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Saving the Vishwamitri

An Ongoing Tussle between Waterfront Development and River Rejuvenation

Lara Jesani (lara.jesani@gmail.com) is an independent lawyer practising in Indian courts on constitutional, environmental, and development matters.

Waterfront development projects have been promoted in the name of flood control, beautification, and urban development. However, they only replace the river’s natural riparian edge with a concrete riverfront, facilitating further encroachment on and destruction of the riverbed. The Gujarat government promulgated the Vishwamitri Riverfront Development Project as a “smart” solution to the river’s deterioration, completely ignoring environmental safeguards.

​The author is the legal attorney advising and representing the complainants in the matters concerning the Vishwamitri Riverfront Development Project, which are pending before the National Green Tribunal.

This case study was presented at Forum Asia’s Global Advocacy Learning Programme on Human Rights and Development (17–25 November 2017) in Thailand. A slightly modified version of the article is included in Forum Asia’s working paper series, Business and Human Rights: Lessons from Asia.

Vishwamitri river is the heart line of Vadodara city. The river originates in the western and southern slopes of the Pavagadh Hill and flows westward through Vadodara for 26.8 kilometres (km) before draining into the Gulf of Khambhat. Its unique ecosystem comprises the main river corridor, its associated tributaries, ravines, nalas/kaans (small streams/creeks), wetlands, oxbow lakes, and artificially created ponds. These serve as a natural habitat for legally protected and vulnerable species, such as mugger crocodiles (Crocodylus palustris), and are also home to abundant flora and fauna, including vulnerable species such as Ravan taad (Hyphaene dichotoma) and turtles. Historically, this rich ecosystem has provided natural floodwater control, groundwater recharge, and a habitat for diverse flora and fauna, thus promoting biodiversity and ameliorating adverse climatic conditions. The ecosystem has provided various communities alternative sources of irrigation, water supply, food, recreation, and livelihoods.

Vadodara, the third largest city in Gujarat, equally famous for its industrial development as for its environmental pollution, is located on the banks of Vishwamitri river. The city has suffered enormously from the river’s deterioration on account of rapid urbanisation and the resulting pollution, encroachment, and neglect. Broadly speaking, the major causes of the degradation are improper sewage management, an increase in impervious surface coverage, deforestation throughout the watershed, encroachment on the floodplains, a lack of concern for ecological processes, proliferation of invasive species (such as Prosopis juli ora), open dumping of solid waste, and a general lack of sensitivity to the historical repercussions of development (Mittal et al 2017; Kothari and Thomas 2015). Indiscriminate and rampant encroachment, the dumping of waste in ravines—including construction debris, municipal and industrial waste, dead carcasses, and untreated or inadequately treated sewer water—and neglect or even active participation by the local authorities in the pollution and dumping have led to the choking of ravines and wetlands, and the shrinking of the river. Consequently, the monsoons cause inundation of low-lying areas in Vadodara due to the loss of natural floodwater drainage. The deterioration of Vishwamitri river has caused severe misery among the underprivileged living in highly vulnerable, low-lying areas.

Defective and Unsustainable

In 2014, following civil society’s pleas for the rejuvenation of Vishwamitri river and its ecosystem, and considering previously failed attempts by the government to do so, the Vadodara Municipal Corporation (VMC)1 published the Vishwamitri Riverfront Development Project (VRDP) Master Plan, which aimed to “rejuvenate the Vishwamitri River, restore the connection with the people and address the future needs of the (Vadodara) city” (VMSS and HCP Design, Planning and Management 2014). The VRDP Master Plan listed several objectives, including water management, the restoration of the ecology and biodiversity of the river, improving accessibility and connectivity, and land management. The project involved the development of a riverfront over an area of 953.5 hectares (ha) (1,093 ha, as per the proposal submitted to the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA) with an overall length of 16.5 km and average width of 500 metres (m).

