Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Invoke RTI if your neighbourhood is flooded

Is your neighbourhood flooded? Are the nullahs encroached upon? Invoke RTI
June 15, 2011 11:20 AM Bookmark and Share
Vinita Deshmukh
anupamsaraph

Cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Pune get flooded even with one long heavy shower during the monsoon. The reason is not so much the unexpected heavy rainfall, as much as it has to do with the expected failure of the municipal corporations to make storm water drains, or allowing illegal encroachments on nullahs and streams. RTI can help you nail them. 

That flash floods are not necessarily the outcome of nature's fury, was proved in Pune during the last monsoon. An entire slum was submerged under 5-6 feet of water, because a housing society in the neighbourhood had constructed its compound wall on the nullah itself. In another incident, a young mother and her infant were miraculously rescued as they were being carried away by water that gushed through the bathroom window around midnight and flooded the bedroom. The entire residential area suffered flooding. The cause: about 200 illegal structures on the Ramnadi. There are similar stories in Mumbai and Delhi, perhaps some other cities too.

Are we to bear this threat to life and limb because of corrupt elected representatives and municipal officials? No, we need not. We can invoke the Right to Information (RTI) Act, while staying alert about what's happening to the water bodies and channels in the neighbourhood.

RTI activist Vijay Kumbhar has some suggestions and advises invoking Section 4 of the RTI Act.
> Demand a map of your neighbourhood from the municipal corporation, in order to get a proper idea of the nullahs, streams and rivers that exist in your area. Set up a neighbourhood committee to physically inspect if any encroachments have taken place in these areas.
> Besides physical inspection, demand documents/correspondence pertaining to kuccha and pucca illegal encroachments if any, and the action taken against these.
> Ask for documents of tenders for de-silting of water bodies and how much expenditure has been incurred.
> Apply for copies of circulars/GRs (government resolutions) on preservation of water bodies, especially after the 26 July 2005 deluge in Mumbai.
Also, get copies of circulars/GRs, if any, since the Bombay High Court judgement on the Mithi River.
> Ask about the work that has been undertaken by the municipal corporation for storm water drains, de-silting of water bodies, any other steps taken to free the water bodies from encroachments like construction and garbage.

After you have this information, if you find encroachments, immediately file a complaint with the municipal commissioner. Last month, Bavdhan residents (particularly those in Ramnagar Colony) in Pune launched a major agitation based on the physical verification of the Ramnadi that flows through their neighbourhood. In their case, the encroachment on the river has been the construction rubble dumped there by builders. In April 2011, they held a relay hunger protest for two days on the main road in their colonies. Ahead of the protest, they dashed off a letter to the municipal commissioner, demanding the removal of the rubble, as well as the encroachments, in order that they do not suffer flash floods again, as had happened during the monsoon last year.

In response to their demand, the municipal commissioner got four excavators to complete the removal of rubble. Earlier, when such clearance work was undertaken by the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC), the workers would dig out the muck and deposit it some 100 metres away, and this would flow back into the river in the first rains. This time, citizens are actively monitoring the work, taking turns. A part of the neighbourhood comes under the Pune collectorate.

Earlier, the collector failed to respond to these citizens who complained about flash floods on account of upcoming residential constructions. They named four or five building projects, wherein compound walls had encroached on the river. One of them is now being demolished, voluntarily, by the builder. "Relentless vigilance by neighbourhood citizens is the only way to get work done in a proper manner,'' says Vinod Bodhankar, member of "Biradari", the organisation that has taken up the matter of encroachments on water bodies in a very big way.

Another example of citizens' participation to stop encroachment and concretisation of the Devnadi and to preserve the natural environment, is available in the upmarket housing societies of Concord Proxima, Gera Emerald City and some other societies on Baner Road. After a tenacious struggle with the PMC, the residents were compelled to file a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Bombay High Court. Last month, the HighCourt ordered the PMC to stop concretising the Devnadi and shelve the ambitious Rs400-crore project under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM).

Anupam Saraph, a prominent resident in the area, led the agitation in early 2010, under the banner of 'Baner Ara Sabha'. The Devnadi flows behind their apartments, and the residents were delighted when they realised that 60 metres on either side of the river had been cleared of encroachments. Then, sensing that construction activity in adjoining areas could result inencroachment again, residents came together to pledge greening of the river banks through tree plantation, developing nature trails, creating bunds to enhance groundwater percolation, and cleansing the river water through natural methods and barriers. The garden superintendent of the PMC, who was invited to visit the area, appreciated this achievement through citizens' participation.

However, a few months later, the residents suddenly spotted excavators and saw some activity. On inquiring, they were told that as part of the JNNURM project, the Devnadi was to be concretised. This would mean constricting the width of the river and halting groundwater percolation (due to concretisation), which would lead to flash floods during the rains. Mr Saraph says, "On 4 October 2010, Pune witnessed a huge cloud-burst. Various locations where channelisation/concretisation has happened, including the stream behind the municipal commissioner's bungalow, suffered heavy flooding. But there was no flood on the Devnadi as it is not channelized. (It has an average width of 50-60 metres.) Now, the PMC wants to destroy that.''

These residents also took the guidance of waterman Dr Rajendra Singh who had applauded their efforts, which contributed to the implementation of the urban watershed policy.

Alarmed by the sudden activity, residents not only protested, but they also invoked the RTI. They had been intelligently making resolutions on the conservation of Devnadi and sending minutes of the meetings to the additional city engineer, along with a copy to the municipal commissioner. The additional commissioner, who also visited the site once, accepted the resolutions. The residents demanded copies of these resolutions and demanded to know what action had been taken. They found file notings in which the additional commissioner had stated that the Devnadi should be preserved, and they also discovered the municipal commissioner's noting asking him to ignore the development plan which does not permit concretisation of nullahs.

While this pressure by citizens helped, last month, the PMC surreptitiously started releasing sewage water into the Devnadi. Once again, these alert citizens were up in arms. This time, they marched straight away to the doors of the Bombay High Court, which gave an order in their favour and asked the PMC to reply.

Vijay Kumbhar has also invoked Section 4 of the RTI Act, after last year's monsoons, and asked for the number of illegal encroachments on water bodies. The PMC has given him a list of 17 major encroachments. Armed with this information, Mr Kumbhar and Maj Gen SCN Jatar, another leading RTI activist, have formed a one-man commission under Justice PB Sawant, and are collecting complaints from citizens to finally hand it over to the PMC to compel it to act.

In 2009, journalist Partha Sarathi Biswas invoked Section 4 of the RTI Act at the PMC, to procure a copy of the report made by Primove and TWIC on the nullah system in the city. The detailed study identified 164.51 km of nullahs in the city. Dividing the city into 12 basins, the study identified encroachments too, but the PMC has hardly taken any action on this, despite having spent Rs1.5 crore as consultancy fees.

Mumbai-based ecologist-activist Jagdish Gandhi also filed a public interest litigation in the Bombay High Court regarding encroachments on the Mithi river because of which the Brihanmumbai Mahanagarpalika was forced to take action.

The moral of these accounts is, 'do not ignore flash floods'. Act. Invoke the RTI. Make a noise.

(Vinita Deshmukh is a senior editor, author and convener of Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She can be reached at vinitapune@gmail.com.)

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