The Centre’s final notification on the buffer zone — an area meant to protect the environment — around the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) up to 4km from the boundary of the park is unlikely to be any kind of defence for the city's sole green lung against construction work .
The Union environment ministry’s notification on December 5 as well as the proposed development plan for the city reveals that affordable housing, tourism resorts and even small-scale industries can be permitted within the ESZ, along with road-widening projects and a Metro car shed.
The approval for such a development is subject to scrutiny by a monitoring committee, comprising thirteen members and chaired by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation's (BMC) commissioner.
Activists, however, have expressed concerns over the discretionary powers of the committee that they fear can lead to rampant construction.
The notification stated that the land marked in the development plan as no-development zone (NDZ) and is also in the eco-sensitive zone, may be permitted, on the recommendation of the monitoring committee and with the prior approval of the state government, to meet the residential needs of local residents.
With BMC marking the verdant Aarey milk colony as NDZ in the draft Development Plan 2034, this entire area can be opened up for affordable housing, one of the activities allowed in the NDZ under the revised draft DP 2034..
Despite being an eco-sensitive zone, cottages constructed for tourists, such as tents and wooden houses for eco-friendly tourism activities will also be allowed, as per the notification. The notification also states that beyond one kilometre from the boundary of the protected area till the end of the eco-sensitive zone, the establishment of new hotels and resorts shall also be permitted but only in pre-defined and designated areas for eco-tourism facilities as per the zonal master plan.
The notification has directed the state government to draft a zonal master plan for the eco-sensitive zone within two years, which will be used to regulate development in this area.
Environmentalist, Stalin D, said, “The notification does not provide any special measures for preserving
eco-sensitive zones as all kinds of development is allowed. However, as the notification states that the high court orders will exist , thus it is not likely that the affordable housing will come up here.”
Activist Godfrey Pimenta from Watchdog Foundation said, "In the revised draft DP 2034, there is a proposed reservation of 43.84 hectares of area of Aarey for rehabilitation and resettlement of slum dwellers– which translate into 70,000 new tenements in Aarey under the SRA Scheme, which will increase the load on already fragile area. If 70,000 families are resettled in Aarey, there would be 2.8 lakh people in Aarey. Along with them there would be issues of extra vehicules, pollution, garbage disposal."
Urban planners also said that the reduction of the extent of the buffer zone from 10km to 4km itself will prove to be a big boost to various ongoing housing-development proposals that earlier needed a no-objection certificate from the forest department.
Pankaj Joshi, director, Urban Development and Research Institute, said, "This will now prove to be a boost to various upcoming housing projects planned within 10km of the protected area, which will not require forest NOCs."