The Sanjay Gandhi National Park is one of the few large forests located in the middle of a metropolitan area. It is home to mammals, reptiles, birds, plants and amphibians; it is also a green lung for the cities such as Mumbai, Mira-Bhayandar and Thane that are located along the forest’s boundaries.
On December 5, the central ministry of environment, forests and climate change issued a notification announcing an eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) around the park.
The ESZ — which was envisaged as a protective buffer zone between the park and the city — is located within a radius of 100m to 4km from the park’s boundaries.It could have created a natural barrier with an area of 59.4 sq km – almost 60% as big as the 104 sq km park.
The draft of the notification — which was released to the public in January — proposed banning all construction within a 1-km radius of the park’s boundaries, in addition to the creation of a buffer, where all development activities were to be restricted.
When the final notification was released last week, environmentalists and citizens’ groups were shocked to read its contents: the ban on new construction inside the 1-km wide zone, proposed in the January draft, was removed in the final notification and the document practically opens up the ESZ for extensive construction. The ESZ includes the Aarey Milk Colony, which environmentalists have said is a natural area that needs protection from construction. So how did the city lose an opportunity to create another large protected area within its boundary?
The ministry has said that after the draft notification was released on 22nd January, citizens were given two months to file objections and suggestions to the notification.
But citizens’ groups have said they have had no say in the creation of the final notification. One group, the Watchdog Foundation, sent its objections by email to the union ministry.
“The sad part is that people filed suggestions and objections to the notification but they were not called for a personal hearing,” said Godfrey Pimenta of the group. “I filed a personal letter to the secretary of the ministry of environment and forests but did not get called for an interview,” he said.
The Aarey Conservation Group, which has filed a case in the National Green Tribunal to protect the Aarey Milk Colony — a 3,000-acre stretch of grasslands and forest thickets — from construction, too, had filed its objections to the ESZ draft. They were joined by another environment campaigner, Vanashakti. Biju Augustine, who leads the Aarey campaigners, said they were not called for a hearing.
“Citizen’s voices have no value,” said Augustine. “After saying that the notified area is an ESZ, the notification goes on to add that there are no restrictions on anything. If you read the notification you will realise that practically anything will be allowed in the area,” said Augustine.
Stalin Dayanand of Vanshakti said nearly 2,000 citizens and groups could have petitioned against the draft but no one was heard.
“They called government agencies such as the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority — the planning agency for the area — the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, all of whom want a slice of the protected area. But, they did not call anyone who want to protect the national park,” said Dayanand. “This is what infuriates us; they did not ask for any suggestions from citizens,” he added.
Citizens’ groups suspect that in the 11 months between the release of the draft and the final notification, construction lobbyists must have influenced the outcome by getting the rules relaxed to protect their real-estate projects.
The notification will face legal hurdles — environment groups have said they will challenge the document.
The Aarey Conservation Group has said it will petition the National Green Tribunal against the ESZ. Watchdog Foundation had earlier petitioned the tribunal against a similarly ineffective buffer around the Karnala Bird Sanctuary in Raigad district. It too plans to oppose this notification.