Regulating Rivers and Roads for Sustainable Development

By R S Tolia • Random Thoughts • 8 Oct 2013

One good development that certainly has emerged out of the 16 June disaster, triggered by the Mandakini, is the fact that we need to have urgently a far better disaster management mechanism in Uttarakhand, has surfaced prominently. One only hopes that the Bahuguna Administration is paying adequate attention towards improving the existing disaster management mechanism and not mixing it up with the urgency that necessarily must have an over-riding priority, namely addressing the relief and rehabilitation requirements of all affected families and, as has become quite apparent by now, some economic sectors like transport, tourism, small and petty business etc. These important lessons, including measures taken, have to be factored in in improving over our over-all package of response-system. Past three months have seen several seminars, discussions, academic and scientific-technical presentations being organised locally, nationally and even regionally. Suddenly, many sectors have felt an urgent need to re-visit their individual work-processes, legal and corresponding man-power frame-works to ensure that disaster management gets main-streamed. Strategically also it is appropriate that all major sectors undertake a comprehensive reflection over this public interest theme.

Agenda for Forestry & Environment : Rivers and Roads

To this writer, in Uttarakhand, it is the Forestry & Environment sector and in particular the Forest & RD Commissioner ( FRDC ) Branch, which must consider few suggestions that obviously come to one’s mind, as starting points for working out a medium and long-term agenda. Thematically, the core suggestion is that all Rivers and Roads of Uttarakhand must be scientifically regulated. Rivers, as we all know are more of less static and fixed, in so far as their flow-routes through Uttarakhand are concerned. However, they do and can always change their routes for various reasons. Being home to several major rivers, Uttarakhand need to improve its River Management mechanism and immediately make move to put the entire regime i.e. beginning with Data-collection, time-series observations, analysis and sharing of data, beyond the current regime built around Flood Management, essentially developed over decades for warning the huge down-stream catchment or potential flood-prone area. While all plains’ district have their individual Flood Management Plans, reviewed periodically, there is no corresponding data-profile on water in the mountain districts, where these rivers originate and flow-through. Forests and the high-Himalayan Forest Divisions and now Protected Areas ( PAs), in all three border districts of Uttar Kashi, Chamoli and Pithoragarh, are not only the depository of all water –related data, these source-locations are exclusively located in the reserved forest area, with or without a PA management cover. So, it goes without saying that it is Forest department in the FRDC Branch that has to anchor the responsibility of all water related data-generation collection, analysis regime and its sharing with various disaster management related and development departments. A review of man-power of all high-Himalayan Forest Divisions and Protected Areas will show that they have been pathologically starved of adequate and willing man-power, prize posting being PAs and WL Sanctuaries like the Corbett or Raja ji Parks, close to Naini Tal or Dehra Dun. No wonder, Askot WL Sanctuary, took as many years as it did, and I can lay a bet that it will always remain starved of a full time Director or subordinate staff. Gangotri PA, covering 40 % of total PA area in Uttarakhand, not very surprisingly has the worst record for its manning.

Regulating Rivers and River-sides

Easily one of the richest organisations related to land-use classification cartography and related details is Uttarakhand’s Watershed Development department. It was a deliberate move to constitute a full-fledged Watershed Development department, as soon as the new State came into existence, in November 2000. It has in its possession comprehensive details right upto micro-watershed level, some 1110 plus micro-watershed. This adds to State’s River-shed wise information and data-base, as these maps are used for planning several projects e.g. watershed development projects, rural drinking water projects and even road-making projects. This massive data-set needs to be digitised, used for making River-Basin, sub-Rives basin and micro-watershed level disaster management plans, layering it with the District and sub-District disaster management Plans that are mandated under the Disaster Management Act, 2005.

Rivers flow through regions which are under control of reserved forest regimes ( Working Plans ), Non-ZA regions ( erroneously called Civil Soyam regions, non-Territorial Divisions of Forest department ), Van Panchayats ( ‘Other Forest’ regimes, which need to be covered by Micro-plans, according to VP Rule, 2005 ) and finally through Village and Local Bodies Areas. It is only when the rivers flow through the last two, namely a Village boundary and Local Body like a Nagar Panchayat or Nagar Palika or Mahanagar Palika, that its regulation is beyond Forest department. If one were to follow the course of say Bhagirathi one would readily see why the river banks are totally unregulated and cause of much of our present worry, say in Gangotri Nagar Panchayat, or Bhatwari or Uttar Kashi or Dunda Nagar Palikas or Panchayat, besides the various villages upstream and down-stream any of these stretches where it passes through non-reserved forest patches. So, any regulation has to have two parts, mainly by Forest department, either through the mechanism of Indian Forest Act and Working Plan cum Protected Area regimes, and second, through various non-forest stretches. The latter could have two layers, generic covered by section 3 of the Environment Act, 2006, specific by the local body entity, Gram Panchayat or any Urban Local Body.

