Why the fuss over floodplains?

  • Vandana Ramnani, New Delhi
  • Updated: Mar 28, 2016 20:04 IST
Illegal farm houses along the river Yamuna in Noida. (Burhaan Kinu )

The World Culture Festival organised by the Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living Foundation (AOL) was recently in the news because of the alleged damage caused to Delhi’s Yamuna floodplains. The event, for which a seven-acre stage had been erected to accommodate 8,500 artists and about three lakh visitors, had also been criticised by the National Green Tribunal, which claimed the floodplains would be adversely impacted.

What seemed to have worked in the organiser’s favour, however, was the apparent ‘ambiguity’ in Delhi Master Plan 2021 where zonal development plan sub zone 07 relating to river development leaves scope for ‘recreational purposes’ without clearly specifying which activities are recreational.

Most importantly, no Central regulatory authority exists to check such recreational activities or construction of farmhouses and concrete structures on the floodplains. This is perhaps the reason why the Akshardham Temple was built on 90 acres of the floodplains, the Commonwealth Games Village on 157 acres, the Millennium Bus Depot on 50 acres, not to mention Barapullah Phase 3 and the Metro projects. It is because of this that large pockets of the Yamuna riverbed along Noida and Greater Noida, between sectors 151, 152, 153, 158 and 167, have also been taken over by land sharks who have been constructing and selling farmhouses and bungalows for premium prices of `50 lakh to over a few crores. Such properties are also advertised often as houses with a riverfront view.

Environmentalists attribute the present situation to an inordinate delay on the part of the environment ministry in notifying the River Regulation Zone (RRZ) that is to be modelled on the lines of the Coastal Regulation Zone under the Environment Protection Act 1986.

Clarifying the government’s stand, Ashok Lavasa, secretary, ministry of environment, forests and climate change, says consultations are going on with the states. The purpose of the River Regulation Zone is to define the area included in the regulatory zone and provide protection to the flood plains and regulate activities that can be permitted therein. “This is the first regulation of its kind in the country and we are going through a consultative process,” he adds.

Brij Gopal, former professor of JNU who conceptualised the RRZ in 2001 and has been a member of all expert groups set up by the ministry to formulate guidelines for management of river floodplains through the river regulation zone, says, “The basis of RRZ is that the rivers need certain space to carry their large seasonal flows and this space on either side of the river channels – called floodplains – has many important functions. These include groundwater recharge, holding floodwaters and allowing the development of fertile soils by replenishment of nutrients, supporting fish, and all other biodiversity, and improvement of water quality in the river. Hence, all development activities in the floodplains - on either side of the rivers - should be regulated.”

In all climates, the area occupied by the river flow with a probability of (floods?) once in every 100 years is considered as a floodplain. This flood probability is taken into account while designing the rail and road bridges. However, because in many parts of the country embankments have already been constructed to prevent villages, towns and fields from submergence, and much development has occurred close to the rivers, it has been proposed that areas where there is a probability of floods once in 50 years should be demarcated, mapped and brought under regulation, says Brij Gopal.

Flood zone mapping was proposed 40 years ago through a draft bill, but it has not been undertaken in the country. The proposed RRZ requires states to undertake this task for every small or large, seasonal or perennial river and notify it for all landuse planning. Wherever the embankments exist today, the developments outside (away from the river) will not be disturbed except for a small buffer.

The activities on the floodplain within the 50-year flood limit will be regulated (permitted or prohibited or restricted) according to their nature and magnitude with the primary objective of prevention of pollution and encroachment on space, says the draft.

Only organic agriculture and natural vegetation would be permitted and no permanent construction should be permitted in these areas. Access to the river will be regulated for cultural, religious, activities, it says.

It is proposed that Central and state authorities to implement it. The draft notification had been circulated to the states for their comments about two months ago, says Brij Gopal.

According to Amit Khemka, a senior lawyer and a legal activist fighting for environment protection, who has represented many cases against developers in the National Green Tribunal, the distance from the river is not important. It is the elevation of the floodplain that matters. Most cities are traditionally located on a higher elevation from the river. The flow of water may not be dangerous but if there has been rampant urbanisation and construction along the river and there is a flood, it is the force of the water coupled with the debris that causes destruction as was the case in Uttarakhand, Chennai and Kashmir.

Environment analyst Chetan Chauhan adds that the river regulation zone is an important climate adaptation measure that will protect both the river flood plain and the river bed.

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