Twin reservoirs of Hyderabad shrivel in realty storm

As State Cabinet announces the scrapping of G.O. 111, realty begins to boom around Osman Sagar and Himayat Sagar reservoirs, reigniting the debate on the definition and actual cost of real estate development

May 26, 2023 10:29 am | Updated 01:39 pm IST - HYDERABAD

A view of the Himayatsagar reservoir in Hyderabad on May 24.

A view of the Himayatsagar reservoir in Hyderabad on May 24. | Photo Credit: Nagara Gopal

The calm waters of Gandipet Lake, a well-known tourist destination in the city, are caught in the midst of real estate turbulence.

The security staff posted much ahead of the bund collects ₹50 per head as an entrance fee to go to the lake, which was once a free-for-all entry. They object to anybody seen in the surroundings with a camera.

“You may not use a camera around here,” the guard warns, standing at the reservoir where lakhs of tourists might have visited and clicked pictures over the past century.

Restricted entry

Mushrooming in close proximity to the reservoir is a plethora of new villas and multistoried buildings. Excavator machinery is deployed by private builders to flatten the earth for more construction, against the norms stated in the much-contested Government Order (G.O.) 111.

Since the Cabinet decision to scrap G.O. 111 was shared with the media by State Finance Minister T. Harish Rao last week, the area around the reservoir became an impenetrable fortress where public movement is restricted, and the presence of media cameras is questioned.

Debate over scrapping of G.O. 111

Meanwhile, the cancellation of G.O. 111 has become the topic of debate in all news channels. Worried environmentalists took to multiple media platforms to condemn the move.

What came as a surprise to everyone is that the main stakeholders, the people of the villages where the G.O. is in force, maintaining a stoic silence.

A land owner at Shamshabad village K Ranga Reddy says, “It is too early to rejoice. We suspect that this is just an election gimmick.”

“Someone will go to the court and bring a stay order, and the government would then have one more excuse to give us,” he says

In hope of realty boom

Mr. Ranga Reddy is not a traditional farmer but bought land in Shamshabad village from a farmer way back in 2007 in the hope that the land prices would spike phenomenally. And he is not disappointed. Despite the restrictions imposed on constructions in the area by way of G.O. 111, real estate prices have never stopped rising.

“The price of the agricultural land ranges between ₹5 crore and ₹8 crore per acre depending on the location. As of now, there is no effect of the G.O. 111 announcement on the prices here, as people are cautious while making investments”Jagadish ReddyRealtor in Moinabad

“The price of the agricultural land ranges between ₹5 crore and ₹8 crore per acre depending on the location. As of now, there is no effect of the G.O. 111 announcement on the prices here, as people are cautious while making investments,” says Jagadish Reddy, a local realtor in Moinabad, where farmlands have long been converted to farmhouses.

What G.O. 111 says

G.O. 111 was issued 27 years ago, in March 1996, for the protection of Osman Sagar and Himayat Sagar reservoirs, which were major drinking water sources for Hyderabad city. It was issued after making amendments to an earlier order issued in 1994.

The G.O. 111 prohibits the establishment of polluting industries, major hotels, residential colonies, and other polluting bodies in the catchment area of the lakes up to 10 kilometres from the Full Tank Level (FTL). This covers 1.32 lakh acres in 84 villages of seven mandals in the erstwhile Ranga Reddy district. Of the 1.32 lakh acres, over 30 lakh acres are government land, and the rest are private.

Rampant construction activity seen at the command area of Osman Sagar Reservoir

Rampant construction activity seen at the command area of Osman Sagar Reservoir | Photo Credit: G. Ramakrishna

Scope for residential developments

As per G.O. 111, only residential developments may be permitted in the catchment area, subject to conditions. Accordingly, 60 percent of the total area of the layouts in these 84 villages should be strictly left as open spaces and roads.

G.O. 11 directed the then Hyderabad Urban Development Authority (HUDA), now Hyderabad Metropolitan Development Authority (HMDA), to classify 90 percent of the area in these villages as agricultural land, including horticulture and floriculture. This left that only 10 percent of the area for residential development.

Further, a Floor Space Index (FSI) restriction of 1:05 has been imposed in the catchment area, which limits the number of floors the multistoried buildings can be raised to.

Besides, polluting industries were banned within a 10-kilometres upstream and downstream of the water bodies to prevent acidification of the reservoirs due to air pollution.

However, this provision was diluted by another G.O. released in 2007, which drastically reduced the no-construction area to 0.5 km from the FTL, and the FSI restrictions were limited to residential establishments only within a 1 km radius.

Protection of raw water channels

G.O. 111 also has provisions for the protection of the raw water channels from Osman Sagar to Asifnagar and bans layouts and buildings for a maximum of 100 feet from the conduit site boundary.

Drainage pipelines must be laid parallel to the conduit, and no sewerage or sullage water discharges should be allowed from the layouts towards the conduits, it said.

Flouting norms

Soon after the order was issued, the then government went back on it and accorded permission to an industrial unit exempting it from the provisions. The exemption was challenged in the High Court and then in the Supreme Court, with the latter ruling in favour of G.O. 111.

The Apex court refuses permission for the industrial unit, basing the judgement on the ‘Precautionary Principle’, which is still cited by activists in support of their argument.  

Committee to frame new guidelines

Last year, the Telangana government announced that G.O. 111 was being scrapped and issued orders constituting a high-level committee to frame guidelines and detailed regulations for the development of the area that came under the catchment of the twin reservoirs.

The Telangana government sought to scrap the order saying that the dependency on these two reservoirs for drinking water supply had decreased to 1.25 percent now, compared to 27.59 percent when G.O. 111 was issued.