Regulation of Rivers, in so far as Uttarakhand is concerned pre-dates its formation. One of the two major conditions for MoEF clearance given for Tehri Hydro Electric Project ( THDC ) consisted of enactment of The Bhagirathi River Valley Development Authority Act, which after formation of the State was re-notified as Uttaranchal River Valley Development Act, thus covering all rivers and river-sheds, not just the Bhagirathi River valley. It was a indeed a far-sighted move, and now provides a legal frame-work for regulating any river of this State. River-side regulation was planned and the issue was discussed during UP days, in the Uttarakhand Development Department days, but the same was deferred as the then Chief Secretary TSR Subramanian feared that any such regulation of river-sides using the provisions of this Act might be resented by mountain people. Regulations, as has been the experience has been resented it is often mis-used also by a rapacious bureaucracy. However, its negative side is also apparent now, as we see a rampant violation of river-side related safety in the absence of any regulation of laxity of their enforcement. Brief point remain, that the state-wide Regulation to regulate the riversides already exists and its provisions should be tweaked to regulate all major and minor river-sides, for the safety of human lives and prevention of loss to property. Needless to point out, the existing Forest Manual, at best addresses just Forest Fires, as one disaster it has to manage every year and while there is room for even tweaking this mechanism for further improvement, there is need to re-visit Forest Fires also, in conjunction with Regulation proposed for our ubiquitous water-ways and streams, big and small.

Uttarakhand River Valley Development Authority Act, National Environment Act and the Indian Forests Act, 1927 ready with existing and proposed Rules provide us an adequate legal framework for regulation of all major and minor rivers of Uttarakhand. As has been discussed, various data and maps available with the Watershed Development Department also provide us necessary data base to build on a data collection, analysis and sharing mechanism for each River system, down to ist smallest tributary, which is available with the Watershed Department.   

Uttarakhand Space Application Centre ( SAC ), first was anchored in the Planning Department and was later transferred to the Science & Technology department, as Planning Department did not measure up to the requirement of its hosting. The Space Application Centre ( SAC ) and the Disaster  Mitigation & Management centre, the latter anchored in yet again a full-fledge Department, i.e. Disaster Management, are two state-of-the-art institutions, which necessarily have to be made a part of the larger Disaster Management mechanism for ushering in a very dynamic response architecture. These two institutions, will also have to be apportioned the role and function, for an on-line River Regulation mechanism, as an integral and major part of our future disaster management architecture. In order to ensure that the entire administrative cum legal structure functions as a cohesive and dynamic mechanism administrative re-structuring will have to be undertaken. The various activities, which will relate to monitoring of the rivers and the river basis, down to the micro-watersheds level, will have to be identified, broken into activities and then mainstreamed into a Disaster Management component of the Forest Department. Besides, the administrative and legal re-structuring, the financing of the additional activities undertaken either directly by the Forest department, through its down-stream administrative entities, Circles and Forest Divisions and Forest Ranges, the ground activity will end –up with Compartments, and up-dating of their annual Compartmental Histories. The under-revision National Working Plan Code ( 2012 ), will also have to be appropriately re-worked, including this disaster management component, while it gets operationalized, including its financial implications. Results of studies like one on environmental and socio-cultural impacts of river rafting and Camping on Ganga, especially negative ones, undertaken by scientists of BP Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development ( GBPHIED ) must be taken note of in regulation of river-side land-based activities.

