The flood havoc in Kolhapur and Sangli districts has killed 54 people and thousands of cattle, besides causing colossal loss of property, farmlands and crops.
Was it the ferocity of nature that caused such a great calamity or did human interference aggravate the situation? Right to Information (RTI) documents reveal that tampering of the red and blue line demarcation of the Panchganga River in the Kolhapur Development Plan, due to the pressure of the builder lobby through the Confederation of Real Estate Developers’ Associations of India (CREDAI0), to which the chief minister’s office responded affirmatively, resulted in turning 1,250 acres of flood-line area, prohibited for any construction, into a concrete maze.
The story goes like this. In a petition related to building encroachments on the banks of the Mula-Mutha rivers of Pune, filed by RTI activist, Sarang Yadwadkar, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) issued directives in 2015 that the water conservation department must prepare a report on the flood lines of flood prone villages and cities. It also ordered that while the study is undertaken, the municipal corporations, municipal councils and gram panchayats should not give approval to any construction in at least 50 meter radius from the flood lines.
Accordingly, the water conservation department completed the work of fixing flood lines of Panchaganga and five other rivers using the scientific unit hydrology method in 2018 and sent it to IIT, Mumbai for verification. The IIT, Mumbai certified on 25 July 2018 that the work had been done satisfactorily. The blue and red flood lines were marked on the basis of the floods in 25 years ago wherein the discharge was 2,14,395 cusecs and the worst flood in 100 years wherein the discharge was 3,14,088 cusecs.
This new demarcation meant that hundreds of existing structures and hundreds of residential and commercial building proposals were in jeopardy, sending shock waves amongst the members of the building fraternity. This is because a good 1,250 acres of land in this red flood-line zone became a no-development zone.
As per the RTI documents procured from the Kolhapur Municipal Corporation, the CREDAI, Kolhapur wrote a letter to chief minister Devendra Fadnavis on 9 October 2018 casting doubts about the water conservation department’s red flood line report of river Panchganga, whetted by IIT, Bombay on new flood-lines.
The letter claimed that the new flood-lines may cause confusion and fear-mongering as most of the areas under the new flood-lines fall under the residential zone as a large number of structures have been constructed on it. They also claimed that there is public unrest over drawing the new flood-lines. Hence, the letter urged that the old flood lines which were existing (which had no scientific base but were marked haphazardly) in the development plan be maintained.
States RTI activist Vijay Kumbar who is working closely with Mr Yadwadkar on this issue: “RTI reveals that the letter of the builders was received by the office of chief minister on 31 October 2018 and its cognizance was taken immediately. Promptly, on 2 November 2018, the chief minister issued directives to follow the suggestions given by the chairman, CREDAI, Kolhapur, which meant that approvals for constructions would be given on the basis of the flood levels marked in the development plan of 2005 instead of the flood lines drawn scientifically by the water conservation department in 2018.’’
States Mr Yadwadkar, “In the meanwhile, the water conservation department has written to the municipal commissioner of Kolhapur that the flood levels of 1984, 1989 and 2005 demarcated in the development plan in blue, red and green colours are merely flood levels based on surveys and inquiries and not on any technical and scientific study. In spite of this, they have been shown in the development plan.’’
After the chief minister gave his remark, the secretary, water conservation department wrote an urgent letter to the chief engineer of the irrigation department asking the latter to fix flood lines as per the suggestion made by the chief minister.
The water resources department submitted a technical note on 5 March 2019 to the Kolhapur municipal corporation. It stated that the flood level has risen above the present blue line (shown in the Kolhapur development plan, which the builders want to maintain) on 10 occasions and above the present red line on six occasions over the past 30 years. It warned that the Kolhapur municipal corporation and local administration would have to be on the alert during monsoons if the old flood lines are maintained as the legal ones.
While the builders insisted in the letter to the CM that 1250 acres of land will be affected and thereby the development of Kolhapur would be hindered, the water resources department washed its hands off. It has been stated that now the maintaining of the old blue line as per the directives issued by the chief minister was a policy decision. At the same time, it issued a warning about the threat that it would be pose to the residents of Kolhapur in terms of more dangerous floods, in the near future.
The story does not end there. New flood lines of Panchaganga and five other rivers were drawn using the flood frequency analysis method and the proposal was sent again to IIT, Mumbai for verification. States Yadwadkar, “While the previous report showed blue and red flood lines as the estimated discharge of the largest flood in 25 years at 2,14,395 cusecs and one of the largest floods in 100 years at 3,14,088 cusecs, the new proposal assumed the discharge levels at 97,186 cusecs for the largest flood in 25 years and that at 1,22,400 cusecs for the largest flood in 100 years. It is another matter that these water levels are still higher than the levels indicated by the chief minister.
Rues Mr Kumbhar, “In short, the chief minister gave priority to the interests of builders over the interests of the citizens while fixing flood lines of Kolhapur and the government machinery ignored the scientific and technical aspects. The million-dollar question is: Why should the politicians intervene in matters which are totally technical and scientific and which are related to the safety of people? Who is responsible for toying with the flood lines?’’
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.