Developing the Vishwamitri riverfront was envisioned in the smart city development plans for Vadodara city (Times Now News 2016). The VRDP was designed along the same lines as the Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project (SRDP)2 in Ahmedabad, in pursuance of the government’s neo-liberal urbanisation plan. The mainstream media and government sources projected the SRDP as proof of Ahmedabad’s status as a pioneer in urban transformation in India. However, what is less known is that this project was a blatant instance of accumulation by dispossession of 70 formal and informal settlements (that housed about 40,000 families) in the name of floodwater control and beautification (Mathur 2012).

The VRDP Master Plan admitted that rapid urbanisation in Vadodara had led to the deterioration of Vishwamitri river. It reported that storm water outfalls and tributaries were contaminated with sewage, garbage was being dumped in the river, and slums were encroaching on its banks.3 Slum demolitions have become synonymous with clearing spaces, cleaning up cities, beautification, and the rise of a culture of malls and parking lots (Ramanathan 2005). The VRDP envisioned reorganising the land to commercialise the riverfront, thus paving the way for redistribution of the land. This was to be carried out by acquiring the land surrounding the river, resulting in the demolition of slums/hutments and the displacement of its socially and economically backward dwellers.

In its objectives, the VRDP Master Plan claimed that the project aimed to increase the flood-carrying capacity of the river, strengthen its edge, retain and replenish its water, and make the river pollution-free. Although the VRDP Master Plan projected superficial, overreaching objectives, it was in fact ridden with ideas that would have negative social and ecological impact. These include replacing the river’s natural riparian edge with a concrete riverfront and further filling up and encroaching on the riverbed to make space for commercial ventures. Encroachment on natural streams and watercourses due to rapid urbanisation is a major contributor to urban flooding (NDMA 2010).

Amongst its other shortcomings, the VRDP had a flawed flood management plan. Outdated techniques, incapable of adequately enhancing the river’s flood-carrying capacity, allowed room for hazardous development, while an environmentally unsustainable, unscientific, incomplete, and fallible model for river replenishment, water retention, sewage treatment, and improvement of water quality was proposed (Mittal et al 2017). However, a glaring defect was its blatant disregard for environmental policies and applicable law, especially concerning the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2006, read with the Environment (Protection) Act (EPA), 1986, the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2010, the Municipal Solid Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules, 2000, and the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974.

Intervention by Environmentalists

With the rapid degeneration of Vishwamitri river, Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti (PSS)4—a local environmental organisation—and other conscientious citizens had been monitoring and advocating for the rejuvenation of the river for several years. When news reports of the VRDP surfaced, citizens appealed to the government to not repeat a fiasco similar to the SRDP (Counterview 2014a). Meanwhile, more than 2,000 slum houses belonging to the socially and economically underprivileged—mainly Muslims and Dalits—in Kalyan Nagar and Kamatipura were cleared, shifted, and demolished, to pave the way for the project (Counterview 2014b). Following initial enquiries and investigations into the status of the mandatory EIA of this project, the PSS activists—Rohit Prajapati and Trupti Shah—found that the VMC had taken no steps to conduct the EIA. This stood in blatant violation of the EPA, 1986,5 the EIA Notification (2006),6 and other applicable environment laws. Accordingly, the activists addressed demand letters in May 2015 to the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change (MoEFCC), Government of India, Government of Gujarat, Urban Development Department of Gujarat, the collector of Vadodara, and the municipal commissioner of the VMC, demanding among other things that all project activities be ceased until due processes for environment clearance were undertaken. In light of the campaign, following the demands made by local activists and meetings held with VMC officials, the VMC submitted its application for environmental clearance to the SEIAA7 in November 2015.

Meanwhile, the activists at the PSS obtained information and documents pertaining to the VRDP and the development plans and policies of the VMC under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005. They scrutinised the VRDP Master Plan and galvanised other local stakeholders, and environmental and urban planning experts, scientists and activists by holding meetings to understand the project’s design, plan, and probable impact. Local stakeholders also commissioned landscape architects to critique and redesign the project (Mittal et al 2017). With several environmentalists joining the campaign, joint letters were issued to the VMC and other government authorities, highlighting the project’s flaws and demanding the immediate withdrawal and cessation of all activities. The growing controversy and resultant litigation also piqued the interest of the local and national media, resulting in a far-reaching civil society campaign (Indian Express 2015; Counterview 2016a, 2016b; Times of India 2016).

