Even as Bengaluru continues to deal with its dirty lakes which are so polluted that they catch fire, the National Green Tribunal headed by Justice Swatanter Kumar in New Delhi has slammed an eco-panel formed in Bengaluru for not taking their job seriously. Activists and eminent citizens of the city have also taken exception to the functioning of the committee.
Following a PIL filed by citizens seeking intervention of the NGT, claiming that the wetland around the Bellandur lake and the Agara lake in Bengaluru are ecologically sensitive areas which will face serious damage caused by nearby construction activity, the Tribunal had ordered that a committee be formed in May 2015 to inspect the areas.
In a Facebook post, The Forward Foundation, which challenged the illegal construction around the lake beds, alleged that the construction companies had not only destroyed portions of the Raja Kaluves (Storm water drains) but also were constructed on the valley zone.
The committee, comprising an Advisor to Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) dealing with the subject of wetlands, CEO of Karnataka Lake Development Authority, Chief Town Planner of Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) and Chairman of State Environment Appraisal Committee (SEAC). It had recommended environment clearance to the controversial projects - construction of SEZs by the Mantri Tech Zone Pvt. Ltd. and Core Mind Software and Services Pvt. Ltd on the wetlands between Agara and Bellandur Lakes.
A scientist (ecology) from Indian Institute of Sciences, Bangalore, a former Advisor to MoEF and a senior officer from National Institute of Hydrology, Roorkee were also part of the committee.
The NGT, however, was not happy with the report. The tribunal found deficiencies and instance of non-compliance of the directions it issued to the committee.
In the case of the Bellandur lake in south-east Bengaluru, after the initial environmental clearances for this project given by the MoEF in 2011, a team which visited the site to monitor compliance to the Environmental clearance conditions gave an adverse report about the non-compliance of conditions. No action was taken against the project despite the adverse report given in August 2013.
But in May 2015, the NGT stepped in and Mantri and Coremind were asked to pay Rs 117.5 crore and Rs 22.5 crore, respectively, to the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board within two weeks for irregularities.
In the NGT order released on September 10, the tribunal pointed out several discrepancies in the report submitted by the expert committee.
One, the stand taken by the Lake Development Authority of Bangalore before the Tribunal was different than the one on the basis of which the current report has been submitted.
Two, the committee had miscalculated the unauthorized encroachment and possession as 3 acres and 10 guntas, as opposed to 12.47 guntas as per records.
Three, there was no mention of recommendations as to what steps are required to be taken and what is the extent of damage done by these builders to the ecology.
Four, the report does not state categorically as to which of the conditions of the environmental clearance order have been complied with and which have not been complied with.
Five, the report had vaguely stated that there should be compliance to the statutory regulations for health and sanitation. The report was completely silent as to what is the point of discharge of sewage and other effluents from the project in question, what remedial measures are required to be taken.
Six, there was no specific recommendation or observation made in relation to compliance to the conditions of the Environmental Clearance, especially with regard to Buffer Zone and air pollution.
Seven, the Committee had not examined whether there was violation of the condition, that no leveling and dumping particularly on the Rajakaluves (Storm water drains) is permitted.
Member of Parliament Rajeev Chandrashekar had also raised the issue in the Parliament on May 7 and demanded that the Environment Ministry conduct an audit and review of all clearances and approvals given to lake bed and ecologically sensitive projects in Bengaluru on an urgent basis.
He said, â€śThe NGT order will lead to review of sensitive projects and hold to account action of corrupt officials who have allowed these illegal projects.â€ť
â€śThis order will no doubt lead to a review of all such sensitive projects and also holding to account those corrupt officials that have allowed these illegal projects to proliferate,â€ť he added.
â€‹"A sustainability focus led approach as to be taken into consideration. We know things are going systemically wrong in this. When the irregularities are apparent, we need to act on it immediately,â€ť says Sridhar Pabbisetty of the Namma Bengaluru Foundation and who is also one of the petitioners.
"It is foolish to want high-rise apartments and SEZs and yet complain about the lack of water or fresh air. I hope we emerge wiser by all the deliberations that are happening in this case,â€ť he added.
The expert committee, who met the petitioners on September 12, sought clarification on the issue. Pabbisetty who was in the meeting told that the expert committee did not say anything in its defense.