling, levelling, construction, etc. activities along / in / around the Vishwamitri River and its environs (banks, ravines, tributaries, ponds, wetlands, etc.). Almost one year later, since our last letter to the then Municipal Commissioner and others, this practice is still continuing and getting worse with apparently no repercussions to the concerned authorities and parties. This is happening despite the prevailing laws of the land, directions of concerned authorities, and Courts’ Orders.

To bring to your notice, the following work / works / acts and activities were and are still ongoing currently in and around the Vishwamitri River (VRDP area) and its environs (banks, ravines, tributaries, ponds, wetlands, etc.). All such work / works / acts and activities are in blatant violation of Environment laws.

  1. In spite of the various directions repeatedly given by GPCB, Gandhinagar, illegal dumping of debris at Kala Ghoda Bridge near Yavteshwar Mahadev Temple, Bhimnath Bridge, Bahucharaji Nala, Bhukhi Nala, near Fast Track Court and other ravines have not been removed till date. Informal access paths have been created by construction vehicles to dump debris in the ravines adjoining the Bhimnath Bridge, Agora Mall, Sama, and various other places.
  2. Discharge of illegal untreated sewage and other polluted liquids into the River Vishwamitri (for example, near Kalaghoda Bridge) and its tributaries has been going on in violation of the Supreme Court Order dated 22.02.2017 in Writ Petition (Civil) No. 375 of 2012 and NGT, Principal Bench, Delhi Order dated 03.08.2018 in Original Application No. 593 of 2017, amounting to the Contempt of the Court.
  3. Severe and mindless disturbances to natural land forms, soils, and hydrological regimes coupled with removal of vegetation, including significant trees, on the banks of the Bahucharaji Nala, Motnath “Lake”/Pond, near the Fast Track Court area, and at various other public and individual private properties are ongoing without any forethought and nonchalantly as a normal practice. Such acts adversely affect ecologically significant areas and quality of life (for reptiles, amphibians, birds, insects, and humans alike). The concerned authorities have also apparently allowed other works and activities such as construction, demolition, leveling, and filling in and around the nalas and ravines, unabatedly.
  4. For road widening or extension and construction of flyovers and bridges, removal of ecologically significant vegetation / tree cover is taken for granted instead of planning and designing of projects with due respect to these assets of the city, especially in the emerging Climate Change scenarios.

It is imperative to note that the above mentioned activities are in deliberate and blatant violation of the Orders mentioned below:

Order dated 25.05.2016 of the National Green Tribunal in Application 49 of 2016 (Rohit Prajapati and Anr V/s Secretary MoEFCC & Ors)

“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 reunder 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.

ORDER

  1. 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).
  2. Liberty to Respondents to seek modification of this order is reserved.
  3. The Respondents shall file their counter/reply and complete their pleadings within next four (4) weeks.

List it on 1st July, 2016.”

Secretary, State Level Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA) in its Order dated 8 August 2016 clearly states:

Withdrawal Application, dated 05.08.2016, filed by the Vadodara Municipal Corporation, for withdrawal of the Environmental Clearance application in respect of VRDP project was accepted by the SEIAA with the following 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.”

It is also in violation of the High Court Order of Gujarat, dated 02.08.2002, in SCA No. 19621/2000, which clearly states:

“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”.

Furthermore, these works and activities are in complete violation under the provisions of the following environmental 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 Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016
  6. The Construction and Demolition Waste Management Rules, 2016

Now, with all of the above-mentioned activities and similar ongoing activities in the city, including the VRDP area, we urge the Municipal Commissioner of the Vadodara Municipal Corporation to immediately stop all such activities and take sound and well-advised corrective measures by giving appropriate and specific directions (emphasizing eco-engineering techniques and not allowing shoddy band-aid job).

We urge the concerned authorities to prosecute any/all concerned departments/authorities/parties that are engaged in the above stated illegal activities. Not doing so is in violation of the Environment laws and Courts’ Orders which will invite legal actions against all concerned authorities, departments, and parties.

