Gujarat: No Environment Nod, Work Starts on Seaplane Service Between Sabarmati, Statue of Unity

The start of work on a floating jetty on the Sabarmati riverfront violates the environment ministry’s rules. There are also claims that the service will be inaugurated on October 31.

On Saturday, September 12, parts of a floating jetty were transported in trucks to Ahmedabad’s Sabarmati riverfront.

On Sunday, September 13, despite the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the city, a crowd gathered at the riverfront to watch the unloading of the trucks and the commencement of work on the jetty.

This jetty will be part of the water aerodrome at the Ahmedabad end of Gujarat’s first seaplane service, intended to fly between the Sabarmati riverfront and the Statue of Unity in Kevadia. The service will apparently be inaugurated on October 31 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in commemoration of Sardar Patel’s birth anniversary. A seaplane ride between the water aerodromes on the Sabarmati and in Kevadia will cost Rs 4,800.

The beginning of work on the floating jetty in Ahmedabad, the suggestion that the seaplane service will be inaugurated on October 31 and the stated cost of a ticket for the seaplane all hide a certain fact: none of these things are legitimate at this point, because neither the seaplane service nor the two water aerodromes at either end have as yet obtained the environmental clearances they require.

These clearances have been applied for, but are pending. If proper procedure is followed under the rules of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC), they will remain pending for quite a while longer, making the start of work on these projects at this time a violation of the Environment Impact Assessment Notification 2006.

The environment clearance procedure

On August 27, 2020, the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) of the MoEF&CC discussed via video conference the terms of reference with regard to the development of the water aerodrome at Sabarmati Riverfront, Paldi, Ahmedabad, Gujarat, by the civil aviation department of the government of Gujarat.

This had followed a similar discussion in April this year regarding the water aerodrome project near the Statue of Unity, Panchmukhi Lake (Lake 3) of Sardar Sarovar Dam at Limdi village, Narmada district.

Also read: Investigation Shows Sabarmati Is Brimming With Stagnant Water

The minutes of both these EAC meetings in April 2020 and August 2020 show that the EAC had added an additional term of reference to the standard terms of reference that had been specified by the MoEF&CC in April 2015. This addition called for a public hearing on the construction of each water aerodrome – at Kevadia, near the Statue of Unity and at the Sabarmati riverfront in Ahmedabad – given that they may impact “air, water and aquatic biodiversity”.

According to the minutes of both EAC meetings, “Public hearing is to be conducted. Issues raised during public hearing and commitments made by the project proponent on such issues should be included in final EIA/EMP Report [environmental impact assessment and environmental management plan] in the form of tabular chart with financial budget for complying with such commitments (sic).”

Sabarmati Riverfront. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Sabarmati Riverfront. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The EAC felt such public hearings were necessary because, “The Water Aerodrome is not a listed project/activity in the Schedule to the EIA Notification, 2006 and its amendments. However, a view has been taken by this EAC that the activities proposed under Water Aerodrome project may have similar type of impacts as that of the Airport. Considering the Water Aerodrome are emerging in the country as new mode of transport involving sea/river fronts and its likely impacts on water, air and aquatic biodiversity including flora and fauna, the EAC has also taken a view to follow the EC [environmental clearance] process as per category A of item 7(a) ‘Air Ports’ of the Schedule to the EIA Notification, 2006 (sic).”

In simple terms, any project that needs to obtain environmental clearance (EC) must go through the following procedure:

  1. A discussion by the EAC on the project which sets the terms of reference.
  2. An assessment of the environmental impact of the project, which usually takes two seasons to complete;
  3. The submission of the report on the environmental impact of the project and its environmental management plan to the MoEF&CC and the pollution control board of the state in which the project is located;
  4. If a public hearing had been included in the project’s terms of reference, a 30-day notice period by the state pollution control board via advertisements for the public to comment, agree or disagree on the implementation of the project;
  5. The public hearing;
  6. The submission of minutes and video recordings of the proceedings of the public hearing to the MoEF&CC;
  7. A further discussion by the EAC after the public hearing on whether or not to grant the environmental clearance.
  8. Finally, the granting or withholding of the EC.

Only once the EC is granted can work begin on the project. But except for the two EAC meetings – in April this year for the Kevadia water aerodrome and in August 2020 for the Sabarmati riverfront water aerodrome – this procedure has so far not been followed.

Did the government make an assumption?

Since neither the EIA and EMP reports have been submitted to the MoEF&CC and state pollution control board so far and nor have the two public hearings been held, the beginning of work on the floating jetty in Ahmedabad and the suggestion that the seaplane service will be inaugurated on October 31 appears to show that the Gujarat government has assumed the environmental clearances will be granted no matter what impact the project might have on the “air, water and aquatic biodiversity” of these areas.

Also read: Official Plan to Make Sabarmati Gandhi Ashram ‘World Class’ Instils Fear in Residents

Reading between the lines of the additional term of reference, this assumption seems to have been made right at the beginning of the EC procedure, with the reference to a “financial budget”. The minutes of the EAC meetings in April 2020 and August 2020 had both stated: “Public hearing is to be conducted. Issues raised during public hearing and commitments made by the project proponent on such issues should be included in final EIA/EMP Report in the form of tabular chart with financial budget for complying with such commitments (sic).”

The seaplane service launch announcement and the beginning of work on the floating jetty at Ahmedabad are thus both blatant violations of the Centre’s Environment Impact Assessment Notification 2006 and a mockery of India’s stated commitment to environmental conservation in the light of the climate crisis.

The impact on Kevadia

In February 2019, Pon Radhakrishnan, minister of state for shipping, had informed parliament that seaplane services would be started in six places.

But why begin the services in Kevadia, Gujarat, where the local Adivasi community could never hope to use it? Could it be that the Centre is following in the footsteps of the so-called ‘developed’ world, where native populations were systematically displaced in the name of ‘development’?

Also read: Gujarat: Sardar Sarovar Dam, Statue of Unity Made Tadvi Adivasis Encroachers on their Own Lands

The statue of Sardar Patel and its associated ‘projects’ have today become symbols of resource destruction, river mismanagement and the subjugation of the indigenous population. All this in the name of ‘unity’.

If he were still alive at this time, Sardar Patel, one of the founders of the India that emerged out of British colonialism, would not appreciate these gestures.

Rohit Prajapati is an environment activist, researcher and writer. Krishnakant is an environment activist.