The committee’s terms of reference included determining measures against pollution, zoning guidelines, modalities for the development of trunk infrastructure such as roads, major drains, Sewage Treatment Plans (STP), diversion drains, and others in the area, means of resource mobilisation for the same, appropriate institutional framework to take up the infrastructure in order to regulate the development, and necessary regulatory measures to be insisted to grant layout or building permissions, necessary changes in the legal framework, and others.

The Cabinet, however, had recently reiterated the scrapping of G.O. 111, understandably before elections, and announced that whatever regulations applied to the HMDA jurisdiction would also apply in the catchment area. There was no mention of the high-level committee or its recommendations.

Challenges and counter-challenges

Noted activist and politician Lubna Sarwath draws attention to the fact that the new order scrapping G.O. 111 was challenged in the High Court and that the government filed an affidavit in September 2022, counter-challenging it.

Within eight months after the affidavit, the latest announcement about scrapping G.O. 111 has been made, even while the matter is sub judice.

The reservoirs continue to supply drinking water to the city even today, she points out, which means that their catchment area is still inviolable.

Real estate, the driving force

The eagerness to do away with all the restrictions imposed by G.O. 111 is widely attributed to the skyrocketing real estate market and the constant search for new horizons to expand.

However, the one question unanimously posed by all the environmental activists opposing the decision is, “When was the G.O. 111 even implemented for it to be scrapped?”.

“No government has ever implemented the order. They never stopped violating the provisions mentioned in the order.”K. Purushotham ReddyEnvironmentalist and development activist

“No government has ever implemented the order. They never stopped violating the provisions mentioned in the order. And the present regime has succeeded in creating an impression that people in the catchment area are backwards because the G.O. 111 hindered development. In their view, only real estate development is development,” says environmentalist and development activist K. Purushotham Reddy.

A provision in G.O. 111, which enjoins the Hyderabad Metropolitan Water Supply & Sewerage Board to conduct studies once in six months through JNTU or any Central University or any other reputed agency to monitor the level of pesticides and fertiliser residues carried into the lakes, has never been adhered to, Dr. Purushotham Reddy says.

More importantly, the reservoirs were designed by legendary engineer Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya as part of the flood control strategy, post the devastating floods of 1908, he points out and says increased urbanisation would reduce water absorption and result in flooding.

In his report in 1909, Mr. Visveswaraya cited 12 floods of similar or lesser intensity during the previous 300 years and noted that immunity from the floods would come only from the construction of flood catchment reservoirs in the basin above.

Thus came into being the Osman Sagar and Himayat Sagar reservoirs with storage capacities of 3.9 tmcft and 2.967 tmcft respectively.

Firangi Nala mistake to be repeated?

Questioning the government’s promises about protecting both the tanks from pollution and encroachments, Mr. Purushotham Reddy recalls the status of Firangi Nala, a contour canal which has fallen into disuse. The drain was designed and constructed from Chandanvelli on the South West and filled 25 lakes en route before it ended with Ibrahimpatnam Lake. It is no more functional and subject to rampant encroachments. Owing to this, Old City has been experiencing devastating floods annually, which was never heard of earlier, he says.

Applied Hydrogeologist and Technical Member, Reservoirs & Lakes (Water Domain), Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS), B.V. Subba Rao, who has been working with communities on Lake Agriculture, reminds us that the twin reservoirs still supply water commensurate with the capacity they were designed for, though in percentage terms the quantity becomes minuscule owing to the explosion of the city population.

India is a signatory to the Sendai Framework, which advocates for risk reduction strategy to be included in planning, Mr. Subba Rao says. The first and foremost risk in urban planning is stormwater generation, as proven across the cities in India in recent times.

Considering that the government is now spending thousands of crores of rupees on stormwater drainage, which disappeared from the city owing to mindless real estate expansion, it certainly appears better to be safe than sorry.

Welfare neglected

Guidelines and restrictions exist worldwide with regard to water supply reservoirs, and the extent mentioned in G.O. 111 is only 10 percent of the actual extent of the twin reservoirs’ catchment area, which is 1,300 square kilometres, he says.

He also questions the apathy displayed by successive governments for the welfare of the people living in the catchment area.

“No alternative economic development schemes were proposed for the 84 villages, though the G.O. explicitly stated horticulture and floriculture as the permitted activities. We still import flowers from Bengaluru and Chittoor”B.V. Subba RaoApplied Hydrogeologist and Technical Member, Reservoirs & Lakes (Water Domain), (BIS)

“No alternative economic development schemes were proposed for the 84 villages, though the G.O. explicitly stated horticulture and floriculture as the permitted activities. We still import flowers from Bengaluru and Chittoor,” Mr. Subba Rao points out.

Mr. Subba Rao draws a comparison with New York and San Francisco, where a portion of the water charges collected is devolved to the residents in the catchment area. He also cites the traditional practice in the Kuppam area of Chittoor, where it had been customary for the command area population to share the harvest with the catchment area.

The contrarian view

The Secretary of the Forum for Good Governance M. Padmanabha Reddy, presents the sole contrarian view from the activist circle.

He feels that scrapping G.O. 111 would release 1.32 lakh acres of land into the market, which will help bring down real estate prices for the common man while benefiting the farmers in the 84 villages.

“A large number of check dams on the way have reduced the flooding risk for the Musi River, rendering the reservoirs redundant for flood control. Besides, the HMDA regulations stipulate that 30 percent of the layout should be left for open space. The proposal looks good on paper, but implementation is the key,” he says.

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