In addition to the above transgressions and issues of grave consequences, we also want to draw attention to all the concerned authorities some old (pending and overlooked) and newly emerging, crucial issues related to rapid “development” works that need serious and urgent attention from you.

Starting with the pending/overlooked issues:

  1. “Beautification”! This current fad is sheer tyranny on natural systems and stamp-pad kind of ugly imposition by the bureaucracy without any serious consideration for natural system, cultural history, users’ participation, contextual fit, or design principles. The so-called “Lake Beautification” projects at Gotri and Harni are remarkable examples of such disaster. Others, like the Motnath “Lake”/pond, where senseless removal of vegetation cover took place recently, are in the pipeline. Crores of rupees are spent without any public participation, proper consideration of ecological factors, or good design sense. These “lakes”/ponds can still be salvaged. A prime example of such approach is the ongoing Sursagar “beautification” project. This project doesn’t consider the larger ecological (water-soil-flora-fauna) relationships or consequences, the urban history and context, urban or landscape design principles, and best construction practices, among other matters of concerns. The current design is a poor aping of other rubber-stamp kind of designs.  It can and must still be stopped from implementation.
  1. The “Jan-Mahal”!! The planning and design of this transportation cum commercial hub near the Vadodara Railway Station has many serious issues. The concerned citizens and professional architects of Vadodara had raised concerns at the time but were ignored by the authorities. This upcoming project is likely to create traffic problems, increase heat island effect, and cause storm water hazards.  In addition, its design doesn’t respect climatic factors, urban design principles, and stakeholders’ participation.
  2. The under construction and highly publicized Agora Mall off Mangal Pandey road is being built in the VRDP area and partly in the Vishwamitri River ravines.  The new Sayaji Hotel near Bhimnath Bridge also has similar peculiarities.  Both of these private developments violate the NGT interim order.
  3. The new westward road from the southwest of Motnath “Lake”/Pond to the new bridge over the Vishwamitri River has severely disturbed the stromwater channel (‘kaans’) that facilitates the overflow of water from Motnath “Lake”/Pond to the Vishwamitri River. This will increase waterlogging and flooding phenomenon in the Harni area.
  4. The proposed widening of the Kalaghoda Bridge and Crocodile Park project are also of grave concern because they will add to the issues that are highlighted above.  We have already lost the historical Nazarbaug Palace, Shantadevi Hospital and its majestic Banyan Tree, many other mature trees, and other significant assets due to various projects. Vadodara City is now left with only 19 degraded “lakes”/ponds and five major rivulets/nalas.  These remaining ponds and nalas are in the process of being degraded and ultimate disappearance. Some are selected for “beautification”.  This is not advisable or desirable. As we aspire to be a leading Smart City, such natural and cultural assets must be properly listed, documented, respected, and planned for in a caring and proactive manner, not merely as isolated objects for pure commercial or so-called “beautification” ends. Even the Ministry of Urban Affairs is launching a competition among the cities to revive their water bodies and acknowledging the importance of natural terrain (Times of India, dated 15.10.2018). Now, let us draw your attention to some on-going / new “development” works and issues associated with them.
  5. The new 3.51 kms. long bridge (the longest such bridge in Gujarat) with 34602.5 sq.mts. of built-up, under construction between Genda Circle and Manisha Chowkadi, may fulfill the itch to temporarily win the one-upmanship in infrastructure development in Gujarat. However, it will take heavy toll on the existing precious green cover including significant trees and urban wildlife habitats and cause other environmental damage along the bridge’s alignment, mainly the Old Padra Road and especially that of Shivmahal Palace grounds. The Environmental Management Plan/Mitigation Measures stated for the Land and Ecology in the Conceptual Plan (Doc. No: 2017_ECSS_EIAMS_1700028, December 2017) by the VMC Office of Executive Engineer are highly contestable if not laughable. Why can’t we demand better designs, from the well-paid consultants for all public projects, that are holistic in approach and outcomes, result in little or no environmental damage, and accrue greater public benefits?  It is not too late to reconsider this costly development.
  6. We demand that you must implement ‘The Construction and Demolition Waste Management Rules, 2016’ and ‘The Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016’ in letter and spirit.  We have been raising the questions in this regard and we need answers now.

