New Delhi: Several Indian cities are in danger of being ravaged in floods as the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has failed to implement a river floodplain policy-a draft of which was prepared 13 years ago.
In the last one decade, India has faced flood disasters in Maharashtra, Bihar, Uttarakhand, Assam, Jammu & Kashmir and Odisha that caused massive losses of life, property and infrastructure. Floods in Jammu & Kashmir in 2014 claimed more than 200 lives and caused losses in excess of Rs 1 lakh crore.
A river regulation zone (RRZ) draft policy which awaits government notification looks at dividing the area of the river floodplain into zones, the one closest to the river channel to be called “no development zone”.
Principal author of the of the draft policy Brij Gopal said, “When there is no space left for rivers to spread their waters, they will rise up and drown your houses. First we have through structures like dams and barrages turned our rivers dry. Then we encroach into the dried-up spaces. When monsoon brings water, we call it ‘devastating’ floods.”
The government liked a civil society idea of floodplain protection and asked a group of activists how this can be done. In 2002, after six months of labour, Gopal, one of the leading river ecologists in the country, submitted a note to the MoEF. There have been several meetings. The MoEF formed committees and several states, including Tamil Nadu, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, took part in consultations.
“I submitted a final draft late last year. I also made presentations. But they have not yet put the draft in public domain for comments. The problem is ministers and secretaries keep changing. Many have different priorities. Once rivers are channelised, we would be doomed,” he said.
Immediately after the Jammu & Kashmir floods, Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar had called construction of hotel and homes on riverbeds a certain recipe for disaster. He had then called for a nationwide regulation in vulnerable zones along riverbeds.
But despite being in office for about a year and a half, the BJP-led government has failed to move much in this direction.
Bishwanath Sinha, a joint secretary in the MoEF, insists river conservation was on top of the government’s agenda. “The draft policy has been approved by the law ministry. MoEF will certainly publish it for comments for implementation. There are concerns about existing habitations and economic activities on riverbanks being destabilised. We want to take states on board. The land on riverbanks and even waters are state subject,” he said.
Manoj Misra of NGO Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, who was also part of the drafting process for some time, says people and property in floodplains are anyway swept away in case of floods. “And why fresh consultations? Drafting committees had members from states to ward off such a need,” he said.
Misra says the recent flood disasters happened mainly because residences and commercial establishments had been indiscriminately raised by unsuspecting people in active floodplains. “Much of this could have been avoided had the MoEF not been sitting over the policy. RRZ is the least India’s flood victims could expect of the constitutional custodian of their natural environment and, in turn, life’s security,” he said.
Environment minister in the previous Congress government Jairam Ramesh also says it was a perfectly ready draft during his tenure itself that only needed to be notified.
“Had I been in office for one more month, I would have notified the policy. Only some legal formalities were left to be done. I don’t know why the present government is delaying it. They should notify it at the earliest to protect riverbeds from such harmful constructions in future,” he said.
In January 2011, after 71 persons lost their life after a house collapse in East Delhi, Ramesh had taken a bold step and said structures like the Delhi’s CWG Village and Akshardham Temple should not have been allowed to be built in Yamuna floodplains. “In Delhi, the Yamuna riverbed has been devastated by constructions. Riverbeds across states are being taken over by the construction lobby. We have to protect the remaining riverbed,” he said.
Sinha says a file has been put up with the higher authority for a decision whether the MoEF would consult states first before publishing the draft policy for comments. “The minister wants to understand the issue in detail. On November 2, the minister is likely to have a presentation to understand technical aspects and implications of the policy. This meeting should bring some positives,” he said.
And it is not only the concern of floods that the draft looks to address. “Floodplains must also be protected because wastewater from fields and cities is filtered through the marshlands and biodiversity. You don’t need to spend thousands of crores of rupees to put in place big cleanup systems,” Gopal said.
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