New Delhi: The Union government appears to have made sure that construction of the Commonwealth Games Village on the ecologically sensitive Yamuna riverbed will continue, despite at least two scientific studies concluding that no permanent structures should come up in that area in order to protect the flood plain.
Documents in a 13-year saga reviewed by Mint show that while initially the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) agreed that no permanent structures, such as housing and hotels, should be built on the proposed site as part of a 2006 environmental clearance?report,?later?the?same?app-raisal committee?said that permanent structures “may” come up, but only after groundwater recharge studies are done.
CLEARING THE WAY (Graphic)
These kind of studies, however, were not done either, but construction was allowed to proceed. It is still possible that construction activities could come to a halt as a Delhi high court’s judgement on a 2007 case, which petitions that the construction should be ?stop-ped to protect the river flood plain, is being awaited. MoEF officials declined comment for this story. Like many environmental issues in India, the Yamuna riverbed saga also illustrates the growing tension between pressing economic and business needs of a growing economy facing off against concerns about potential, long-term damage to the environment, especially fragileecosystems near urban areas.
The issue is even more complicated because the government also wants to make sure that India hosts a successful Commonwealth Games in 2010, the largest sporting event to be held in India after the 1982 Asian Games, which were also held in Delhi.
In 1995, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) commissioned the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (Neeri) to carry out a study on protecting the Yamuna river and plan for its rejuvenation. The study was done as DDA proposed to build several residential, commercial and recreational facilities on the riverbed, which occupies what has now become prime real estate around the Capital. Neeri’s report, which was submitted in June 1999, categorically said it wasn’t recommended to build any permanent structures in the area.
Subsequently, in 2000, DDA commissioned another study by Neeri on the impact of construction on the riverbed. The second report, submitted in 2005, again concluded: “…alteration of the riverbed topography must be restricted to avoid catastrophic consequences in future,” adding that no residential or industrial activity was recommended on the riverbed. It noted that a study by the Central Water and Power Research Station in Pune had recommended that 15% of the area could be used for permanent structures, which was “unviable”.
DDA then chose to use the Pune station’s report for giving environmental clearance, even though two reports that it had commissioned, had specifically recommended against construction on the riverbed. DDA officials declined to comment citing the pending high court case. Meanwhile, the Pune station’s study didn’t address or answer the question of whether structures could be left permanently on the riverbed.
“The terms of reference for the (station’s) study did not ask this question. It only dealt with the aspect of flood implications in view of a new bund on the river,” said Sanjay Parikh, the counsel for Rajendra Singh, a co-petitioner in the Delhi high court case against the plan to build on the riverbed. Delhi receives its water supply from surface water bodies, such as the Yamuna and the Ganga and groundwater. Sixty per cent of the surface water comes from Yamuna and 50% of Delhi’s precipitation falls in the Yamuna as well.
MoEF gave its clearance to the Commonwealth Games Village in December 2006. This clearance, however, only pertained to temporary structures on the riverbed. It also said DDA should use dismantlable structures and the riverbed will have to be restored to the river. Meanwhile, minutes of meetings between MoEF and DDA also show that DDA actually went ahead with construction even before MoEF had given its formal clearance and DDA merely informed MoEF that “they were going ahead with it.” Moreover, though DDA had two separate reports from Neeri (1999 and 2005), it provided MoEF with only one report from 1999.
After the clearance, DDA applied to MoEF to amend the clearance letter to allow permanent structures. Minutes of later meetings show that MoEF asked DDA to conduct more studies on groundwater recharge before they could accord amendments to the clearance. But, DDA, in the same meeting, said they would go ahead with the construction to “meet the deadlines”.
A subsequent report was submitted by the Pune-based station, which MoEF said was not adequate and it did not conform to the terms of reference given by them. But, inspite of all these concerns, MoEF modified the clearance in March 2007, allowing permanent structures on the riverbed. In late 2007,DDA had asked Neeri to yet again answer questions that the MoEF had asked on the implications of permanent structures in the flood plain.
In a January report, Neeri said the proposed area is no longer in the floodplain due to a bund constructed for the Akshardham temple and, with appropriate safeguards, DDA can go ahead with the project. This report is eight pages long, compared with the previous ones, which ran into hundreds of pages, in part because it appears to be only based on reviewing what the Pune station recommended.
“It was the MoEF, which allowed construction in the first place,” said a senior official with Neeri, who didn’t want to be named. “They are the authority. They kept our recommendations aside from the earlier reports and allowed construction with a lot of conditions. Later, a bund was constructed and then (the Pune station) commissioned a study on its effect. We just analysed that report and, on the basis of that, we said that Pocket III, which is the parking structure, is safe from ingress of river water in case of floods. Nothing more.”
Neeri also wrote in the last report that it had not done any studies of its own and had, instead, simply looked at documents provided by DDA to come to its conclusion. “Just because a bund has been built does not mean that the riverbed ceases to be a riverbed. A flood plain remains a flood plain and a precedent like this opens up the whole riverbed to more constructions,” complains Parikh, the lawyer opposing the construction.
The fate of the Commonwealth Games Village, which will house participants, rests with the high court, whose decision is expected soon.
Rahul Chandran contributed to this story.