Very little or no attention is being paid to the original question raised by environmentalists — about saving the fertile Krishna floodplains.
In any political slugfest, it would be good to remember what is at stake is valuable: Fertile floodplains which should not fall prey to human intervention such as a mega capital city project that will add to concretisation and possibly lead to land degradation.
More than a month after the World Bank withdrew from the Amaravati capital city project, all talk surrounding its fate that hangs in uncertainty is only about economic viability, sending wrong political signals and business houses withdrawing investments. Very little or no attention is being paid to the original question raised by environmentalists — about saving the fertile Krishna floodplains.
The “Amaravati Sustainable Infrastructure and Institutional Development Project”, as it has been known, was to be a greenfield project with the government of Andhra Pradesh issuing the order in December 2014 identifying the location of the capital city between Vijayawada and Guntur on the banks of the Krishna river. It was an area about 7,068 sq km for the capital region and 122 sq km for the proposed new capital city.
Alleging long-term damage to the Krishna river floodplains, on which much of the capital city is proposed to be built, several people had approached the National Green Tribunal (NGT). During the hearing, the green tribunal had underscored, “The riverbed and river flood plains are an integral part of the river wetland system and play an extremely important role in the water cycles, including recharge of groundwater. Therefore, if a river’s drainage basin or flood plain is heavily urbanised, it becomes much more prone to flooding.”
The capital city would also hamper the flow of Kondaveeti Vaghu, a meandering rivulet that meets Krishna just upstream of Prakasam barrage. Further, it will be a loss of highly fertile soil as farmers have been producing 110 varieties of crops — horticulture, plantation, floriculture and vegetables apart from the main paddy crop. After all, the total land acquired was almost 34,000 acres (all agricultural land), most of which produced three crops a year.
Currently, India is host to a global convention that is deliberating on reasons and means to prevent desertification, land degradation and droughts as part of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, Land Degradation and Drought (UNCCD) meeting near Delhi from September 2 to 13. Andhra Pradesh has reasons to be worried on all three counts, both because of extreme weather events and human interventions.
The “Desertification and Land Degradation Atlas of India” showed that across India, the area undergoing the process of land degradation increased from 94.53 million ha (28.76 per cent of the TGA) in 2003-05 to 96.40 million ha (29.32 per cent of the TGA) of the country during 2011-13. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his address to the UN meeting on Monday, has announced that India will be restoring 26 million ha land in the next 10 years.
The same atlas shows that Andhra Pradesh has 14.35 per cent of the total geographical area under desertification/land degradation for the period of 2011-13, an increase by about 0.19 per cent since 2003-05. The most significant process of desertification/land degradation in the state is vegetation degradation (7.27 per cent in 2011-13 and 7.29 per cent in 2003-05) followed by water erosion (4.93 per cent in 2011-13 and 4.89 per cent in 2003-05). Among other processes, contributing less than one per cent, water logging and salinity dominate.
As expected, the World Bank decision to withdraw $300 million finance for the project had brought mixed reactions from various quarters. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which had earlier said it will finance $200 million, too has said it will review its involvement. Giving hope to those favouring the project was an announcement earlier this week by Singapore foreign affairs minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who on Monday said the new Andhra Pradesh government is reviewing the master plan for capital city Amaravati and it must be given time for doing so.
Soon after he took charge as the incumbent chief minister, Jagan Mohan Reddy had ordered the constitution of high-level committees to investigate as many as 30 different graft charges, including alleged irregularities during the construction of Amaravati and land-pooling issues.
While the already sanctioned works would continue, all work sanctioned after April 1, 2019 has been stopped, it was announced. But overall, this does not mean a total stop to the construction of the capital city project. The question remains: What about the floodplains?
Those who had invested in any which way are worried. But for the farmers and activists who are truly bothered about the ecological aspects, it is not yet time to rejoice. The only sane voice in this cacophony is that of Anumolu Gandhi, who is the convener of the Rajdhani Pranta Ryuthu — Cooli Parirakshan Samithi (a collective working for the welfare of land-owning farmers and landless agriculture labourers), one of the petitioners at the NGT. I caught up with him on phone after I heard the news about the World Bank’s withdrawal from the project. He was happy about it but still not overjoyed as his real concern was the protection of the floodplain.
“Our next course of action will depend on what the current government decides to do,” he told me, and added, “Even when the World Bank has withdrawn … it all depends on what the new government and the Centre decide to do. Our fight to save the floodplains will continue till then.”
Mr Gandhi has valid reasons to be concerned. The Andhra Pradesh government, in the above mentioned NGT case, had called as “absolutely false and baseless” the contentions of the applicants vis-a-vis the floodplains, and claimed, “The identified capital city area is neither located in the flood plains nor prone to floods caused by the river Krishna.” It was of course the Naidu government ruling the state at that time. But this claim was not contested by the Centre at that time.
Instead, the Centre had given Rs 1,500 crores during the TDP government but for debated reasons denied further allocation then. With the change in dispensation at the state level, changed political equations may prompt the Centre to further sanction funds or also lobby for foreign bank loans for the same.
Apart from providing drinking water and sustaining livelihoods, the floodplains play multiple roles — absorbing excess rains, absorbing excess discharge from dams, recharging groundwater and recharging the river in non-monsoon months being the most important of all.
We have already seen the flood-induced havoc in cities such as Chennai (where scores of water bodies and the Adyar river have been trampled upon by urbanisation), Mumbai (where the once beautiful Mithi river is all but a minor drain carrying sewage) or for that matter many other small or big cities such as Hyderabad or Gurgaon that go underwater with the slightest of rain.
Andhra Pradesh has witnessed the worst droughts in recent years and ideally, it must be top on the agenda to restore all its degraded land to arrest the ill effects of increased desertification due to repeated droughts. But instead, it is the state that is hell bent on destroying the already fertile floodplains.
Indeed. The World Bank or the Asian Bank may or may not fund the project. But if both the Centre and the state are determined to build the new capital on the floodplain itself, then that is the real cause of worry.