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Vadodara riverfront project without environmental impact assessment?

By Rohit Prajapati, Trupti Shah*
The Vadodara Mahanagar Seva Sadan’s (VMSS) proposed Vishwamitri Riverfront Development Project resembles a mere real estate project. The “planned” Riverfront Project completely ignores the important characteristics of the river, its wetlands, ravines, biodiversity, flora and fauna, flood and floodplains etc. Many times sophisticated language and concepts are used in the feasibility report of the Vishwamitri Riverfront Development Project, but if one closely examines the report, it becomes abundantly clear that those words are not understood in letter and spirit.
The project work for the Vishwamitri Riverfront Development Project is being carried out hastily and mindlessly, without having conducted the mandatory Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) and Social Impact Assessment (SIA). The VMSS is using the people’s money in blatant violation of several laws of the land, including the following:
(1) The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.
(2) Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2006 under the Environment (Protection) Act 1986.
(3) The Environment (Protection) Act 1986.
(4) The Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2010.
The VMSS fails to understand the fact that the first step in any effort for the revival of the Vishwamitri River must be a proper understanding of what a river is.
A river is more than a channel carrying water; it is also a transporter of sediment; it is also the catchments, the river-bed, the banks, the vegetation on both sides, and the floodplain. A river harbours and interacts with innumerable organisms like plants, animals and microbes. It is a natural, living, organic whole, a hydrological and ecological system, and 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 an 18 km stretch 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’s population.
As early as the late 1960s, “Indian Crocodile Conservation Project” was launched. Subsequently the crocodile has been included in Appendix-I of the 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 the Vishwamitri Riverfront Development Project, especially the proposed construction activities vis-a-vis JCB dumper, etc., have the potential to lead to destruction of the natural ecosystem and habitat of the crocodile but also its breeding grounds and nests.
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.”
Further, the Environmental Clearance required under the (EIA) Notification of September, 2006, has not been applied for in respect to the Vishwamitri Riverfront Development Project. This is apparent in the fact that the VMSS has in November 2014 issued a tender for a consultant to conduct the EIA for the same.
Regardless, the project proponent has gone ahead with construction 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 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.
It is shocking that the VMSS has failed to analyse and plan based on the ground realities of the Vishwamitri River. The river experiences frequent flooding which is due to water logging and human induced activities.
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. Engineering the banks would convert the river into a huge ‘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.
The fact that VMSS has circumvented the mandatory EIA is even more egregious seeing as it also has failed to engaged in a meaningful a Social Impact Assessment for the impugned project. This large scale construction is bound to result in not only damage to the river, riverbed, downstream river, its biodiversity, its active water body and the wetlands, but it will also impact the people living downstream and their livelihoods. Further, the impugned Project had already displaced more than 5,000 people and many more are going to be displaced by the Riverfront Project.
Lastly, the creation of real estate to ‘mitigate’ or offset 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. 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 and the lake systems offer a tremendous opportunity to reduce pollution, increase green cover and hence 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 no river, nor riverfront, left to speak of.
The urgent matter at hand is that the VMSS has commenced work on the impugned Riverfront Project. However, no EIA, Social Impact Assessment, environmental public hearing, nor any steps in preparing a management plan, including appraisal, monitoring and compliance mechanism have been undertaken by the VMSS for the impugned project.
Under these circumstances the competent authorities in the Government of India and the Gujarat government should...
Direct the VMSS to take adequate and necessary measures to ensure stoppage of any further work in the ‘Vishwamitri Riverfront Development Project’, or any component thereof.
Direct the VMSS to stop the untreated municipal sewage from being dumped into the river.
Direct the VMSS to remove the municipal waste which has been dumped into the ravine of Vishwamitri River and take steps to prevent the further dumping of the same.
Initiate legal action under Sections 15 and 16 of the Environmental (Protection) Act 1986 against the concerned individuals and companies that have started work or given permission for work of Vishwamitri Riverfront Project, or any component thereof.
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 allowing commencement of the work in respect of Vishwamitri Riverfront Development Project.
Direct the VMSS to submit the status report of present Vishwamitri Riverfront Development Project like money spent for the project and activities on the site carried out by them up till now and based on that direct them to take all necessary steps for restitution of the project area to its status quo ante.
As the Project has already displaced more than 5,000 people and many more are going to be displaced by the Riverfront Project, declare such activities carried out by the VMSS as illegal and initiate legal action against the concerned officers for such an illegal act as no activities of project can be carried out before the environment clearance is obtain by the authorities. Direct them to take all necessary steps for restitution of the project area to its status quo ante.

All activities for the Vishwamitri Riverfront Development Project should be ceased, no further work should be commenced until due process of environmental clearance is undertaken. If project activities are not immediately stopped, it would invite legal action.

*With Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti

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