Where the debris of the small and big demolished buildings and structures of various kinds are going? Where did demolition debris of “Jan-mahal” site, the Nataraj and Rajeshri cinema halls go? Where is the waste swept from the roads and open spaces of Vadodara everyday being dumped? Where does all the waste collected during various “cleanliness drives” go?

More recently, where has all the “waste” from the artificial ponds that were constructed for Ganesh Visarjan gone? To, sea coast near Kavi?  How much waste was dumped in various legally provided and other areas? Who and how many are the authorized and non-authorized and non-documented collectors of waste and debris from various sites in Vadodara?  Who gives them permission? Why is the waste being allowed to be burned illicitly or otherwise (near Ratri Bazaar, for example) spewing toxic smoke in the air? Who monitors these activities and and evaluates their various impacts? Why isn’t there a comprehensive plan to reduce, recycle, reuse, and upcycle waste? If there is a plan, what is its success rate? What are the problems?

We and some project affected local citizens from all walks of life in Vadodara have raised these issues and concerns with the concerned authorities from time to time but they have fallen on deaf ears. The concerned authorities at best give sympathetic hearing but eventually do hardly anything worthwhile to address the real issues. Such top down development decisions and designs are imposed on the citizens without authentic and proactive participation.

The Vadodara Smart City website lists 64 projects (with estimated cost of 2906 crore Indian rupees).  An overwhelming 42 of these projects are infrastructure development related projects.

We insist a complete re-look and re-design of all the on-going and not-so-well thought out demolition activities, clean-up drives, and so-called development projects. All the projects should be comprehensively integrated with overall Development and/or  Plans and must not be imposed as isolated intervention handled by different departments and agencies.

We are for development!

We are for development that is well-conceived, balanced, well-designed, participatory, and that enhances and restores nature!  Development that promotes regenerative economy and real quality of life for all its citizens while caring for all life.  This can and must be achieved in the emerging 21st century in which the challenges of climate change and scarce resources are increasingly affecting all of us. Other countries and cities that our governments wants to selectively emulate are doing a far better job in development WITH nature conservation and restoration.

It will be nice if we don’t have to play the role of protestors of development projects in our own city and country. Let us together and proactively be engaged with the authorities and all the stakeholders to envision, devise, and co-plan / co-design, monitor, and evaluate small and large development projects. Truly holistic, systematic, and inclusive development must now be made mandatory. Therefore, we demand that WE never engage in piecemeal thinking, top-down approach, and questionable development.

To achieve all this, we have suggested and now demand that a quasi-governmental authority with real teeth is formed and empowered to fulfill this agenda in a proactive, transparent, and accountable manner. It is high time that the Local, State, and Central governments take up this matter with urgency and work towards its positive resolution without failing.

There is local expertise that has always been willing to help.  We will save money and more and build brand and a better city that is worthy of the late Sir Sayajirao’s legacy and that the current and future generations will be proud of. Vadodara and Gujarat deserve better.

Please wake up and act, now! Don’t let the political partisanship and expediency derail such ideas and ideals.

We request a meeting to be scheduled between all the concerned authorities (specifically, Vadodara Municipal Corporation) and us at the earliest to discuss the matter stated in this letter.

We look forward to your positive response and immediate action to protect, restore, and nurture the environment while following sounder and saner paths to development.

*Signatories:

Rohit Prajapati, Environment Activist, Researcher, and Writer
Dr Shishir R. Raval, Landscape Architect and Ecological Planner
Dr Ranjitsinh Devkar, Zoologist
Dr Deepa Gavali, Wetland Ecologist
Dr Jitendra Gavali, Botanist
Neha Sarwate, Environmental and Urban Planner
Shakti Bhatt, Water Resources Expert
Dr Arjun Singh Mehta, Biotechnologist
Dr Jayendra Lakhmapurkar, Hydro-Geologist
Hitarth Pandya, Educationist and Writer
Rutvik Tank, Civil Engineer and Urban Planner</em
Dhara Patel, Landscape Architect and Architect
Taniya Vaidya, Artist and Educator


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