The nation continues to await a statutory regulation such as the River Regulation Zone that would prohibit and regulate activities in the flood plains of all rivers

Visual media is all guns out to discredit and blame the rivers Ganga, Yamuna, Narmada and Damodar, to name but a few, for the widespread suffering of people from floods in both the cities and villages of at least six States of the Union. Reportedly, the flood waters have invaded residences, shops, farms and schools. Boats ply where roads were and double storied buildings suddenly appear single.

But, without jumping the gun, if one were to look beyond the obvious, the blame for people’s sufferings would be seen to lie elsewhere.

Simply put, what is being witnessed is a natural entity making best of an opportunity to reclaim its rightful space from squatters. Would you do anything different when faced with intruders in your house?

Rivers, being natural ecological entities are entitled to a space that belongs to none else. Called the river’s ‘flood zone’, it forms an integral part of a river system and goes under water whenever high rain fall events enable rivers to carry water in excess of their usual flow. Technically called the riparian zone, it is the space on either bank of a river, where due to its natural propensity to periodically inundate, a river influences a number of things including the emergence and growth of plants and animals that one finds primarily only there. It is also the zone where river performs perhaps its most critical but poorly appreciated role of ground water recharge over large tracts.

So, if the areas in the Bharuch district of Gujarat are today facing the brunt, then it is not the fury of Narmada, but mismanaged dams sitting on it, where the blame should be laid. If people in Allahabad and Varanasi are plying boats on roads-turned-streams, then it is poor urban planning emboldened by a lack of statutory protection available to the river flood plains and not the rivers Ganga and Yamuna that is to blame.

A ‘flood zone’ means an area, which is required to carry the flow of the maximum probable floods in a river. It is an established fact that the flood intensity in rivers is periodic in nature called popularly as ‘return floods’. These could be annual, decadal (10 years), 25-30 years, 40-50 years, 100 years and 500 years. For instance the recent floods witnessed in May-June 2013 in parts of eastern and central Europe in rivers Elbe and Danube system have been estimated to be the 500 years return floods.

Today, globally, a flood zone equal to a return flood of 100 years intensity is considered to define a river’s natural limit, which must by law be made inviolate, with only limited and river friendly activities permitted there. Many countries across the globe, notably the US, the European Union, South Africa and Australia have enacted laws and regulations ensuring such protection to the flood plains of their rivers. But where do we in India stand in the matter?

Back in 2002, a strategy paper for the 10 Five Year Plan dealing with environment, forests and wildlife stated that “legislation would be attempted for a River Regulation Zone on the lines of Coastal Regulation Zone”. An expert committee was set up at the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to draft the same and a draft was prepared. But the issue soon lost its priority to resurface almost a decade later in early 2011 when Jairam Ramesh, the then Union environment minister, promised the nation a river regulation zone (RRZ) notification in another four months. Again an expert committee, with representative membership including those from few states, was constituted. A rough draft was agreed to before RRZ revival appeared to have fizzled out yet again. The nation continues to await a statutory regulation applicable across the country that would prohibit and regulate activities in the river’s flood plains.

The consequences of such dilly dallying by the State are manifold. The vested interests continue to encroach and ravage the river’s flood plains, as evidenced recently in Noida and Greater Noida areas of UP. Little informed people tend to settle in the flood plains, to later suffer the floods.

And the judiciary, in absence of a statutory regulation, is left with little choice but to direct ad hoc prohibitions in response to public interest litigations. The most recent example of which is the ban imposed by the Hon’ble High Court on any construction within 200 m of the rivers in the state of Uttarakhand. Welcome as this order is, still it lacks like earlier such orders from the High Courts at Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, a scientific basis. Needless to add that such judicial interventions shall remain ad hoc and little sustained, unless a RRZ notification by the MoEF that addresses the river question in its entirety is put in place.

With the impact of climate change remaining no longer disputable and countries like India falling bang in the former’s hit zone, there is little time to lose for us in India to make our rivers statutorily safe from the deleterious pressures of urbanisation and industrialisation. RRZ is the way forward and sooner the better.

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