An NGT order declaring that construction within a 10-km radius of the Okhla Bird Sanctuary cannot be given completion certificates has left flat buyers and builders in the lurch. Adding to their woes, a 2005 directive of the National Board for Wildlife insists that 10 km is the radius around sanctuaries that is to be considered an eco-sensitive zone. With builders and Noida Authority passing the buck, Aniruddha Ghosal and Siddhartha Gupta do a realty check.
A small patch of wetland on the banks of the Yamuna, which is home to at least 10 threatened bird species and countless migratory ones, is in the eye of a storm. After the National Green Tribunal (NGT) reiterated an earlier order that construction within a 10-km radius of the Okhla Bird Sanctuary cannot be given completion certificates, the fate of almost 1,00,000 flats in Noida, around the sanctuary, hangs in the balance.
Now all eyes are on the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), which will demarcate the extent of the eco-sensitive zone around the sanctuary. A panel, constituted by the ministry, comprising representatives from NCT of Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and MoEF, visited the area on June 27, assessed the situation and submitted a report to the ministry.
According to sources, MoEF might consider including the wetland region between the sanctuary and DND flyway, which is 1.2 km away to the north, in the eco-sensitive region. This will be in addition to the 100-metre boundary all around the sanctuary. “The region between the sanctuary and DND flyway to the north can be developed and preserved for the birds. Nothing is possible along the other boundaries, which already have construction happening along them. For example, you have roads running all around. So, a 100-metre boundary is sufficient there,” a source said.
But until the demarcation is finalised, homebuyers have been left agonising over the fate of their dream homes. Many said while they are being given assurances by builders and brokers, they have heard nothing concrete. “Some brokers have come to us and said the MoEF has decided to fix a demarcation of 1-kilometre around the sanctuary. Others told us a different radius. There is no clarity and the builders themselves are asking us to wait,” Karuna Sinha, who invested in a flat with the Jaypee Group in the area, said.
The NGT had restrained the Noida Authority from issuing completion certificates to constructions within a 10-km radius of the sanctuary because, according to a directive issued by the National Board for Wildlife (NBW) in 2005, 10 km is the radius around sanctuaries that is to be considered an eco-sensitive zone.
Meanwhile, the Delhi government has submitted a proposal to the environment ministry, proposing the notification of an area of 100 metres around the bird sanctuary as ‘eco-sensitive’, the same proposal which was made to the NGT earlier this year by the Uttar Pradesh government.
But with rumours abounding, homebuyers said they wanted the matter to be resolved as quickly as possible. “We keep hearing a variety of things. We have heard that the UP government has decided to fix its boundary at 2 km. But there is nothing concrete,” Puja Aeron, who has paid the entire cost for her ‘almost complete’ apartment with Homes 121 project of the real estate firm Gulshan Homz, said.
Aeron’s dream home is located 9.6 km from the park. “We have invested everything we have into what we thought would be our dream home. I no longer know what to do. We are waiting for some decision in the matter,” Krina Sanjiv Roy, a home buyer who has already invested Rs 34 lakh — over 50 per cent of the total cost — for a 3-BHK apartment with the Jaypee Group, said.
Geetamber Anand, of Confederation of Real Estate Developers’ Associations of India (CREDAI), said one of the reasons for the current confusion was because the builders were not aware that a separate clearance from National Board for Wildlife had to be obtained before they began construction.
“All of them have clearances from MoEF. Since NBW is a part of MoEF, nobody thought that a clearance from NBW has to be taken separately. So, after they got their maps cleared from Noida Authority and got clearance from MoEF, they began construction,” he said.
He said a buffer zone of 100 metres around the park is sufficient. “A lot of development work has already taken place around the sanctuary, thereby reducing the possibility that the new construction will have any major effect,” he said.
Not aware of NBW order when giving clearance: Noida official
While the Noida Authority maintained that an eco-sensitive zone of 100 metres around the Okhla Bird Sanctuary would be sufficient protection for the sanctuary, it remained tight-lipped on why constructions were allowed to come up around the sanctuary in the first place.
Most of the constructions, now affected by the National Green Tribunal’s order in October last year that barred all ‘building constructions within a 10-km radius of the Okhla Bird Sanctuary or within the eco-sensitive zone’, have affected over 45,000 homebuyers, who had invested in properties that were started as early as 2008 and many receiving environmental clearance from the state in 2007.
When asked why the Noida Authority had given permission for these constructions and why the directive issued by the National Board for Wildlife in 2005 that bars construction within a 10-km radius of sanctuaries wasn’t taken into account, officials were reticent.
An official said, “There were others before us who had taken those decisions. By the time the case came up in court, it was assumed by most that everything was above board.”
Another official admitted that there was a definite element of ignorance that led to the Noida Authority giving permission for constructions around the bird sanctuary. “Many of us weren’t aware of the NBW directive. So many constructions came up within a 10-km radius in both states (Delhi and UP), and this directive was never brought up,” the official said.
Meanwhile, the Authority said a boundary of 100 metres around the bird sanctuary would be sufficient since most birds residing in the Okhla Bird Sanctuary were migratory birds arriving from colder regions in October.
“These birds come around October and leave around February. And they form a majority of the bird population in the sanctuary. Also, their flightpath does not cross Noida. There are hardly any endangered species that live all around the year in the sanctuary. So what is the need for a boundary greater than 100 metres?” an official said.
According to records of the UP forest department, over 300 species of birds have been sighted in the sanctuary, of which around 45 per cent have been categorised as resident birds and only around 14 per cent as uncommon birds.
The official Okhla Bird Sanctuary website says, “… about 10 species of threatened birds recorded includes species of critically endangered (CR) birds, species of nearly threatened (NT) birds.”
Forest officials said the logic behind keeping a cushion area or a buffer zone, which is notified as an environmentally sensitive zone, is that birds and animals often stray beyond the boundaries of the sanctuary and are likely to get injured or killed if the zone is inhabited.
“A distance of 10 km is appropriate for an animal like a tiger, which can stray over large distances. Birds will not fly that far out of the sanctuary. Besides, on the Noida side of the sanctuary, there are roads and high tension lines close to the boundary already. Why will birds fly out when they are very likely to get killed if they do so?” an official said.