In essence, it means that Forest sector will have to comprehensively revise its existing documentation regime, Working and PA Management Plans and Micro-Planning of Van Panchayat updating mechanisms, integrating with the Watershed Development, Space Application ( Science & technology ) and Disaster Management Departments, including integration with implementation mechanisms of various pertinent laws and Acts, which relate to Rivers, Waters, Watershed Management and riverine tracts, both within and outside Forest control. Institutions, Laws and mechanisms exist already some one has to work out the over-arching regime, provide control systems, and get it going with the help of financial assistance already promised by the Union Government, and even some externally aided agencies like say JICA. Agreed, even as the 12th Plan admits that the Water sector is very badly fractured today amongst various departments and utilities, there is an urgent need to bring harmony, to achieve several national priorities, a far better disaster management regime being one of the major ones. Needless to mention, these regulatory mechanisms are over and above all those which get prescribed for any hydro or muti-purpose project, which get sanctioned over rivers and their tributaries after due-diligence of prescribed impact assessments. These regulations must not be perceived necessarily as being negative as their neglect in human and economic cost has been demonstrated by some recent tragic events.  

Regulating Roads and Road-sides

Roads, on the other hand, are a dynamic entity. Historically speaking road-making commenced in the public sector, after their control was transferred from the Army to the Public Works department, some times during late 1850s. There exists a parallel between Water and Roads sectors, both stand very badly fractured, when it comes to their regulation, including construction, post care and control of road-side, quite like the riverine tracts. In Uttarakhand there is Border Roads Organization ( BRO), a Central undertaking protected by RTI application under the ‘strategic garb’, controlling almost all major arteries, now scenes of major natural disasters and road-related accidents. Then there are non-strategic National High-ways, funded by the Centre but constructed by the State PWD dedicated Divisions, thereafter State and District Highways, with Rural Roads not forming any more small segment any more, what with huge investments through the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana ( PMGSY ).     

This writer was quite surprised to read an article that Uttarakhand is now enacting a Roadside Control Act on the lines of one existing in Himachal Pradesh ( Dainik Jagaran, 17 September). If the Engineer-in-Chief will only look into his papers he would find that not only a Roadside Control Act, as was operational in Uttar Pradesh, already exists, and his predecessor had filed details of roads where appropriate Notifications of its implementation wee in operation, as well as where this was yet to be done in reply to an Appeal under the RTI Act, when this writer was the Chief Information Commissioner.  The representative of the Border Roads Organisation was also summoned, and he had informed that his organisation was not aware of any such Act, and they did not follow any such process. BRO had been directed to undertake similar measure and examine desirability of applying this Act provisions on the roads constructed by them. One wonders instead of wasting public time and energy, besides mis-guiding the higher authorities about this so called new initiative, his office should have taken urgent and suitable measures for strictly implementing provisions of the existing Road-side Control Act, which got automatically operationalized after formation of Uttaranchal/Uttarakhand. Notifications must be issued after ensuring that the appropriate norms have been complied with and the Executive Engineers, responsible for its implementation should be made accountable.

For any effective regulation of all roads in Uttarakhand, easily now the first most important activity to be improved as a component of an effective and reformed architecture of disaster management, bringing all kinds of roads under an over-all  disaster management monitoring architecture is essential. It must include all kinds of roads, Central and Provincial, including the roads maintained by the Forest department, as well which are equally important from the disaster management response action as well, as demonstrated by the Kedarnath episode. All Forest –roads, must also now be looked at as ‘Alternate Roads’, in the event of the main-road rendered not-usable. The District Disaster Management Plans, mandated under the Disaster Management Act, must locate and show, as well as ensure through the Forest department, that Forest department maintained roads are available as ‘alternate roads’. Often, quite too often in fact, their maintenance is not adequately supervised, or funded, but their importance is now underscored by the fact that their existence would be quite helpful in all post-disaster relief and reconstruction operations. As their maintenance is not constrained by factors like taking permission for maintenance, metalling or widening, these are to be seen as important as the main roads, in context of their use during emergencies. Their proper maintenance is already justified, or should be justified, as being useful as an important component of Forest-fire management angle.

Next, to an overall architecture for all kinds of roads coming under a single monitoring mechanism for the sake of disaster management, is the issue of covering all roads also under what had once been popularised as constructing ‘Green Roads’. For Sustainable Management of mountains all roads must be made under an over-all environment-framework of ‘Green Road’ making. The Indian Road Congress already has norms for Hill Road making, this must be made compliant to the ‘Green Road’ regime.

