Hyderabad: Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao (KCR)’s announcement this week on scrapping a 26-year-old government order (GO) could send two Nizam-era reservoirs into a death trap, and put lakhs of acres of land at a massive risk of concrete urbanisation.
In the state assembly Tuesday, KCR said the government order 111 issued in 1996 has become redundant, adding that it was time to “revoke” it. He said the government will make the move — dubbed as ‘reckless’ by experts — following the release of an expert committee report on the same.
So, what is GO 111?
The erstwhile Andhra Pradesh government issued this order restricting any kind of major construction and industrial activity in a 10-km radius of the full tank level of the two reservoirs — Himayat Sagar and Osman Sagar — that have been a key source of drinking water for the city for decades, and have also been an essential part of flood control, among other environmental factors.
With an intention to protect the reservoirs, the GO created a buffer zone to avoid any kind of polluting activity in the catchment areas — from industrial, commercial to heavy residential constructions in the lake area.
Nearly century-old history
Osman Sagar and Himayat Sagar were built in 1920 and 1927, respectively, under the last Nizam-era ruler Mir Osman Ali Khan, after the devastating 1908 floods in Hyderabad that killed thousands.
Legendary engineer M. Visvesvaraya was brought in to make the city flood-proof. Under his recommendation to control excess water during floods, these two massive storage reservoirs were built.
Osman Sagar has 15 gates while Himayat Sagar has 17 gates.
The reservoirs eventually became a crucial source of drinking water as water from river Musi and Esa were stored in the storage units, especially for the older part of the city, until the two reservoirs dried up for the first time in 2003, almost after 80 years.
GO 111 is applicable to 1.32 lakh acres of land in 84 villages, in mandals with proximity to Hyderabad, such as Shamshabad, Rajendranagar, Moinabad, Chevella, Shabad, etc. The 84 villages fall under the 10-km catchment area of Osman Sagar and Himayat Sagar.
Development in residential zones are permitted but the order specifically classifies land use of about 90 per cent of the area for recreation and conservation. About 60 per cent of the total area shall be kept as open space and roads in all layouts in the villages of the catchment area.
What CM says, and how experts decry the move
According to CM KCR, the city no longer depended on these reservoirs for its water needs as the government is now able to draw water from massive Krishna and Godavari rivers.
However, the local body had tapped water resources of Himayat Sagar and Osman Sagar as recently as 2019, after other reservoirs dried up.
It would not be easy to just revoke the government order, said eminent environmentalist K. Purushotham Reddy, pointing to a “precautionary principle” issued by the Supreme Court in 2000 when an industrial unit approached the top court to operate within 10 km of the catchment area.
The top court had upheld GO 111, restricting any construction activities which could pollute the lake, pointing out that even a single such industry could be unsafe for the water bodies. Any move to scrap the government order would be a violation of Supreme Court judgement, said experts.
This isn’t the first time that KCR spoke about scrapping this government order — a move that could largely benefit the real estate lobby, according to experts.
In the run-up to the 2018 assembly polls, the CM had promised that the GO would be scrapped within months of his party coming to power.
“Both Osman Sagar and Himayat Sagar were not built for drinking water purposes – they were mainly built for flood control after 1908 massive floods. Hyderabad got flooded twice in the last three years and we saw the impact of it,” said Reddy, referring to the 2020 flood in the city that resulted in loss of life, and inundation of several areas for days.
“And if reservoirs like Osman Sagar and Himayat Sagar are not kept intact, the water impact flowing into the city will be much higher and that will create havoc for the city,” Reddy added.
According to activist and economist Lubna Sarwath, KCR made a false statement on the floor of the House when he called the lakes “redundant”.
“The reservoir gates were opened during 2020 and 2021 floods and they are still a source of drinking water. These are gravity reservoirs and the water from here naturally flows into the filter beds in the city. And why should the city be dependent only on a far off water source like Krishna river while the government destroys water bodies that are closer home?” Sarwath said.
Other environmental factors
Reddy noted how the reservoirs, located in the southwest direction of the city, also provide quality wind during the southwest monsoon. Any kind of pollution in those areas would affect the wind quality.
The Mrugavani National Park between the twin reservoirs and the entire area acts as a heat absorption unit for the city and if that is allowed to get concretised, the city would become a furnace, experts said.
Conservationist Rajendra Singh, who was one of the water conservation advisors when GO 111 was issued during ex-CM N. Chandrababu Naidu’s time, called KCR’s decision “biggest disaster for Hyderabad”. He said environmental activists will move the apex court if needed.
Singh, who is known as ‘waterman of India’, alleged that the KCR government has already decided to scrap the GO and the expert committee report will be tailor-made to suit the purpose of his government rather than protect the water bodies.
Surprised to hear that #Telangana which hosted National Convention on #Rivers on 26,Feb is resorting to revoke #GO111/1996 which was intended to protect catchment areas of #Himayatsagar #Osmansagar. This is against Law & Nature. Request Sri @TelanganaCMO to refrain from doing it pic.twitter.com/dYdC8VLdfh
— Rajendra Singh (@watermanofindia) March 15, 2022
“The Supreme Court decision is final. One can speak whatever they want on the floor of the House… because he cannot go against the SC judgement,” Reddy said, adding that the state’s most fertile land is in these areas and mostly locals depend on agriculture for their source of income.
Realtors lobby at work?
The KCR government has been stressing the ‘demand’ from locals and realtors to scrap the GO 111 to further reap benefits of the growing real estate boom in the city. However, experts said that more than the locals, it’s the real estate sector that wants to capitalise on the area.
“It appears that the decision has more to do with pressure from the real estate lobby than locals. There are also plenty of illegal encroachments in the area. RangaReddy Collector’s office had given a report to the National Green Tribunal (NGT) about such encroachments in the area,” Sarwath said.
In 2016, the RangaReddy Collector had informed the NGT that about 12,500 illegal constructions and 400 illegal layouts had been identified. This was after an activist approached the NGT citing violations of GO 111.
Opposition Congress MP Revanth Reddy even filed a case with the NGT against KCR’s son, IT Minister, K.T. Rama Rao, alleging that Rao’s farmhouse in Shankarpally mandal in RangaReddy district is in violation of GO 111. The minister moved the Telangana High Court seeking to quash the case, the court has reserved its order.
In the state assembly, KCR acknowledged that the sudden scrapping of the order could lead to “anarchy”, adding that his government is taking a “phased” approach. The Municipal administration department has been asked to address the issue in a phased manner after preparing master plans and green zones, the CM said.
Denying that the real estate lobby had exerted any pressure on the government, G.V. Rao, president of the Telangana Developers Association, said that there’s demand for the move from residents of the 84 villages, who want development similar to that of Hyderabad in the wake of the IT boom in the city.
Speaking to ThePrint, Rao said, “Villagers have been demanding that they want similar development to that of Hyderabad — especially in terms of land prices. And that statement has been picked up by politicians. In fact, the real estate lobby may not be interested in revoking the GO because if so much land opens up at once, the existing projects will face hindrances.”
“Revoking GO111 is not the issue — the challenge begins once it is revoked. The government needs to have a special master plan that will ensure lakes are protected and there is no pollution, and only then can the NGT approve anything,” he added.
“If the government executes the master plan — ensures lake protection, low-density houses, institutions that do not lead to pollution — then there would be no real estate lobby control. Otherwise they will get into it,” he said.
This article has been updated with a comment from G.V. Rao, president of the Telangana Developers Association.