Legal Intervention before the NGT

Despite assurances from VMC officials that they would conduct the EIA for the VRDP, during October–November 2015, local activists and the media confirmed that construction activities had already been commissioned and were being undertaken in the VRDP area. Although the EIA process was still pending, and no environmental clearance had been granted, the project was underway. The EPA, 1986, read with the EIA Notification, 2006, states that no construction activity can begin prior to obtaining an environmental clearance from the concerned authority. The illegal constructions reported pertained to land reclamation and the filling of ravines, slum rehabilitation, and building construction activities in the riverfront area. Meanwhile, the VMC also published an advertisement inviting an expression of interest from private partners for developing lakes as part of the project. Joint notices were issued and complaints were addressed to the VMC and government authorities between December 2015 and March 2016, demanding the immediate halting of unauthorised and illegal constructions in the VRDP area pending the EIA process and environmental clearance. However, several such demands went unheeded.

Pursuant to meetings held with local activists and stakeholders, it was decided that the matter would be escalated through litigation. In April 2016, a complaint was filed on behalf of local activists with the National Green Tribunal (NGT),8 Western Zone Bench, Pune.9 The complaint was against the VMC and various government authorities, namely the MoEFCC, SEIAA, state of Gujarat and its urban development and urban housing department, the collector of Vadodara and the Vadodara Urban Development Authority, and sought an order to immediately cease unauthorised and illegal construction activities in the VRDP area and demanded that action be taken against erring officials and individuals. Subsequently, the NGT issued a notice to the respondents about the contentions raised in the complaint. The complainants produced photographic and videographic evidence of the illegal and unauthorised constructions, which they presented to the NGT. They provided the exact location mapping and the progress, from the time of filing the complaint to the date of the hearing, of the constructions, including those taking place on the riverbed.

During the exhaustive hearing that followed, the VMC claimed that the constructions were unrelated to the project, although they could not refute that they were taking place in the VRDP area. Nonetheless, the NGT passed an interim injunction order on 25 May 2016, restraining the VMC from proceeding with construction or development activities within the VRDP area. Despite the injunction order, construction activities continued unabated at certain sites. These activities were reported to the NGT, and at the following hearing, on 1 July 2016, the NGT directed the SEIAA and the collector of Vadodara district to conduct a joint inspection of the project area and report on the project status. The NGT also granted the SEIAA the freedom to lodge cases against delinquents who were carrying on construction activities in violation of the EIA Notification, 2006, and the injunction order. An execution application was also filed by the complainants regarding the VMC’s non-compliance with the injunction order.10

Some Achievements

Following these successive orders, the VMC informed the NGT on 5 August 2016 that it has decided not to proceed with the project as per the VRDP Master Plan and submitted an affidavit undertaking that it would not carry out any construction in relation to the project. The VMC also informed the NGT that it had submitted an application on 27 July 2016 to withdraw its environmental clearance application before the SEIAA, with an undertaking that it would not carry out any construction in violation of environmental law. Explaining its reasons for withdrawing the project, the VMC claimed that it had not been properly conceptualised, and the environmental clearance application had been filed prematurely. The SEIAA accepted the withdrawal application on 9 August 2016, provided that the VMC complied with its undertaking and the areas were restored to the status quo ante.

The matter continued before the NGT, because of the violations committed prior to the VMC withdrawing its application and in light of its continuing violations. The VMC tried to justify its violations by claiming that these did not concern or fall within the scope of the project. The NGT passed several orders, including one to conduct a fresh joint inspection in January 2017, on account of the earlier inspection report being inadequate, and draw up a comprehensive report on the violating construction work. However, the joint inspection report was not submitted by the SEIAA and the collector of Vadodara district in compliance with the order. The NGT took notice of the respondents’ conduct and issued a penalty order against them. Pursuant to this, the SEIAA filed a further inspection report in February 2017. Although still inadequate, the report submitted by the SEIAA indicated that unauthorised construction was ongoing at that time and had progressed substantially on the riverbed, including the filling up of a notified lake that was part of Vishwamitri river. At another site of unauthorised construction in the VRDP area—projected by the VMC as a separate and distinct slum rehabilitation project involving a private contractor—an investigation revealed that no separate environmental clearance had been obtained prior to commencing construction. The clearance was applied for only after the complaint had been filed with the NGT. After these facts were presented to the NGT, the Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB)11 prosecuted the VMC in February 2017 for violations related to the slum rehabilitation project.

