Striking at Krishna's floodplains will make proposed Andhra Pradesh capital a doomed city

Amaravati is aimed at creating high-stake infrastructure in areas that are part of the Krishna river.

 |  15-minute read |   24-11-2017
  • ---
    Total Shares

Andhra Pradesh government’s ambitious plans to raise a world-class capital city along the Krishna’s banks have hit a road block. At least that is what environment activists and farmers opposing the destruction of the river's floodplains believe after the National Green Tribunal (NGT) appointed two committees and imposed several conditions that would be applied mutatis mutandi (necessary changes) as part of the environmental clearance for the capital city project.

It could also be interpreted thus: Andhra Pradesh government’s ambitious plans to raise a world-class capital city along the Krishna’s banks have got a green signal, like the powers that be in the state believe, for the NGT — even while stating that “precautionary principle is a proactive method of dealing with the likely environmental damage” — declined to set aside the environmental clearance granted to the project.

And then comes a third interpretation: Andhra Pradesh government’s ambitious plans to raise a world-class capital city along the Krishna’s banks should get environmentalists, academicians, civil society and policymakers thinking about the optimised use of floodplains vis-à-vis the pending River Regulation Zone (RRZ) notification even though the NGT did not mention it in the entire order it passed on November 17, 2017.

The greenfield capital of Amaravati might as well serve as a model for debate and discussion on how a modern city should be. For centuries, cities have thrived along river banks, but the human-river relationship has undergone a sea change. Especially in India, the greed for land has caused insurmountable atrocity on her rivers.

Examples of destruction caused due to the cities of Mumbai, Chennai and Srinagar encroaching on the floodplains of the rivers that run through them drive home the importance of floodplains, which — apart from providing drinking water and sustaining livelihoods — play multiple roles: absorbing excess rain, absorbing excess discharge from dams, recharging ground water and recharging the river in non-monsoon months. We have wrought on ourselves enough damage by violating this sacred space.

River, floodplains and the new capital

The debate, in case of Amaravati, has both “where-to-build” and “how-much-to-build” angles.

In December 2014, the Andhra Pradesh government issued an order identifying the location of the capital city between Vijayawada and Guntur on the banks of river Krishna. The government notified an area of about 7,068sqkm for the capital region and 122sqkm for the capital city. It was followed by Andhra Pradesh Capital City Land Pooling Scheme (Formation and Implementation) Rules, 2015, which enabled the Andhra Pradesh Capital Region Development Authority (APCRDA) to procure land from landowners and non-landowning farmers for a price, disputed by the latter.

amaravati-690_112317081759.jpgMaster plan for the proposed capital Amaravati. 

It is no rocket science. The NGT underscored that “the river beds and river floodplains are integral part of river wet land system and play an extremely important role in the water cycles, including recharge of ground water. Therefore, if a river’s drainage basin or floodplain is heavily urbanised, it becomes much more prone to flooding”.

Apart from the Krishna’s banks and floodplains, there is Kondaveeti Vaghu, a meandering rivulet that meets Krishna just upstream of Prakasam barrage.

The soil in this area is so rich that farmers have been producing 110 varieties of crops such as horticulture, plantation, floricultural and vegetable, including the staple paddy crop. 

multi-_112317090334.jpgPart of the floodplains, the soil is so rich that the farmers produce 110 varieties of crops (Photo: Nivedita Khandekar)

As mentioned earlier, the NGT invoked that the “precautionary principle is a proactive method of dealing with the likely environmental damage”. It also said, “In view of the peculiar facts of this case, a more detailed study on hydro-morphology of the area needs to be undertaken to plan for adopting methods for water retention with the purpose of optimising water conservation. Similarly, before altering any floodplain, a study is required to be done.”

“Likewise, the project proponent should not be permitted to alter the river course or that of natural storm water which can increase soil erosion and decrease ground water recharge. The existing embankments should not be altered, except for the purpose of flood protection. In order to have effective and proper implementation of the condition laid down by the tribunal, it is deemed proper to have a proper committee constituted.”

Bolisetty Satyanarayana, a local Congress leader and one of the petitioners in the NGT case, said: “This is the fraud that the government is playing. This massive project is destroying our river, floodplains, forests and farm lands running into thousands of hectares. The NGT should have remedied this, instead it has endorsed. Therein lies the problem and lack of commitment by NGT in protecting environment and ecology.”

amaravati-8---apsdm-_112317082151.jpg

amaravati-9---apsdm-_112317082004.jpgThe Disaster Management Plan of undivided Andhra Pradesh clearly showed the Krishna floodplain damaged in the one-in-100-year flood.

Bolisetty showcases a table and a map that has been part of Andhra Pradesh Disaster Management Plan https://www.slidedoc.us/apsdmp1 (prepared in August 2010 when the state was undivided), which the current Andhra government simply refuses to acknowledge. “The map clearly shows that the one-in-100-year flood had entirely inundated the proposed capital city area and still the government has not agreed on terming that as floodplains,” he said, adding that his team, after thoroughly studying the NGT order, is planning to approach the Supreme Court.

