The Chandola Lake, spread over an area of 1200 hectare, has dried up due to neglect. The government has allowed large-scale encroachment on this water body. It is being for agriculture, as well as for other purposes like processing of waste oil and plastics. Kharicut, the lake’s feeder canal is choked with filth and garbage.
Chandola is not an exceptional case in Gujarat. Many other lakes in the state share the same fate. In 1960, Ahmedabad had at least 204 lakes. Today, almost all of these have been built upon, encroached or left to disuse. With rapid growth in population, the cities have spread out it in all directions, in a completely unplanned manner. The town planning schemes did not take into account the natural drainage patterns and topography of the area. This resulted in two things. Firstly, the rainwater that earlier flowed into the lakes and the low lying areas now got trapped near residential areas causing seasonal flooding and water logging. Secondly, the lakes dried up, making those prime targets of the real estate developers and other encroacher or they have been turned into garbage dumps.
In October, 2000, Shailesh R Shah, a citizen of Ahmedabad, filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Gujarat High Court (HC), on behalf of all the residents of the city requesting the court to revive and recharge the Chandola lake situated in the outskirts of Ahmedabad. The PIL, filed under the Article 226 of Constitution of India, was against the State of Gujarat; the Collector, Ahmedabad; and the Executive Engineer, State Irrigation Department. It also demanded effective steps for increasing the water harvesting potential of this lake.
This case (WP 10621 of 2000) was settled with a final judgment issued on August 2, 2002.
Oct. 9, 2000
The court directed the state government, collector of Ahmedabad and executive engineer of irrigation department to place before the court the state’s water policy and a comparative status of lakes.
The Court expressed shock at the condition of the lakes on 21st November.. Very few of the 204 lakes that existed in the city in 1960 remained now. It directed the collector to place the status of encroachments on lake lands and to ensure that the remaining 137 lakes, as listed by the additional deputy collector, are used as lakes. The bench observed, “We are required to pass this order on account of shortage of water.”
The HC demanded detailed affidavits for the alleged unauthorized construction at the Gopalnagar Lake in Kalol on 25th January. The judges observed, “It is not made clear by the AUDA (Ahmedabad Urban Development Authority) as to what was the necessity of changing the purpose for which the land was reserved, namely for recreational to residential zone. In the absence of any specific reason assigned for such a change it is a matter of conjecture whether such a change was made keeping in view the interest and protection of the wild life and the environment or there was some direct or indirect pressure of the builders and private contractors who were interested in utilizing the land for raising constructions.”
While condemning the callous attitude of the concerned authorities, the judges directed them to produce a schedule indicating the action plan for removal of encroachments and recharge of lakes by February 26.
On receiving no reply from the state government the court decided to close the right of the state to file any further affidavit in March. But the Ahmedabad Municipal Council (AMC) was granted a week’s time for filing their reports.
A two-judge bench comprising B C Patel and D A Mehta passed a dramatic sixty-six page interim order on 18th April. They observed, “Even the Gujarat Town planning and Urban Development Act does not authorize the development authority to make town planning scheme in such a way so that it affects the sources of water, lakes, ponds, rivers etc. The government, through a circular in 1999 banned the allotment of water body to any one. Hence it becomes the duty of the AMC/ AUDA and District Collector to see that the water body remains a water body so that the people benefit from the natural resources and it facilitates groundwater recharging”. It further directed the authorities to remove unauthorized constructions and not to permit any constructions within 500 meters of lakes smaller than 5,000 square meters (sq m) in area and 1000 m if the lakes are bigger. While referring to lakes all over the state, the judges hoped that “The state government shall consider these directions in its true spirit…. and shall make it applicable to all the lakes, ponds and water bodies in the state.” AMC was directed to rehabilitate the encroachers elsewhere and to inform the court within six weeks about the progress.
Based on the interim order of April 18, AUDA and AMC stopped processing the applications for construction of new buildings as well as extension work in existing buildings. The plan submitted by the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIMA) much before the date of interim order, were prepared in accordance with the General Development Control Regulation (GDCR). They were denied permission to construct a new building on the grounds that it is nearer to the Vastrapur Lake. IIM A approached the court against this decision of AMC stating that the proposed construction in no way is likely to affect the existence of the lake.
In August, the HC sought explanation from the concerned authorities for not conducting the joint survey of the water bodies despite of the repeated orders issued on May 31 and July 27, 2001. While clarifying their stand on the issue of rainwater harvesting, the HC observed that the buildings bye- laws have been amended and as a similar case is being heard in the Supreme Court of India, they will not issue any further directions in this matter.
The court clarified that buildings affected by earthquake are not covered by the judgment made on April 18. Court observed, “The state government, despite various directions has not placed any material on record. The court was required to take up the matters because the executive failed in discharging their duties to maintain water bodies as water bodies.”
The concerned authorities failed to submit a detailed action plan on recharging lakes before the court. The court again asked the authorities for a detailed report in March.
The court disappointed with the lack of response from the authorities, constituted a five-member committee of experts in April to suggest the following
Methods of recharging the lakes and ponds in Ahmedabad;
To assess the feasibility of reviving the water bodies and the lands that are not being used as water bodies; To the court if buildings have been constructed on lakes or ponds and where ever there is no construction, whether the land is reserved for other purposes; and To assess the feasibility of prohibiting construction within 500/1000 m radius.
The court ordered Surendra Patel, chairperson, Ahmedabad Urban Development Authority (AUDA) to tender an unconditional apology and to scrap permissions given in 129 cases to build on water bodies in April. Patel was also asked for an undertaking that he will be personally liable if any of these parties demand damages.
The committee submitted its preliminary report before the court in May and mentioned about AUDA ‘s failure to submit all the details to the committee. AUDA submitted a list of water bodies, which cannot be developed. Court directed the AUDA Chairman and AMC, commissioner to furnish all the information on lakes within 10 days. Committee assured the court that a decision would be taken within 15 days of receiving relevant information. Interestingly, this was the last working day for justice B C Patel in Ahmedabad High Court, as he was promoted to the rank of Chief Justice of Jammu and Kashmir.
Two year long legal battle initiated by Shailesh Shah came to an end in August when the Gujarat High Court bench comprising of Justice R K Abhichandani, who took the place of BC Patel and Justice D A Mehta gave the final judgement. As per this ruling, the responsibility of deciding the distance from lake to the construction site is left to the discretion of the civic authorities responsible for urban development and local bodies like municipal corporations, municipalities and panchayats, based on the town planning regulations.
This verdict ordered the government to:
- Notify all lakes and ponds within the state and to preserve them as it is
- To undertake urgent measures for checking pollution, rejuvenating the water bodies and using them for recharging groundwater
- To remove encroachments and facilitate rehabilitation as per the existing norms
- To create a water resources council, headed by the chief minister, as laid out in the state’s draft water policy, to oversee the programme for rejuvenation of all water bodies. A water resources committee chaired by the chief secretary of the state will assist this committee.
The final verdict which has entrusted the executive with the duty of protecting the lakes, notes “The interim orders made in these petitions have, however, goaded them (the authorities) into some action and the final responses on behalf of the state government, the urban development authorities and the municipal corporation have raised a distinct ray of hope that may in the near future glitter on the surface waters of the water bodies that are promised to be reinforced and preserved.”