The execution application and main complaint submitted to the NGT—regarding the VMC’s non-compliance with the injunction order and continuing violations—are still pending. The prosecution related to the violations was continued in court as the complainants feared that the VMC, to escape compliance with environmental law and regulations by subverting the legal process, would continue to carry out concretisation and land reclamation at the violation sites, as per the original project, using private partners to complete separate or smaller projects.

Meanwhile, in late 2017 to early 2018, the VMC invited local stakeholders, concerned citizens and environmentalists to participate in joint discussions to formulate an alternative project plan for the rejuvenation and reinvigoration of Vishwamitri river under the National River Conservation Plan (NRCP).12 One environmentalist was also appointed as an environmental consultant by VMC for the purpose. However, although a draft concept note was submitted by the consultant, no further steps have been taken in respect of the same. Local stakeholders are, however, involved in a separate plan to revive Bhukhi Nala, a tributary of Vishwamitri river (Bastion 2018).

Challenges

The VMC, in simultaneously playing the role of a local area development authority and project proponent, presented a unique situation that posed a conflict of interest, a hurdle to fair trial, and led to the non-implementation of the NGT’s orders and directions. The conflict of interest was presented to the NGT in a timely manner, with supporting documents obtained under the RTI Act, 2005 and other sources. Any kind of interventions with the VMC by the complainants were largely futile. Although the NGT directed the SEIAA and the collector to conduct joint site inspections, the reports submitted to the NGT were fault-ridden, inadequate, and watered down, necessitating constant monitoring of the sites by the complainants. The complainants continue to regularly monitor identified sites, collect both photographic and videographic evidence with time and date stamps, and present these to the NGT from time to time.

The VMC claimed that the violating constructions were independent projects and were not linked to the VRDP, although the VRDP was the sanctioning authority for all constructions in Vadodara city, and these activities were being carried out within its jurisdiction. Meanwhile, the complainants feared that the VMC would continue its construction activity through separate or smaller projects, thus continuing the damage to the riverbed and posing fresh challenges. In December 2017, local activists found that the VMC was dumping debris along the riverbank, in violation of the injunction order. Other polluting activities, such as the clearing of vegetation, tree-felling, dredging, and the levelling and discharge of sewage on the riverbank continued, prompting the activists to address a fresh notice to the VMC (Times of India 2017). Exception was also taken to such illegal activities being carried out during the crocodile breeding season, but the VMC municipal commissioner denied all charges in the media (Times of India 2018a). Meanwhile, in February 2018, local activists sought a judicial probe into the project and called for its subsequent removal (Times of India 2018b).

The Struggle Continues

For the most part, the opposition campaign was fairly successful in halting the unsustainable and unscientific VRDP, giving a shot in the arm to the local stakeholders in their efforts to curb environmental pollution. The campaign brought together local coordinating teams and scientists who conducted environmental research and analysis. It also demonstrated the effective and simultaneous use of court mechanisms and local campaigning during the advocacy process. Meanwhile, the processes of monitoring, intervening, prosecuting, and demanding accountability continue to ensure that the project is not reintroduced in an unviable form, by indirect means, or under the NRCP. Local stakeholders hope to work in collaboration with the VMC to draft a sustainable plan to reverse the environmental damage and rejuvenate Vishwamitri river.

Notes

1 The Vadodara Municipal Corporation (VMC), also known as the Vadodara Mahanagar Seva Sadan (VMSS), is the local area development/sanctioning authority for all building, construction, and development plans in Vadodara, Gujarat. The VMC is also the project proponent of the Vishwamitri Riverfront Development Project (VRDP).