Experts warn against construction in floodplains

A huge block-model of the proposed capital city welcomes a visitor at the entrance of the APCRDC office in Vijayawada. The contrast between the existing fertile land — with a variety of lush green crops sprinkled with trees, rivulets, water bodies and hillocks — and the proposed glitzy concrete high-rises with hardly any greenery sets alarm bells ringing.

green-amaravati_112317085917.jpgAn aerial view of the proposed capital area, currently lush green with multi-cropping pattern. Photo: Nivedita Khandekar

am-690_112317082450.jpgBlock model of the proposed capital city at the APCRDC office. Photo: Nivedita Khandekar

When the undivided Andhra Pradesh was to be bifurcated into Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, the Dr KC Sivaramakrishnan Commission had clearly cautioned about the environmental considerations vis-à-vis Vijayawada, Guntur, Tenali, Mangaleri (VGTM) area, large portions of which are now part of the capital region.

In its report, the Sivaramakrishnan Committee, quoting its “Terms of Reference”, specifically mentions “least possible dislocation to existing agriculture systems”: “The districts of Krishna, Guntur and West Godavari comprise some of the best agricultural lands in the country. Guntur and Krishna have the second highest population in the state of nearly 49 lakhs and 45 lakhs as well as a workforce of nearly 23.8 lakhs and 20.48 lakhs respectively. Of this workforce, 65 per cent in Guntur and 56 in Krishna are cultivators and agricultural labourers. Any attempt to convert agricultural land, much of which is located along the proposed ring road, into non-agricultural use (land) will seriously displace this workforce, rendering them unemployed, (cause) the loss of valuable agricultural land, the disappearance of small holdings and farmers, and benefit only land speculation and profit real estate operators.”

It also pointed out that the “water table in this area is generally high. The Geological Survey of India has carried out a seismic micro-zonation in this area and has highlighted the problem of high water table and vulnerable soil types, which together may lead to severe problems of foundation and soil-bearing capacities. This is one of the reasons why there are not many high-rise buildings in this area”.

Any sane urban planner would have paid heed to this insight. But not the APCRDA.

The problem, perhaps, is because the committee had only analysed the advantages and disadvantages of various places but not suggested a single place or a city/town, prompting the Andhra Pradesh government to go ahead with its disastrous plan.

Upon visiting the area, waterman of India Rajendra Singh, a Magsaysay awardee and winner of the Stockholm Water Prize, said: “We have an old saying, ‘Ret me mehel nahi bantey, nadi me ghar nahi bastey (no palace can be built in sandy terrain and no house can be built inside the river floodplain).’ Building the new capital on the Krishna floodplain is crime — a legal, constitutional, cultural and civilisational crime.”

Professor Vikram Soni, an environmental physicist, along with fellow urban planning expert Romi Khosla, has come up with a concept of “natural city” and thinks Amaravati is the best place where this model can be brought to life.

The Natural City Master Plan for Amaravati envisages the preservation of the floodplain to use it “as a perennial source of quality water” for the new city’s residents.

But then, the Andhra Pradesh government is in no mood to pay heed to this cost-effective solution. In fact, calling the applicants’ contentions over the floodplains “absolutely false and baseless”, the Andhra Pradesh government told the NGT: “The identified capital city area is neither located in the floodplains nor prone to floods caused by the river Krishna.”

Soni said his proposal was submitted to the Andhra Pradesh government in July 2016, but he never heard from the government. “It is an environmental and sustainability challenge... (it is) not just about floods causing any damage. This NGT judgment is a complete negation of all things right that we can do.”

Incidentally, Parakala Prabhakar, advisor (communications) to the Andhra Pradesh chief minister, said that all the suggestions received about the project were examined and only after analysing their pros and cons did the government go ahead with its plans.

Defending the government’s decision, he said: “The tribunal has asked us to take adequate precautions and we would be taking those. The maximum discharge (in the Krishna during peak monsoon) has been 16,000 cusecs. Our plan envisages making such provisions that even if it touches double the historic maximum discharge level, there would be no damage.”

Work in progress without adequate clearances

7-amaravati---speed-_112317092601.jpgSpeed access road in the region. Photo: Nivedita Khandekar

A six-lane, speed access road nearing completion cuts right across the region. The Andhra Pradesh government had originally planned to start work for the Government Administrative Complex (GAC) on September 30, 2017, the Vijayadashami Day (Dussehra), but it was postponed.

Although the ruling Telugu Desam Party (TDP) supporters blamed it on a financial crisis as the BJP-led Centre was not coming forth with funds, the allegation that the Centre did not help the TDP government does not ring true if one is to consider the “permission” given by the Union government.

According to a news report, the Centre had given permission to divert 2,087.06 hectares of forest land in Tadepalli (257 hectares) and Venkatayyapalem (1,835 hectares) for Amaravati. The permission came with a few riders, such as 60 per cent of the permitted forest area for the diversion had to be maintained as a green area.

