According to a state government report, there has been an 80% drop in cases of mangrove destruction in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) from 2015 to 2016. However, activists have criticised the survey, pointing to the fact that no one has been convicted of destroying mangroves since 2013.
The report, by the Mumbai Mangrove Conservation Unit, a body constituted by the Bombay High Court that works under the state mangrove cell, says that in 2015-16, there were a total of 103 cases in Mumbai, Navi Mumbai and Thane. Sixty-six were encroachment related, 23 were debris dumping, and 14 were hacking and burning cases on government land.This dropped to 18 cases in 2016-17 — 12 encroachment related and six debris dumping. “Majority of the cases were observed in Mumbai suburbs and very few were reported from Thane or Navi Mumbai,” said Makarand Ghodke, assistant conservator of forest, Mumbai Mangrove Conservation Unit. “Awareness among citizens has increased. At the same time, the unit is taking suo motu action against violators.”
Preliminary offence reports were filed in all cases over the past two years, the report added. As compared to 38 arrests in 2015, 20 people were nabbed in 2016. However, all were released on bail and not a single conviction has happened in mangrove destruction cases since 2013, with the inception of the state mangrove cell. The unit seized 12 vehicles involved in debris dumping, of which eight have been confiscated by the state while hearings are underway for the remaining four. “While there are many unidentified persons involved in mangrove destruction, local courts are yet to hear a number of cases in the coming months. We hope for the first conviction soon, which will set an example for violators,” said Ghodke.
For mangroves on private land in Mumbai, data from the Konkan divisional commissioner’s office identified 122 mangrove destruction cases in 2016, of which enquiry is pending in seven cases. While there have been arrests, no convictions have happened. This includes the Kapil Sharma case where two first information reports (FIRs) were filed against the actor-comedian for destroying mangroves around his Versova bungalow.
City based activists said that there have been a number of cases that have not gone reported. “The destruction of mangroves is only on the rise as numerous cases have happened all over MMR that the cell is unaware of,” said Godfrey Pimenta, trustee, Watchdog Foundation. “The mangrove cell had claimed in 2015, that there was an increase in the mangrove cover in the state but we shared satellite images that highlighted the opposite.”
“Large-scale destruction of mangroves and wetlands continues right from Malad to Dahisar. Concerned authorities either delay or neglect taking action since their own officers are involved,” said Reji Abraham, activist from Charkop. “My fight over the last 12 years to protect 125 acres of wetland at Charkop still goes on as no action has been taken by the authorities to stop the destruction yet.”
Some environmentalists said that while the data might be accurate, the state machinery had failed to restore sites where mangroves had been destroyed. Noting the public interest litigation (PIL) filed by Bombay Environment Action Group — an NGO in Mumbai — in 2005, the Bombay high court (HC) banned the destruction of state-wide mangroves and construction within 50m of them. After Vanashakti filed another PIL, the HC banned all reclamation and construction on wetlands in 2014.
Stalin D, director, Vanashakti said, “As per our petition, the state machinery needed to restore eight sites that had fallen prey to mangrove destruction by 2016, but as per document submitted in court, they have restored only one. The coastal ecosystem will only be safe if there is restoration of trees.”
Apart from restoration, environmental activists also said that deterrence will only come with conviction. “Violators are well aware that they can get away scot-free as even though the law is in place, no prosecutions have taken place in years. Action needs to be taken on field by recognising mangrove and wetland destruction as a heinous crime,” said Harish Pandey, secretary, New Link Road Residents’ Forum, an NGO that highlighted over 15 cases of mangrove destruction over past two years.
Mangroves are salt tolerant plants, trees, shrubs or ground ferns in intertidal areas. They are a breeding ground for marine animals, and apart from protecting the coast from the brunt of cyclones and tidal waves, these coastal forests are pollution sinks that control climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide from the air.
Currently, Mumbai has a total of 5,800 hectares (ha) of mangrove cover – 4,000ha on government land and 1,800ha in private areas. This is more than 10% of the city’s land. Navi Mumbai and the eastern end of Thane creek have a total cover of 1,471ha.
Activists alleged half of city’s wetlands under threat
City-based activists have alleged that wetlands in the city, which mangroves form a portion of, are under severe threat from developmental activities.
The allegation comes on the occasion of World Wetlands Day, which is celebrated every year on February 2 highlighting the importance of such an ecosystem. This day marks the date of the adoption of the Convention on Wetlands in 1971, along the shores of the Caspian Sea.
Wetlands such as lakes, ponds, estuaries and creeks, which mangroves are a part of, is an ecosystem that stabilises the coastline, controls erosion and provides a habitat for plant and animal species; they prevent floods and filter groundwater.
Environmentalists alleged that almost half of city’s wetlands, right from Malad, Marwe, Gorai, Borivli, Kandivli, Kalwa, Kasheli all the way up to Uran is under threat. “Wetlands continue to be decimated. This is largely due to insensitive state machinery, which describes wetlands and wastelands,” said Stalin Dayanand, director, NGO Vanashakti adding that a lot more needs to be done for their protection.
“In spite of numerous environmental laws, coastal regulation zone guidelines and high court orders, the destruction continues. Wetlands are a bridge between the terrestrial and marine ecosystems as a powerhouse of medicinal benefits and help mitigate effects of pollution,” said Dayanand.