2 The Sabarmati Riverfront Project is the waterfront development initiative on the banks of the Sabarmati river in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, which was embroiled in controversy. It has been heavily criticised by environmentalists, and orders were passed by the Gujarat High Court in 2010 and 2011 in a public interest litigation (PIL) filed in 2005 by a coalition of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), to protect the rights of displaced slum dwellers by forming a committee to look into the resettlement process and directing rehabilitation of nearly 60,000 project affected persons (Pathan Mohmadkhan Aliyarkhan v State of Gujarat 2011; Indian Express 2011; Times of India 2010).

3 Encroachment, here, is a planning lexicon that is often equated with illegality; it is used to describe slum dwellers who occupy waterways in cities.

4 Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti (PSS), which literally translates to “Environmental Protection Committee,” is one of the 16 committees of the Gujarat Sarvodaya Mandal—founded in the 1990s to draw attention to indiscriminate industrialisation and dumping of hazardous waste—working on environmental matters. Since then, members of the PSS have been actively drawing attention to environmental issues for over two decades and are involved in investigating surrounding industrial areas. They work with tribal people and villagers to promote sustainable lifestyles, alternative technologies, the Gandhian movement, and networking with other organisations. On 22 February 2017, following legal intervention by the PSS, the Supreme Court in the matter of Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti and Another v Union of India and Others passed far-reaching directions to all state governments to set up functional common effluent and sewer treatment plants within a time frame fixed by the Court and an “online, real-time, continuous monitoring system” to display emission levels in the public domain; it also mandated a court-monitored, strict implementation of the order.

5 The Environment (Protection) Act (EPA), 1986, is a statute enacted by Parliament to protect and improve the environment and prevent hazards to human beings, other living creatures, plants, and property, following decisions taken at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, in which India participated.

6 The Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2006, is a notification passed under Sub-Section (1) and Clause (v) of Sub-Section (2) of Section 3 of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, read with Clause (d) of Sub-Rule (3) of Rule 5 of the Environment (Protection) Rules, 1986. The EIA Notification imposes certain restrictions on new projects, or on the expansion or modernisation of existing projects, based on their potential environmental impact, unless prior environmental clearance is accorded to the project/activity.

7 The State Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA) is a sanctioning authority constituted by the central government under Subsection (3) of Section 3 of the EPA, 1986, which is empowered to assess and grant environment clearances to projects listed under Category B in the schedule to the EIA Notification.

8 The Western Bench of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) is situated in Pune and hears cases from the western region, including those from Gujarat.

9 Original Application No 49/2016 under Sections 18(1) r/w 14 and 15 of the NGT Act, 2010, in the matter between Rohit Prajapati and five others versus Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) and six others.

10 Execution Application No 45/2016 in the Original Application No 49/2016.

11 The Gujarat Pollution Control Board filed Criminal Case No 9466 in 2017 against concerned SEIAA officials, M/S Manav Infrastructure, and others. The MoEFCC is a sanctioning authority empowered to assess and grant environmental clearances to projects/activities listed as Category “A” projects in the schedule to the EIA Notification.

12 The National River Conservation Plan (NRCP) was started by the central government in 1995 to prevent pollution and improve the water quality of major rivers.

References

Bastion (2018): “Garbage, Flooding, Crocodiles and Slums: The Vishwamitri Has it All,” 23 January, https://thebastion.co.in/politics-and/garbage-flooding-crocodiles-and-sl....

Counterview (2014a): “Architects, Urban Planners Ask Gujarat Authorities Not to Repeat Sabarmati Riverfront ‘Model’ in Vadodara,” 18 August, https://www.counterview.net/2014/08/architects-urban-planners-ask-gujarat.html.

— (2014b): “Slum Demolition in Vadodara: Gujarat’s Cultural Capital ‘Fails’ Right to Education Law for Displaced Children,” 23 December, https://www.counterview.net/2014/12/slum-demolition-in-vadodara-gujarats.html.

