The massive loss of lives, property and infrastructure due to landslides and floods in Uttarakhand has once again raised concerns on the unabashed and unplanned construction near riverbanks.
For more than a decade there have been talks of demarcating limits within which a “no development zone” could be instituted. But while the intended notification, known as the River Regulation Zone or RRZ (modelled on the Coastal Regulation Zone) was conceptualized in 2002, it was not until May, 2011 that an expert group was formed for the formulation of guidelines. Since then there have been intermittent meetings and talks, but no assurances or timelines for notification.
Shortly before Jairam Ramesh left the environment ministry in 2011, he held a press conference where he declared that the RRZ would be notified in a matter of months. The secretary was asked to constitute a working group, with the additional secretary as chair. The office order to take action on this took two months. The chair changed twice thereafter, and R C Trivedi, one of the three non-official members, left on grounds of his deputation to the National Green Tribunal. Last month, the chair and additional secretary Mira Mehrishi retired, which has once again left the committee rudderless. The files are stuck with the minister, and the committee now needs to be reconstituted.
Manoj Misra, convenor of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, a non-profit and special invitee to the working group, is hopeful that his latest letter will strike a chord with the minister. “While we join millions in grief on massive loss of life and property in the state of Uttarakhand, we can't help but remind your Honour of your ministry's failing in not yet notifying the RRZ, which is pending in your ministry since 2002 and which your predecessor in MoEF had in January 2011 promised to usher in within four months,” writes Misra in his letter to the minister. “Let the ministry become fully accountable for its acts of omission and commission. This is the least that unwitting victims of the tragedy in Uttarakhand could expect of the constitutional custodian of their natural environment and, in turn, life's security,” he adds.
A decade ago the concept note for the proposed notification on RRZ was prepared by the National Institute of Ecology, a New Delhi based non-profit, and submitted to the environment ministry. In August 2011, Jayanthi Natarajan, the Union Minister of Environment and Forests, in response to a Parliament question, said that while no policy for River Regulatory Zone had been drafted, certain suggestions for protection of river flood plains had been made by members and special invitees. This was nearly a decade after its conceptualisation.
The expert group constituted officials from the environment ministry and from state offices, as well as non-official members, namely, R C Trivedi (former Central Pollution Control Board official), Brij Gopal (former JNU professor and principal draftsman of the concept note) and G J Chakrapani (IIT-Roorkee). At its second meeting in January 2012, Misra was brought in as special invitee who was entrusted to put together a simple draft (see draft river rules, pdf). This was shared with all members in August last year.
Draft defines flood plain...
The draft rules suggests that the area for protection from further encroachments be defined as the “active flood plain”, which will be marked by the high flood line (HFL), which in entrenched or embanked stretches shall be the available space in the valley of entrenched stretch or between two embankments or between existing roads on either side along a river acting as an embankment. In other stretches of the river, the active flood plain shall be the 100 year flood line. The idea is to establish a no development zone not less than the active flood plain, states the draft.
The group needs to sit together and draft a legally acceptable and implementable definition. “Sometimes we scientists put criteria that just cannot be implemented, so we need to work around that,” says Brij Gopal, the former JNU professor who conceptualized RRZ. “In a matter of months, the government if it so chooses can use topographic maps, the danger water marks and maximum flood levels for a particular return period in order to demarcate no construction zones for different rivers,” adds Gopal, referring to a recent case of the Allahabad High Court. The judgement of 2011 that Gopal is referring to, set precedence in that it for the first time identified the river’s limit as its highest flood level, and set a limit (500 metre from the highest flood level) to where construction is permitted. Aside from judicial intervention, as of now, there is no regulation to protect floodplains from encroachment. Inevitable, too, is the loss of ecology as well as groundwater recharge zones.
...but it is still work in progress
The draft remains a work in progress. There have been different recommendations mooted within the group. One definition discussed is to regulate construction activities a stipulated distance from a highest flood level that will be attained once in hundred years. Other definitions of high flood levels have looked at return periods of once in a fifty year period, as according to Gopal, any higher return period would encompass far too much land, which would make the notification difficult to implement.
“A one in hundred year return flood would mean Najafgarh, Model Town and parts of Noida, for instance, in the National Capital Territory will become no go zones,” says Gopal. One of the members was not amenable to the use of the term flood plain itself, and sought that the definition set a limit from the channel or river bank. Ministry officials have taken these different views to project that more research needs to be done before notifying any limits.
The current draft rules also seek to address the proper siting of industry based on their polluting nature. It is sought that any violation of these rules be deemed to be violation of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, and punishable accordingly.
It is now learnt that with the retirement of the committee's chairperson, the reconstitution of the Committee is pending. “We do not claim that what we have attempted is the best possible. What we request is that let it (or its amended version) be put out for inviting public comments. But please do not permit any more delay in the process,” says Misra. He is awaiting a response from the ministry on the matter.