Vishwamitri project proposal for Vadodara problematic, high-handed, is a rushed attempt

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Opposing the decision of the authorities for floating tender for “rejuvenation” and “flood mitigation” for the Vishwamitri River in Vadodara, several concerned citizens* have said that this has been done “amidst chaotic conditions in the city, Gujarat and the country, in the wake of the world-wide pandemic, COVID-2019.”

In a representation, they said that the tender document has numerous discrepancies and spelling errors “indicative of a high-handed and rushed attempt to undertake the project” at a time when there is “lack of clarity” regarding the Vishwamitri Riverfront Development Project (VRDP), adding, the the project area mentioned in the tender is “problematic”, because the ethos and approach of VRDP was “heavily questioned by informed and concerned citizens of Vadodara.”

The representation – sent to municipal commissioner Vadodara; secretary, Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, Government of India; Gujarat chief secretary; Gujarat Forests & Environment secretary; Gujarat urban development secretary; and chairman, Gujarat Pollution Control Board — seeks cancellation the tender in its current form “in the wake of the pandemic and other environmental concerns and lack of understanding about “ecological sciences and implications.”

Text:

We, the Concerned Citizens of Vadodara, would like to bring to your attention key concerns regarding the “Tender for the consultancy for preparation of Detail Project Report for Master Planning of Rejuvenation and Flood Mitigation for the Vishwamitri River (Vadodara) from the origin of the river (Pavagadh) to end point of the river (Gulf of Khambhat)”, which was introduced on March 6, 2020 with a closing date of May 7, 2020.

We question:

(1)      The announcement of a project of this stature, through the notice inviting E Tender, amidst the chaotic conditions in the city, state and country, in the wake of the world-wide pandemic, COVID-2019.

(2)      The manner in which the Tender document for a project of this scale and esteem is drafted, with numerous discrepancies and spelling errors, is indicative of a high-handed and rushed attempt to undertake this project for reasons best known to the proponents.

(3)    The implications of and lack of clarity regarding the inclusion of “Vishwamitri Riverfront Development Project” (VRDP, 2014) and its area, in the project area mentioned in the tender are problematic, because the ethos and approach of VRDP 2014 had been heavily questioned by the informed and concerned citizens of Vadodara.

(4)      The issuance of the aforementioned Tender while said VRDP of 2014 is under litigation in the National Green Tribunal, with an uncontested and unexecuted Interim Order in effect, along with many other directives of The MoEFCC and the GPCB. We would like to put on record that the entire project of VRDP, 2014 was withdrawn by the proponents indicating that the proponents accepted the various flaws and fallacies in the intent, direction, process and contents of the withdrawn VRDP.

(5)    The complete lack of sound Vision and Approach, that is essential for the firms to bid effectively, especially for a project of this scale and magnitude.  As per previous deliberations by us on the same subject, there MUST be a sound Vision and direction in order for firms to bid. Clear directions have been given to the nodal agency, the VMC, in the recent past with regards to the approach towards projects such as the VRDP 2014 and the current project mentioned in the Tender.

(6)      The preparation of a DPR for a master plan in the absence of a visioning exercise and set direction (feasibility report). It reeks of presuming that the earlier HCPDPM proposed Feasibility Report (VRDP, 2014) is final and accepted and it may be embedded in this new project.  This must neither be final nor accepted.

(7)      Inclusion of “…flood mitigation by re-sectioning and flow diverting, development of land at the bank of river” in the Consultant’s Scope of Work in the Tender.  It is ill-advised to narrowly instruct the Consultant to mitigate flood by “re-sectioning and flow diverting”. It is also not acceptable to then put in the same sentence the ambiguous word “development” of the land without defining or qualifying it in any way.

Having stated the broader apprehensions about the approach and attitude towards this subject, the following are our staunch concerns regarding the contents of the said Tender:

Approach and Direction of the Project

Continuing further on the point 7 above, definition and comprehension of the words “Rejuvenation” and “Flood Mitigation” are very ambiguous. River rejuvenation and flood mitigation are perceived as separate entities of the same plan. The Consultant’s Scope of Work, on page 10 of the tender, clearly states: “mainly to prepare DPR for the work of River Rejuvenation, flood mitigation by re-sectioning and flow diverting, development of land at the bank of river.

