TIME FOR A WATERWAYS BILL

#Vitarkka: The waterways of India is not a well studied system, nor proper planning for the same has been undertaken by bench-marking it against the best practices around the world. We do not worry about what contaminants or hazardous substances get into our waterways through the storm water drainage and canal-ways. We need to look no further than the well developed nations to understand what those countries are doing to distinguish, differentiate and demarcate different water pathways that zig-zag through their cities as this problem is a cause for consternation mostly in the impervious surfaces. They have changed their erstwhile ‘gravity sewers’ which would drain all the collected water into rivers or streams(which would invariably be contaminated by hazardous substances) into sophisticated, differentiated waterways system using a combination of installation of devices within the storm water sewer system such as Oil-grit separators(OGS) and Oil-sediment separators(OSS). These are important as Urban cities are the biggest polluters with hazardous substances such as heavy metals and PAHs intermingling in the ‘first flush’ from the urban runoff of rain water. The developed nations have also adopted different solutions for different regions based on the development, density, type of surfaces etc to determine whether they must use combination sewers or separated storm, surface water, and surface sewer lines. They also plan storm-water bypasses, road channels and  road-side ditches in sophisticated ways to ensure reduction in deluge during certain weather events.

In India our tribunals and regulatory bodies are working in a reactionary fashion by dishing out verdicts which are regressive. And this is because their hands are tied and that is the best they can do with the available laws and the ground realities notwithstanding interference of vested interests like the civic bodies. We lack in our ability to plan with short term and long term goals and implement them with dogged determination. This requires proper legislation and infact the law should be comprehensive to ensure that the government forms a waterway bill which should have the following:

1. Should have the complete waterways and lakes in every city surveyed and the size and shape should be defined and NGT or their local rep body should approve this document and gazette the same. This would ensure that the people are not taken by surprise by the authorities. Making this document online will give people clear knowledge of which property to buy and which to avoid.

2. The government should be tasked to form proper waterways in line with  international methods which can drain water to the lakes and ensure that no sewage is permitted to be dumped into the lines. The waterway specs should be laid out with a proper implementation and timelines to authorities,  without which all these laws are meaningless.

3. Lands which are owned by private parties should be compensated if it falls within the buffer areas and this should be clearly listed in the charter of the NGT to ensure that there is no discrepancy or avenue to cheat the public. Making this available online and timebound would enable citizens to understand their rights correctly. A re-study and rehash of the land acquisition and fair compensation laws is necessary to ensure that these laws are modified to incorporate and build on the way these laws have been interpreted by the courts.

4. Renewed and sophisticated waterways could aid in transport, rainwater harvesting and power generation and reduce polluting of our natural water bodies. This can easily be used to monetise these waterways. Like in Singapore a city waterway has given rise to Clark Quay, a buzzing waterfront restaurant district. The same could be done to monetise the real estate values and also encourage the city to expand to inner areas which leads to optimal utilisation of resources and reduce our carbon footprint. However, the laws need to be laid out and crystal clear as to how the monetization would happen otherwise powers to be will abuse and misuse these laws and make profit for themselves.

5. A proper information dissemination project must be undertaken by the government in such a way that it reaches the grass root levels and even the children studying in schools. The buy-in of the people will lead to tremendous cooperation and healthier growth of our cities, towns and villages.

One must have read a whole lot lately about the NGT and their landmark judgements. Not that I’m against any green movement, but the recent judgement passed on the buffer zones gets me thinking as to how reactionarily the law can be implemented.  So the earlier law in Karnataka prohibited any development 30m from the edge of a lake and classified 3 types of Water canals as primary, secondary and tertiary, where the no build zone was classified as 15 meters, 25 meters and 50 meters from the centre of the canal on both sides which is now revised to 75m from the edge of a lake and 25 mtrs, 35 mtrs and 50 mtrs from the ‘edge’ of the canals on each side, by the NGT. This new revision has pushed a lot of development work undertaken and permitted to be undertaken keeping in line with the previous buffers into a quandary, some of who have appealed this judgement. While they await their fate, the important lesson for all from this is that reactionary solutions create more problems than solve them.

