Vrindavan, 2017.12.02 (VT): Despite a ban by the National Green Tribunal (NGT), the Irrigation Department continues to develop the Yamuna riverfront in Vrindavan. New construction is being done in addition to the existing sheet-piling, which is endangering Vrindavan’s water table and which cost taxpayers 40 crores (about 6.2 million US dollars).
Workers are currently laying a foundation for an unknown structure just upstream from Vrindavan’s historic Keshi Ghat. They are also using heavy machinery to move a large amount of sand, changing the shape of the riverbank and shifting the river’s course away from the city.
Ongoing riverfront construction, December 2017
While the State’s plan for developing the riverfront has not been publicly released, Vrindavan’s residents are highly concerned. In fact, the secrecy surrounding the riverfront plan has merely added to the people’s sense of dread. The Yamuna riverfront is the lifeline of Vrindavan, both spiritually and historically. From the spiritual perspective, it is the site of the Raas Lila, and from the perspective of heritage, it is home to Keshi Ghat, the last of Vrindavans 32 ancient ghats still to touch the water.
The riverfront project is a holdover from the previous State government led by Akhilesh Yadav. The work started in 2016 on a large scale, but in April of 2017, the new CM Yogi Adityanath ordered an inquiry into the matter. It was found that the previous government had begun the work without tender notifications or receiving bids, with a budget of Rs. 177.81 crores. No environmental clearance certificates were sought or granted by the relevant ministries either. However, even aftery the inquiry, the work continued.
The government’s “mystery project” on the riverfront has already caused a great deal of damage. In addition to moving the river and installing the infamous sheet piling, the project horrified locals by installing a large sewage pipeline directly in front of the ancient Keshi Ghat. The pipeline was only partially installed before it was banned by the Allahabad High Court. However, the government has continued to ship in construction materials for building the pipeline, despite the ban.
Due to concerns about the project’s devastating effect on Vrindavan’s ecology, local environmentalist Mr. Akash Vashsitha brought the case before the National Green Tribunal (NGT). The NGT favored Vashishtha, and by May of 2017, the government’s representatives assured the court that no further construction work would be done.
The NGT’s order under the Honorable Justice Swatanter Kumar reads: “The learned council appearing for the respondents upon instructions from Mr. Sanjeev Kumar Tiwari, AE submits that they are not doing any other work except sheet piling work and dredging is connected thereto. They will continue that work only and no other except this.”
However, the work is continuing on the floodplain, in clear violation of the court’s order. Speaking to Vrindavan Today, Mr. Vashishth said he is ready to bring the matter before the court once again.
The convener of the Braj-Vrindavan Heritage Alliance (BVHA) Sri Naresh Narayan said, “Soon we will have a meeting to discuss a number of dire issues facing our community. The construction on the riverfront is a major disaster for Vrindavan’s heritage and environment. We will soon file a PIL in the Supreme Court to protect the riverbed and the pristine ghats. The prominent environmental lawyer MC Mehta has already promised to represent us free of cost.”
On behalf of the BVHA, Dr. Aruna Vishwanathan recently met the Environment Minister, Dr. Harsh Vardhan. She raised the issue of Yamuna before him and showed him the papers documenting the history of the riverfront case. He asked her to send a proposal and promised to intervene on the environmental front.
Local resident Dhananjay Gautam said, “When Sri Sri Ravishankar was fined and crucified for holding a program on the Yamuna floodplain, what to speak of the construction work and pollution in Vrindavan which are outright killing the river’s ecology?”
“The concept of developing the riverfront is a good one, but it needs to be planned properly. The plan should have been made by consulting community members first. Wetland development should be prioritized, with a sanctuary for birds and peacocks. Ideally, if new ghats are to be made, they should be made on the opposite side of the river. This would help retain the ethos of the ancient architecture and keep river flowing at the old ghats.“