One should take advantage of available digital interfaces or create one by uploading all data in a systematic way so that the knowledge is in the public domain
This is the first of a two-part series. The second can be read here
I remember it was late July 2018 when after reading a newspaper article, I made a random phone call to Arbind Kumar, executive engineer from the Municipal Corporation of Faridabad regarding the restoration of water bodies in Delhi’s southern satellite town.
Then I got in touch with Rakesh Gupta, additional principal secretary to the chief minister of Haryana and met the then commissioner of the Municipal Corporation of Faridabad, Muhammad Shayin regarding water conservation measures in Faridabad.
It all started after the judgement of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in case OA No.325 / 2015, Sarvadaman Oberoi versus the Union of India and others in which the court gave directions to the government of Haryana to take measures for the protection and restoration of waterbodies.
I had always been fascinated by this subject. The credit goes to the Director-General of the Centre for Science and Environment, Sunita Narain, who has written a lot on this issue and the need for protection of water bodies in our urban areas and all my meetings and interactions with Manu Bhatnagar from INTACH, who has vast technical experience of actually working for it on the ground.
Moreover, my own experience of working with environmentalists at Save Aravali Trust and colleagues from Gurgaon Water Forum who are researchers from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Jamia Millia Islamia, Indian Institute of Technology Delhi and various other advocacy groups of Delhi and the National Capital Region gave me lot of enthusiasm and inspiration to take the plunge and do a service to my city through such measures for a water secure future.
The first step in that direction was the documentation of water bodies in order to identify those that were to be taken up for restoration.
I and others had decided to undertake a feasibility study of 76 water bodies in Faridabad. But how were we to proceed?
We had a manual for data collection in the census of water bodies published by the Union Ministry of Water Resources. That survey form became our core framework in the study.
Since we did not have any direct reference report, the entire exercise was actually like a product design experience where we sorted out all that needed to be done, along with a data collection format in order to add value and bring out a comprehensive detailed study report.
Since this fell under the planning department, I went to meet the corporation’s town planner and senior architect Bhupinder Dhillon, who then introduced me to a battery of Patwaris (revenue officials) in order to provide revenue data.
I got the document that was basically a four-page listing of waterbodies with information like revenue area, khasra number and administrative comments like encroachment, legal disputes and development initiatives.
The most exciting part of the study were the field visits with Patwaris and local municipal staff as they were eye-opening experiences. There is a world of difference in theoretical reading and actually going to water body sites, observing the issues and talking to local people.
We used to take geo coordinates, click photos, roam around sites, note down issues and unique features, identify the source of water, estimate the volume of waste water inflow if any, record the existence of pond profile, water presence, etc.
Field study was not that easy. Despite all our efforts, there was a lot of uncertainty in terms of the availability of government staff and finding water body locations (We only had large revenue maps called Sajra and not any geo locations) in Faridabad, a city that has undergone tremendous urbanisation and development planning changes in the past few decades.
Accessibility was also an issue at few sites, along with garbage dumping and filth at many locations. The principal skill to be used during these site visits is to have the eye of a solution finder while observing the site.
One has to see the availability of land and the maximum portion that can be restored or redeveloped into a pond. Focusing too much on negative issues and challenges like existing buildings, encroachment, legal disputes, etc, on the site may not be a fruitful way of assessment. We might end up losing whatever opportunity we have in terms of available land a few years down the line if we ignore the current feasible prospects.
When such a study is done at the city level, a tremendous volume of data is collected. Its storage in an organised manner is very important. In our study, an excel sheet format was prepared for raw data, having rows for each waterbody and columns with various information sets (around 20 parameters in this case).
There were folders for photos, revenue maps and satellite images having data of each water body. Then, all information gathered through surveys was put together as specific chapters for each water body so that one could gain all information for any particular site at one spot.
Data analysis forms a crucial part of studies at the city level so that patterns can be traced, issues diagnosed and policy level decisions taken for intervention at the municipal level. We prepared various schedules and listings where administrative actions could be taken like the removal of encroachments and the redressal of legal disputes.
Lessons we learnt
To our surprise, we found that all waterbodies mentioned in revenue records were public lands existing since decades. However, in the last few years, people with vested interests had been building structures (temporary and permanent), encroaching upon and filing court cases though the government had ownership according to revenue officials.
Anyways, a listing of waterbodies feasible for restoration (technically and administratively) was prepared. The number of such waterbodies was 24.
Detailed project reports or DPRs (design, drawings and estimates) in order to sanction funds can now be prepared, tenders can be floated to appoint contractors and start restorations on the ground for these.
Besides this, general guidelines for restoration were also prepared based on field studies and various directions given by the NGT, Central Pollution Control Board and other manuals available on this subject (at the time, the Haryana Pond Authority had not been formed).
A few months after completing this project, we started the next phase of DPRs. However, there is always a scope for improvement in the feasibility study that was done or that can be done in other cities and locations.
Instead of focusing too much on printed government reports, one should take advantage of available digital interfaces or create one by uploading all data in a systematic way so that the knowledge is in the public domain and to associate citizens with such initiatives.
The data that we collected manually, using survey forms, noting down information, clicking photos, taking geo locations, etc, can be done through a mobile app in order to pace up and streamline the data gathering, storage, flow for analysis and further use in DPR preparation along with various administrative compliances.
We prepared a GIS survey drawing (by overlapping satellite images, tracing on computer-aided design and revenue maps) during the DPR phase. But this could have been done during the feasibility study so that there is a clear base drawing of each water body showing revenue land, actual available land, existing features along with markings for garbage dumping, encroachments, etc.
It was a great learning experience and this feasibility study has opened up a new horizon in our way of thinking and how we look at the urban landscape. We are looking forward to such initiatives being taken up in other municipalities and share our knowledge and experience in public interest and take this journey forward.
Shashwat works with Development 2050, an organisation working to explore the paradigms of sustainable development mainly in the emerging economies of Asia and Africa amid the massive challenges of urbanization and climate change by 2050
Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth
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