All the necessary government permission like EIA, EC, CZA, Forest, wetland act shall also included in the scope of work”. How can the river be rejuvenated by re-sectioning and flow diversion? Also, the tender pre-supposes a PPP model for the implementation (that doesn’t allow any scope of public consultation or participation) of the plan and requires the consultant to provide a revenue model; an important aspect of the withdrawn VRDP, 2014. Hence, real estate development is apparently the main priority, and not River rejuvenation.

Rejuvenation means “the action or process of making someone or something look or feel better, younger, or more vital” (from Oxford Dictionary).  Should the project be focused on this only? If it is, coupled with still ambiguous “development of the river”, then it will surely and sadly turn into a 500 meters + 500 meters wide beautification and hard engineering based project along the entire River.

For a much abused and neglected river system like Vishwamitri, what are the prerequisites for and alternatives to mere rejuvenation? In this “environment friendly” river project, isn’t thorough knowledge, know-how, and open-mind for ecological science for this project more significant? Not a single word on this matter and “restoration” or “regeneration” is mentioned in the Tender.

Not surprising then, that the Tender pre-supposes hard engineering approach, in that it requires the latest Schedule of Rates to be followed and that a pre-selected IIT be the third party proof checking authority to monitor the performance of the consultant. Even though on page 10, the Tender states, “… the section shall be environment friendly”, in the same sentence, it also adds, “…proposing best techno-economic alternate.”  Again, ecological sciences or their expertises are missing.

Area Under Consideration

The Tender refers to two explicit terms – “work area’’ and “project area”. While the tender notice states, “Please note that the end point of the river is revised and it is Gulf of Khambhat. Accordingly, preparation of Detail Project Report shall be from the origin of the river (Pavagadh) to end point of the river (Gulf of Khambhat)” the content of the Tender document refers to the project area as arbitrarily decided 500 meters from river boundary (while fixing of river boundary and controlled development boundary, both technically and scientifically much complex tasks, are yet to be determined by the Consultant).

The indicative location drawing shows Pavagadh to Pingalwada, which again is unclear. How can a river be rejuvenated by focusing on absolutely arbitrarily decided area within 500 meters from the ambiguous river boundary and not considering the entire watershed!?  The Tender itself displays the Government’s lack of understanding about ecological sciences and the River as a system.

Pre-Qualification Criteria for the firms

The Technical bid neither requires any technical expertise related to ecological or socio-cultural-psychological knowledge or know-how nor asks for planning / design documents based on such holistic knowledge or approach. The consultant is required to provide technical data related to NGT and other legal and statutory matters (prevailing Acts), while the eligibility criteria do not require the prospective / contesting firms to have in-house legal expertise to be familiar with or interpret these Orders and Acts.

The Tender document also assigns the tasks for all the technical surveys to be conducted by the consultants, implying that the consultant should also have in-house survey and technical analysis team; this too is not a technical requirement in the eligibility criteria. Our Vishwamitri River is an exemplar of ecological diversity, but this too is not reflected in the technical criteria, instead, Clause 6 of payment terms and time limit explicitly states CZA permission related to crocodiles!

We strongly oppose the sole ‘technical’ criterion of financial and other performances for a multifaceted project as this and are compelled to ask the following questions:

  • In a river rejuvenation and flood mitigation project, why should firms having experience with river development be included? The previously withdrawn project was proposed by one such firm.
  • Why is monetary cost of previously executed projects such a prime criterion?
  • Expertise doesn’t have an expiry date; why 5 years?
  • Flood Mitigation and EIA are the sole foci; what about experience in River / Stream / Pond Restoration, Regeneration, or Rejuvenation?
  • Can and should such a project be started and accomplished without acknowledging and including the local expertise for key decisions and roles for the entire project?

Governance and Monitoring

The extent of the Study Area is beyond the VMC boundary. If the VMC is the nodal agency, then which is the governing and monitoring body? If this body exists, then what is the member composition? The Tender clarifies that the Municipal Commissioner, VMC reserves the right to accept or reject proposals and that the VMC will have the final word in case of contentions. How can the client (the VMC) be the sole arbitrator and who keeps a check on the interest of the project, citizens, consultant, and Nature?