But now there is some hope. The NGT imposed certain conditions as it did not set aside the environmental clearance given to the project. “The capital city has about 251 acres of forest land which should be preserved as green lungs of the city and not be diverted for non-forestry uses or even for uses like parks or recreational activities as that will alter its natural characteristics and deprive the capital of the ecosystem services which a natural forest provides, as opposed to a plantation forests,” the NGT order said.

The court appointed supervisory and implementation committees. These panels have to ensure the execution of the conditions in a time-bound manner and also inspect the project. Also, the two committees would need to submit its report to the Tribunal from time to time. “They shall be applied mutatis mutandi to the conditions mentioned in the environmental clearance already granted to the project by the competent authority.”

World Bank aid: To give or not to give?

According to Andhra Pradesh government’s records, the World Bank is supporting the Amaravati Sustainable Capital City Development Project (ASCCDP).

Several people from the affected area had approached the World Bank inspection panel (as per its own claim, it is an independent complaints mechanism for people and communities who believe that they have been, or are likely to be, adversely affected by a World Bank-funded project).

The first set of requesters had stated they were “likely to suffer harm as a result of the World Bank’s failures or omissions with respect to environmental and social impacts related to a land-pooling scheme being used to acquire land for the capital city. The panel has already disposed of this complaint without registering the request for inspection.

The second complaint, for which a two-member team had visited the area recently, is yet to be decided by the inspection panel. It claims to have received a “request for inspection” by landowners from the area proposed for the construction of the Amaravati capital city. Those landowners had alleged “harm from the Land Pooling Scheme (LPS) used to assemble the land required for the city and potential resettlement for the project as they claimed it would endanger “their livelihood, environment, food security, and lack of consultation and disclosure as a result of the bank’s non-compliance with its environmental and social standards”.

6-amaravti---world-b_112317093401.jpgThe World Bank team at Lingayapalam. Photo: Nivedita Khandekar

The team visited a number of villages and heard more than 200 people from across the spectrum. Two of the villages were Lingayapalam and Raipudi. The latter has about 400 farm landowners and 600 farm land labourers.

Rajdhani Pranta Ryuthu-Cooli Parirakshan Samithi convenor Anumolu Gandhi said, “There is no transparency in the pooling system. They started pooling in January 2015 and by February 2016, the master plan was ready. How is it even possible?”

“There is fear and confusion everywhere. The government officials are misleading people and even pitting officials against each other. There is a hype and the real estate market is on the rise vis-à-vis black money,” Gandhi said.

His statements were echoed by Abhinanda Babu and T Nayaka, farmers who claimed the government officials threatened to acquire land at a low cost. “The 2013 Land Act says there would be no differentiation. Then why are we getting a raw deal?” the residents of village Lingayapalam, one of the many that are to be merged into the new capital, asked. They said they had approached the SC commission, but in vain.

Pulli Katrenamma, a farmer who owns four acres of land, said: “We don’t want to give our land. But if at all, the government snatches our land, we want land in the new capital, we do not want to go away.”

The government is defending this decision too. “The differential rates are not for the farmers but for different categories of land. For instance, the D-Form land, given to farmers from weaker sections for tilling but where their families don’t own the land title, has been taken back by the government. Yet, those farmers won’t get anything,” Parkala said.

Missing from the narrative: RRZ

Surprisingly, in the 145-page NGT judgment, one point that was conspicuous by its absence is the Centre’s draft River Regulation Zone (RRZ) notification.

In fact, it was the NGT that had stated in the case of Akash Vashishtha & Anr Vs Union of India & Ors that “it is an admitted position in law that construction upon the floodplain area is prohibited” and passed an order restraining any illegal and unauthorised construction, be it temporary or permanent, in the floodplain zone of the Yamuna in 2013.

The Uttarakhand floods of 2013, followed by the Kashmir floods of 2014 prompted the ministry of environment forests and climate change (MoEF&CC) to release in 2016 the RRZ notification draft under the Environment Protection Act, 1986.

According to a news report, several states had opposed the draft, which has not seen the discussion moving any further as both land and water are state subjects. Not a surprise as the Amaravati case proves beyond doubt that state governments too are in favour of development that mints revenue in the garb of building world-class cities.

The governments of the day may get away with such blatant violations, but for long-term sustainability, we need balance. As the precious resource we call water grows scarcer with each passing year, as climate change results in erratic precipitation and rise in temperatures and as more forests are cut every year, what will cities look up to?

This parasitic existence of cities cannot go on forever. Simple logic: You sustain the environment, and it will sustain you.

Is it such a tall order?

Also read - 4-yr-old boy booked for raping classmate: Unsafe schools are India's growing nightmare

Writer

Nivedita Khandekar Nivedita Khandekar @nivedita_him

The author is an independent journalist based in Delhi. She writes on environmental, developmental and social issues.

Like DailyO Facebook page to know what's trending.