July 25, 2021 1:09:03 am
In a case before the National Green Tribunal, filed in July 2018 by the Nav Yuva Sangathan, a Surat-based NGO, highlighting the need for remedial action in respect of damage to Tapi river in Surat, a report filed by retired Justice BC Patel notes that Surat Municipal Corporation (SMC) and Surat Urban Development Authority(SUDA) did not pay heed to recommendations with regard to river embankments and development between embankments, as suggested by experts at the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT). Justice Patel was Chief Justice at Delhi High Court and a judge in Gujarat HC.
The matter first came before NGT in July 2018 and subsequently a committee was also directed to be constituted by the NGT.
However in September 2020, the tribunal observed that the monitoring mechanism needs to be modified, given “the past experience of extremely slow progress in last more than one year of constituting the committee”.
In this regard, retired Justice Patel was requested by the tribunal to oversee the functioning of the existing committee and to preside over the meetings of the committee, steer deliberations and send his report in four months.
Patel’s report, filed in March this year and made public on July 20, looked at multiple aspects of Tapi river and noted that since more than hundred-year floods in river Tapi have been recorded, the last being in 2006.
The report notes that while it was decided by the Surat city authorities that no structures shall be allowed to be erected on the land falling between embankments and the river on either side of the river, “The authorities came out with the version that the land falling between the embankment and riverbank which belongs to private individuals is eligible for development currently. It is stated that the residential development has already taken place along the riverbank where there is no embankment/retaining wall. (In the areas of Umra, Magdalla Gamtal, TP areas in Fulpada, Pat, Adajan).”
Referring to the CEPT’s study, requested for by SMC in 2013, that had pointed out that in Katargam, the embankment did not follow a straight alignment on the left bank where it moved inwards towards the land side instead of being on the edge of the river, thus leaving land on the riverside of the embankment unprotected and increasing vulnerability in case of flooding. The report notes that this discrepancy was attributed to the land acquisition process in which the landowners along the river edge did not surrender their land and this resulted in a shift in the alignment.
“In the matter of floods (2006 floods) having devastating effect, the work was to be carried out in a very effective manner. The law pertaining to Land Acquisition has not been followed, the land was not acquired and the land appears to have been allowed to develop. The land owners objected to taking possession despite the adequate provision to acquire. This indicates softness of the authorities in allowing the development on the bank of the river,” notes (retd) Justice Patel’s report.
“The authorities expressed the views that the land, between the embankment and riverbank, which belongs to private individuals, is eligible for development currently. Thus, from 2006 to November 2020 they allowed the erection under the pretext that the rules were not amended. The question is- whether the State has no power to issue the rules. By calling frequent meetings by the authorities and the Hon’ble Ministers, suggestions were made, but nothing positive was done to protect the river and the areas affected,” the report further said.
(Retd) Justice Patel highlighted that wherever there is natural flow of the water, no construction of any type can be permitted so as to block the said flow. On account of change in the flow of the river or the river is found changing the width, the private land might have submerged or is likely to be submerged and therefore, the construction cannot be allowed.
CEPT, in its report, had recommended that a clear policy needs to be formulated, taking into account the ownership of land in the zoning area. Considering the effect of the floods in 2006, CEPT had proposed that an area of 150 meters on either side of the river be left as a buffer zone with no construction. However, Retd Justice Patel notes that “the suggestions of SUDA were accepted. There are no reasons indicated to take a view different than the one expressed by CEPT in its report.”
It is also to be noted that the CEPT specifically pointed out that “Please note that the distance of 150 meters is notional. A buffer zone can be properly delineated only on the basis of detailed studies of river hydraulics.” There is no reference to such studies having been undertaken.”
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