The zoning and approval bodies were clearly in existence. However, many areas came under the panchayat (greenbelt & outer BDA areas) and using this ruse, though illegal, many property owners and developers in cahoots with the authorities and people of power, developed layouts which encroached canals and water bodies. Bangalore’s population was on the uprise and everyone and their uncle wanted a piece of Bangalore. Titles were ignored, laws were broken and all was well and happy.

This blatant violation has these past years been a cause of concern. The water bodies have shrunk. Bangalore was known to have 1000s of lakes. Sadly today there are less than 90.

The encroachment of canals and lakes has led to rapid depletion of ground water which is a key source for drinking water and has given rise to flooding of homes and roads during the peak monsoon season.

SO WHERE IS THE PROBLEM???

While it is imperative to strengthen laws and make it difficult for violations to occur, it is imperative for the those who create the law to comprehensively develop a law which takes all parties into consideration i.e. citizens, property developers, property owners, architects, planners, etc,  to enable a law which is practical, well thought out and appreciated by all.

However, the new buffer zone regulations make it impossible for tens of thousands of people who own lands adjoining lakes and canals to be able to build on the same. The tribunal or government haven’t spelt out the compensation to those who will lose lands to these regulations. In a democracy, this feels like a section of law makers wanted to teach big property developers a lesson and in the process have destroyed tens of thousands of small land-owners aspirations. Like the classic saying goes, create chaos and milk it. So this will turn out to be another money making scheme for the authorities.

The real problem lies not just in the new regulations made, but the fact that it doesn’t tackle the real problem, which are the illegal layouts formed throughout Bangalore, which are the true source of problems, by acting retrospectively. The authorities are not exercising the law to reclaim certain of these areas as most are controlled by vote bank politics where powerful people protect these areas and the authorities just haven’t been able to make any real progress.

The authorities have been told umpteen number of times to develop a comprehensive plan to ensure the whole city’s canals and lakes are recovered and restored but no penalties are imposed on these errant authorities for not doing so. Somehow the tax paying citizens and property developers get penalised directly or indirectly due to the lack of will of the legislative and administrative bodies to provide planned infrastructure.

It also appears that when it comes to implementation of the NGT order, the civic authorities tend to strike on rich localities where they themselves have approved construction legally earlier and illegally now are demolishing homes where people have spent crores on construction taking bank loans and investing personal hard earned monies, in the process destroying their wealth and lives irreparably.

Who goes scott free??? The errant property developers, the authorities who approved the development, the local authorities who took money and turned a blind eye, the lawyers who cleared the titles and the project and the bank who gave the loan!

THE FUTURE…

Those who are affected by the NGT will approach courts for compensation. If the courts hear their woes and allows compensation, where will the government bring lakhs of crores for the tens of thousand of acres??? I wonder if the three arms of a government in democracy work in unison before passing these kind of regulations.  Typical of government agencies to take decisions unilaterally without treating matters comprehensively.

THERE IS SO MUCH WE CAN LEARN FROM SINGAPORE

Singapore is a classic example of how a capital city should develop. Our Indian authorities visit so often but till date haven’t understood the wisdom of Singapore. Singapore does not penalise the public with laws which are not well thought out. They use their engineering brains. Yes…thats right….ENGINEERING BRAINS!!! Our authorities could invite the Singaporeans to teach them a thing or two….but hey…our guys know it all right???  ENGINEERING is the key to solve all the issues and intelligent minds with maximum empowerment are needed to get our major cities waterways ready in the next five year or these cities may die a natural death and the so called wealth gained is of no use to the powers to be.

‘APPROVALS’ BY THE AUTHORITIES – A SHAM?? A SCAM???… 

The Authorities issue an ‘A’ Khata. They approve the building plan, Don’t they know the law??? Don’t they know about Canals, Lakes etc??? How are they approving plans, projects etc.??? Shouldn’t they be held accountable??? The BBMP has over 10000 direct employees and many part timers too. What are all these employees doing??? Shouldn’t the public take them to task??? After all the public are more in number than these 10000 odd people who don’t seem to know their jobs.

THE COURTS – THE ONLY RESPITE

All affected parties should take to the courts and sue the government agencies and make the officials personally liable and put the errant officials behind bars for abusing their power. They should not only seek compensation from the government authorities and also the banks who have approved these projects. After all, if the BBMP so chooses to demolish a house which they have approved, shouldn’t the public get together and give them a taste of their own medicine???

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