Less than a week after two civic body engineers were booked for mangrove destruction in Mumbai, state government officials arrested three persons for destroying mangroves at the flamingo sanctuary in Thane on Friday.
After receiving a tip-off from local forest officials last Thursday, a team of six officials from the state mangrove cell, reached the spot on Friday to find a dumper truck (MH 04/FJ 2729) dumping debris on a two-acre mangrove patch at the Airoli-Vashi belt and had destroyed close to 300 mangrove trees.
Three accused were arrested and identified as — Sunil Kumar Nishad, Kamlesh Kumar Bind and Rakesh Kumar Kewat. They were taken into judicial custody and presented before the judicial magistrate JA Kotnis at a court in Belapur, Vashi on Friday itself. “Considering the nature of the offence, a detailed investigation and interrogation is required into the matter as there are chances for the discovery of a much larger offence,” said Kotnis.
In August 2015, the state government declared the 1,690-hectare northern part of Thane creek, covering Airoli and Vashi, which is a reserved forest, as a flamingo sanctuary and the Mumbai Mangrove Conservation Unit, under the state mangrove cell, was given the responsibility to manage it. The sanctuary is currently home to over 30,000 lesser and greater flamingos, pink migratory birds visiting the site every year.
“On preliminary interrogation, the accused did not reveal who they were working for. However, it was clear that the debris had been dumped to make way for an illegal construction within the reserved forest,” said Makarand Ghodke, assistant conservator of forest, Mumbai Mangrove Conservation Unit, state mangrove cell. “With the help of the seized vehicle, we are going to investigate if violations have been committed earlier too and who else is involved. A detailed report will be submitted in court.”
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
Ghodke added that apart from the truck, 16 plastic drums filled with debris along with 16 gunny bags were seized from the accused. “We have confiscated 12 vehicles since 2013 and five vehicles this year. All of them will remain in the custody of the state and might be auctioned later,” he said.
The accused were arrested for the violation of Environment Protection Act, 1986 and Indian Forest Act, 1927 that included sections highlighting trespassing on reserved forest, clearing of land for cultivation or any purpose and destruction of mangrove trees.
More arrests for mangrove destruction but still no convictions
HT had reported on December 15 that after a 10-day-long probe at two separate wetland sites in Mumbai, the state mangrove cell arrested nine persons and booked two Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) engineers, for illegal debris dumping in violation of HC rules.
Even after the Bombay HC orders, rampant destruction of mangrove trees continue in the city. According to the Konkan divisional commissioner’s office, there have been 500 complaints for destruction of mangroves against unidentified persons in the Konkan region in the past one year, of which there has been an enquiry in 335 cases, which have been finalised. However, 165 cases are still pending with ongoing enquiry and not a single conviction across the state in two years.
What are mangroves?
Mangroves are salt-tolerant plants, trees, shrubs or ground fern of tropical and subtropical intertidal regions of the world. The specific regions where these plants occur are termed as ‘mangrove ecosystem’. These are highly productive but extremely sensitive and fragile. Besides mangroves, the ecosystem also harbours other plants and animal species.
Why should you care?
Wetlands stabilise the coastline, control erosion and provide a habitat conducive for plant and animal species; they prevent floods and filter groundwater
Like other forests, mangroves absorb carbon dioxide from the air and store it as carbon in their biomass
Mangrove forests are valuable for fisheries because they are a spawning ground for marine species
These forests are a vibrant ecosystem that harbour animal life and migratory birds
They are also natural buffers against cyclones and tsunamis, absorbing the brunt of the force of waves