Green Road Concept  

This writer came across a MoEF Notification, NO S.O. 916(E). dated 6th October, 2000, which contained Draft proposals for ( 1 ) Location planning in Urban Areas in Hills, ( ii ) Rain Water Harvesting and ( iii ) Hill Roads. The Hill Roads component of the proposed Notification contained requirements like ‘environment impact assessment’, treatment of hill slope instabilities resulting from road cutting, cross drainage works and culverts, disposal of debris from construction sites,, dumped material to be treated using bio-engineering, norms for setting up of hot-mixing plants, treatment plan for quarrying and adequate provision of road side drains, avoiding fault-zones, following ridge-alignment, minimised loss to vegetal cover, prefer south and south-west alignment etc. The Ministry one learns developed cold-feet when stiff resistance came from the States. Perhaps right time has come to take this initiative further, and a beginning should be made by the Disaster Management and Forest Departments of Uttarakhand. GBPIHED had even developed Guidelines for Road Sector in the Indian Himalayan region, prepared by Devendra K. Agarwal ( October, 2000 ).

Total disruption of road connectivity, namely blocking off of as many as 2,092 roads, many of them having been washed away, along with 145 bridges, has proved to be a major factor of the unprecedented distress caused to affected people and regions. Three months down the line as many as 204 plus roads still remain to be opened for traffic. These hard facts underscore the need to re-visit the entire regime of road-making in the mountain regions and put in place the minimum regulations that are required for making mountain roads which are environmentally compliant, following the Green-road norms. Road construction is a dynamic activity also a major Planning target, to ensure complete connectivity to all habitations, being an integral part of country’s ‘More Inclusive’ objective.   

Green Road making concept has components in the Construction as well as Maintenance phases, first, with Cut and Fill Technology, Limited Blasting, Stabilisation of cut Slopes etc ending with Vegetative Cover, while the maintenance phase also has a few Forest related components, e.g. in slope treatment and Strip Plantation and Vegetation. Thus, in the main in Road Regulation, following the Green Road Concept, Public Works and road construction organizations have a collaborative arrangement with the Forest department. As the Green Road concept had never been given a fair trial, fearing fiece opposition mainly from the mountain States, it is about time that the mountain States take up this Green Road Making and Regulation of Rivers and Roads for Sustainable Development agenda for the mountain regions, under the over all rubric of Disaster Management.

Disaster Management as Governance

In the Twelfth Plan, Disaster Management has been positioned as a major goal under the Governance sector, and its relevance and importance for the mountain regions, prone to all kinds of extreme events and natural hazards, has been underscored by the massive losses to human lives, covering all major States of India, and needing thousands of crores and years of concerted efforts to bring Uttarakhand where it was on the eve of 16th June, the day this State paid a huge penalty for unregulated and uncontrolled development. Road regulation, as indicated in the case of River Regulation, would require administrative and legal re-structuring, sectoral budgetary support and substantive capacity building of technical man-power, both in the construction departments as well as in the Forestry sector’s various wings, including Forestry Research and Training. Disaster Management in Mountain Regions, with its two-steams of River and Road Regulations for Sustainable Development, has ingredients which can possibly be developed into a new Flagship Programme for all 11 Indian Mountain States, or a sub-Sectoral Progamme, to be introduced during the 12th Plan.

Scientific  Regulation of Rivers and Roads, as briefly explained above, involves a major resolution on the part of Bahuguna Government, which deserves to be not only properly thought-through but also crafted on a top priority basis, re-structuring the entire State Disaster Management Authority, enabling the existing Disaster Management architecture, with strengthened and revamped State Authority, consisting of various activities for Regulating State Rivers and River basins and all Roads and Road-side stretches, making Uttarakhand safe both for the Uttarkahndis and those who have to visit these parts both for religious and nature –based recreational reasons. More importantly, the civil society and individuals who have been making suggestions on these issues also will have to extend their fullest co-operation should they find Bahuguna Administration taking measures on these lines.  ‘Uttarakhand Bachao,’ demands have to be necessarily accompanied with suggestions which can be transformed into real-time actions and not just stop short at when it comes to suggesting the nuts and bolts that would be needed to craft an architecture to respond to the felt-gaps, of which ever nature. ‘Uttarakhand Banao,’ calls for constructive suggestions that the administration can look at and use, if usable, as actionable -item. This State, over-brimming as it is with several retired development practitioners and civil society organisations with proven track-record, invites each one of them to come forward with practical suggestions in this hour of crisis.

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