Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

Govt faces flak over lack of progress on river zone regulations

Environmentalists point out that unregulated development and construction in vulnerable river floodplains has led to unimaginable devastation

It took the Uttarakhand floods of 2013 to get the environment ministry to start work on a river regulation zone (RRZ) policy to prohibit or regulate development activities on riverfronts and floodplains. But nearly seven months after a draft policy was sent to all states for comments and suggestions, only a handful have responded.

And the states that have reverted on the draft oppose it as they fear the policy will severely constrain their development works near floodplains and along rivers.

The RRZ policy had been in the works since 2002, but work on it received a boost only after the June 2013 floods in Uttarakhand, which killed nearly 6,000 people. Finally, on 8 January 2016, the draft RRZ policy was sent to all the states.

The proposed policy seeks to prohibit or regulate developmental activities on riverfronts and floodplains. It proposes to create three river conservation zones (RCZs)—prohibited activities zone, restricted activities zone and regulated activities zone—in floodplains. For mountain rivers, the policy proposes to create two zones—a prohibited activities zone and a restricted activities zone.

“We have received comments till date from states and Union territories like Kerala, Maharashtra, Karnataka, West Bengal, Mizoram, Sikkim, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Puducherry. They are being considered," said a senior official of the environment ministry, who did not want to be identified.

“All the comments received essentially oppose the proposed RRZ," said the official, adding that a reminder was issued in February and May to states yet to send in their comments.

Though states fear that such a policy will bar development work in river floodplains or on riverfronts, the ministry has repeatedly clarified that it will not bar all development but will only regulate it and prohibit certain work in certain areas.

Environmentalists have been pointing out that unregulated development and construction in vulnerable river floodplains has led to unimaginable devastation. They draw attention to the 2013 Uttarakhand floods and recent cases of urban floods like the one in Chennai last year that claimed many lives and damaged property worth hundreds of crores of rupees.

“Every year, one city or another is facing floods in India because we have left no space for rivers. So, rivers are troubling us. Why can’t people understand this basic fact? There has to be a legal prohibition on development near rivers," said Manoj Misra, convener of the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan, an organization that has been working to clean and revitalize the river for nearly a decade. “The RRZ policy is long overdue. We hope the government now at least does something for this policy which has been pending since 2002. Unregulated construction on floodplains increased the magnitude of the 2013 Uttarkhand floods," Misra said, noting that the RRZ notification has not been made public.

Meanwhile, the National Green Tribunal on Monday took strong exception to the delay in filing a report on RRZ and directed the environment ministry to submit the same by 3 October.

The tribunal, headed by justice Swatanter Kumar, noted that it had directed the environment ministry to submit a report by an expert group on river regulation in 2013 but for the past three years, the ministry has done nothing.

During the hearing, the ministry informed the tribunal that it has already sent the draft RRZ policy to states and is awaiting their response.