— (2016a): “Gujarat Activists: Vadodara Riverfront Project ‘Begun’ Sans Environmental Nod, Violates Wildlife Law,” 9 January, https://www.counterview.net/2016/01/gujarat-activists-vadodara-riverfront.html.

— (2016b): “NGT Restrains Gujarat Authorities from Construction at Vadodara Riverfront without Environmental Clearance,” 2 June, https://www.counterview.net/2016/06/ngt-restrains-gujarat-authorities-from.html.

Dayal, Prashant (2015): “Work on Vishwamitri Riverfront to Begin Soon,” Times of India, 17 September, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/vadodara/Work-on-Vishwamitri-riverfront-to-begin-soon/articleshow/48999944.cms.

Indian Express (2011): “Riverfront Project: Gujarat HC Orders Rehabilitation of 60,000,” 6 July, http://archive.indianexpress.com/news/riverfront-project-gujarat-hc-orde....

(2015): “Vishwamitri Riverfront Project: ‘VMC Bid for Green Nod Too Late,’” 15 May, http://indianexpress.com/article/cities/ahmedabad/vishwamitri-riverfront-project-vmc-bid-for-green-nod-too-late/.

Kothari, Nilesh and Anitha Thomas (2015): “Reviving Vishwamitri River: An Effort to a Sustainable Impact,” paper presented at the National Conference on Innovating for Development and Sustainability, Navrachana University, Vadodara, 30–31 October, http://27.109.7.66:8080/
xmlui/bitstream/handle/123456789/129/PPS04.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
.

Mathur, Navdeep (2012): “On the Sabarmati Riverfront: Urban Planning as Totalitarian Governance in Ahmedabad,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 47, No 47, p 64.

Mittal, Dhara, Alex de Sosa Kinzer, Xinming Liu, Rubin Sagar, Krithika Sampath, Chase Stone and Yundi Yang (2017): “Vishwamitri: A River and Its Reign,” diss, School of Natural Resources and the Environment, University of Michigan,https://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/handle/2027.42/136595.

NDMA (2010): “National Disaster Management Guidelines: Management of Urban Flooding,” September, National Disaster Management Authority, Government of India, New Delhi, http://www.ndma.gov.in/images/guidelines/management_urban_flooding.pdf.

Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti and Another v Union of India and Others (2017): SCC, SC, 5, p 326.

Pathan Mohmadkhan Aliyarkhan v State of Gujarat (2011): Special Civil Application No 6280 of 2005, High Court of Gujarat order dated 5 July.

Ramanathan, Usha (2005): “Demolition Drive,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 40, No 27,
p 3607.

Times of India (2010): “Rehabilitation of Slumdwellers Along,” 12 September, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/ahmedabad/Rehabilitation-of-slu....

(2016): “NGT Seeks Answers on Vishwamitri Riverfront Plan,” 5 May https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/vadodara/NGT-seeks-answers-on-Vishwamitri-riverfront-plan/articleshow/52119686.cms.

— (2017): “VMC Gets Notice for Dumping Debris, Filling Up Riverbank,” 26 December, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/vadodara/vmc-gets-notice-for-dumping-debris-filling-up-riverbank/articleshow/62245301.cms.

— (2018a): “Activists Accuse VMC of Polluting River, Rao Denies,” 6 January, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/vadodara/activists-accuse-vmc-of-polluting-river-rao-denies/articleshow/62386902.cms.

— (2018b): “Probe Sought in Riverfront Fiasco,” 20 February, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/vadodara/probe-sought-in-riverfront-fiasco/articleshow/62989227.cms.

Times Now News (2016): “A Smart City in the Making: Vadodara,” 15 May, http://www.timesnownews.com/mirrornow/videos/trends-research/smart-city-making-vadodara/18730.

VMSS and HCP Design, Planning and Management (2014): “Vishwamitri Riverfront Development Project Feasibility Report Master Plan,” 16 December, presentation to Advisory and Technical Committee, Ahmedabad.

Updated On : 26th Nov, 2018

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