Financing and Feasibility

It is well acknowledged that the Central and State Governments are in financial crisis. On other hand, it is also going ahead with procurement / tendering processes for projects for which the Tender is floated, while there are implementation works are pending on various Orders of the Courts and other concerned authorities. In addition, the Scope of the Work in this Tender asks for flood mitigation by not only the questionable river re-sectioning, but also by “flow diverting”. Is this a feasible strategy that may require additional expenses and legal procedures to acquire land for flow diversion?

We strongly believe that Vishwamitri River and Vadodara city deserve much better. This Tender falls miserably short of this expectation as well as potential. It should be an ideal and exemplary “Smart City”, especially in the era of pandemics and climatic crisis of the 21st Century, that represents the beginning of the Anthropocene Era, a project of such a scope and potential impacts, this is a golden opportunity to rethink and re-plan and design our relationship with Nature. Our city and state can and must help evolve better models of holistic planning and apt designs for sound and inclusive development that other river systems and cities can take inspiration from.

The current situation will gravely worsen if the Vishwamitri River Watershed and Vadodara City, as a collective whole and with the help and coordination with the State, does not take any substantial, participatory, proactive, and accountable initiatives in the right (holistic and inclusive) direction. Hence, we demand that the concerned authorities:

  1. Cancel the Tender in its current form in the wake of the pandemic and other environmental concerns as well as its current lack of understanding about ecological sciences and implications.
  2. Prohibit previously hired consultants form participating or else the purpose of this Tender is defeated.
  3. Implement immediately, in letter and spirit, ‘The Construction and Demolition Waste Management Rules, 2016’ and ‘The Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016’.  We have been raising the questions in this regard and we now need reliable answers and verifiable action on ground. As needed, study and adapt already existing best practices in India and elsewhere to achieve goals of these Rules.
  4. Establish a semi-statutory body, with legal teeth, that would include subject experts (ecologists, geologists, hydrologists, environmental-ecological planners, wetland specialists, landscape architects, legal and legislative specialist, sociologists, investors and such) as well as knowledgeable and experienced members of the community at-large, to guide and monitor the remediation and restoration of the damage done and new development initiatives that the Governments would undertake proactively to improve the quality of the local ecosystems and lives of the citizens of Vadodara and many other communities of life in the Vishwamitri River Watershed area.
  5. Establish a fully functional, effective, and knowledgeable Urban and Environmental / Ecological planning Department in the VUDA and/or VMC that also includes experts from various related fields (such as well-qualified ecologists, environmental and civil engineers, geographers, landscape architects, and urban designers) for ensuring better plans and detailed designs for the city.
  6. Commission for the preparation of a new Feasibility Study that would focus on larger vision and related effective strategies, followed by a DPR for multiple phases of the project as may seem appropriate, building upon the existing data and add new studies as required.
  7. Conduct a Pre-bid meeting to add transparency to the consultant selection procedure.
  8. Ensure inclusive transparent and democratic processes for all stages of the project.
  9. Work towards bringing about a paradigm shift in the way we envision, govern/administer, and plan our cities and eco-regions.  It is time to redefine administrative boundaries (like wards and districts) according to the boundaries of watersheds and sub-watersheds. Though seemingly difficult, it has been done elsewhere and provides a better model for well-conceived development that honors nature and human aspirations.

We look forward to your positive response and immediate action to protect, restore, enhance, and nurture the environment while following sounder and saner paths to development that will add to the brand value of Vadodara city and River Vishwamitri, nationally and internationally, as well as sense of pride for and responsible actions by the citizens.

Instead of spending our energies and time reacting to the Centre, State, and Local Governments’ initiatives, we are willing to offer our expertise, energies, and time proactively.  We are willing to collaborate with all stakeholders, including the Government departments and bodies, for a better tomorrow for all.

We sincerely hope that all the concerned and responsible government authorities, that aspire to make Vadodara a “Smart City” will go beyond such labels and strive to work with us to make Vadodara and the River Vishwamitri eco-region a timeless, healthy, and happy place, will heed to our inputs and demands at the earliest possible.

*Concerned Citizens of Vadodara

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

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