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National Green Tribunal notes lack of Central law to protect river floodplains

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The National Green Tribunal has constituted a Joint Committee to ensure the proposal of the State for the construction of the medical college and riverfront development takes place in accordance with the law, without damage to the flood plains of the River Mahanadi, Cuttack. (Dilip Kumar Samantaray Vs State of Odisha Board & Ors)

A bench comprising NGT chairperson Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel, Justice Sheo Kumar Singh (Judicial Member), Dr S.S. Garbyal (Expert Member) and Dr Nagin Nanda (Expert Member) said, “In view of the averments made by the applicant that the riverbed is proposed to be affected by setting up of the Medical College or other permanent construction in the floodplain of the river, there is a need to prevent irreversible damage to the riverine ecology by enforcing the applicable rules, if any. If there are no rules, appropriate norms need to be laid down considering such norms in other similar situations in consultation with the experts.” 

The Court has directed for the formation of a committee comprising representatives of Central Water Commission, nominees of MoEF&CC, CPCB, National Institute of Hydrology, Roorkee and the State PCB to consider the issue regarding identifying the flood plains zone and lay down norms so as to prevent the irreversible damage to the “riverine ecology”.

“Flood plain zones need to be identified and demarcated in the light of such norms. The Committee may identify the extent of floodplain zone/active floodplain zone from the edge of the river. CPCB will be nodal agency for compliance. The Committee is free to associate any other individual or institution. The Committee may complete its exercise within four months. The members of the Committee are free to interact by video conferencing or otherwise. If any grievance with regard to violation of environmental norms survives, the applicant will be free to take any further remedies as per law,” the NGT said.  

This is not the first time when NGT has taken any step toward preventing the harmful construction on river banks which might cause irreversible damage to the “riverine ecology”. In an earlier order of its own, the Tribunal sought a report on factual aspects from a Committee comprising Secretary, Water Resource Department, Orissa and representative of the CPCB, with reference to the allegation of illegal construction activities and encroachment of Mahanadi river at Ratilo Mouza, Krishannagar Tehsil, Salepur Block, on-going construction of concrete structures such as Panchamukhi Hanuman Temple and Threshing Ground and proposed structures such as toilet, graveyard, market complex, Kalyani mandap and other activities that allegedly adversely affect the river ecology and disturb the river flow.

The report submitted by the committee has clearly mentioned that, “The construction of Temple in the Embankment of River Mahanadi by Panchamukhi Hanuman Temple Trust is illegal and may not be allowed by the Administration for construction.”

The matter was considered on August 20, 2020 and during the hearing, it has also transpired that such encroachments may be taking place at other locations on the floodplains of the river, including near the Cuttack Medical College or near the Bali Yatra Ground. NGT has ordered the committee to look into these aspects and give a report within three months on action taken.

As per the orders dated 20.08.2020, the committee visited the areas near SCB Medical College & Hospitals and Baliyatra ground. “During the visit, it is found that some pockets of these areas are encroached by slum-dwellers and also shop keepers since long. However, it is seen during the visit that no recent encroachment has taken place in the said areas.”

The applicant has filed a response to the report pointing out potential for damage to the ecology of the Mahanadi and Kathjodi rivers by proposed projects in the flood plan zones which shows that new campus of SCB medical college is proposed on 25 acres of land reclaimed from the river. The Mahanadi River Front project involves change of nature of the river land. Encroachment of Kathajodi and Mahanadi rivers and constructions in floodplain area may adversely affect the riverine ecology.

The bench has observed that there is a lack of Central legislation to regulate the flood plains, though various States have taken their own legislative/administrative measures to regulate and prohibit activities in the floodplains. The bench was also not aware of the legislative and administrative measures in the State of Odisha on the subject of regulating and prohibiting activities in the floodplain zones of the rivers in the State.

Considering the issue of rejuvenation of identified polluted river stretches, the bench has directed each State to constitute a River Rejuvenation Committee (RRC) to prepare appropriate action plan and execute the same. The action plan needs to include a plan for protection of floodplains.

“The river bed is proposed to be affected by setting up of the Medical College or other permanent constructions in the floodplain of the river, there is need to prevent irreversible damage to the riverine ecology by enforcing the applicable rules, if any. If there are no rules, appropriate norms need to be laid down considering such norms in other similar situations in consultation with the experts,” the Bench held.

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