The 1,000-square-feet of mangrove forest encroached by actor Kapil Sharma next to his office in Versova, Andheri (West), will be worth around Rs2 crore, said city-based realtors. Residents of another 60 bungalows along the 400m stretch of the road, too, have allegedly converted similar patches of wetlands into their backyards, said officials from the state mangrove cell. The value of the illegally reclaimed land: Rs120 Crore.
The high value of the land explains why, even after a Bombay high court (HC) order in 2005 banned the construction within 50m of mangrove areas and another order in March 2014 imposed an interim ban on reclamation and construction on wetlands (which mangroves are a part of), mangrove forests continue to destroyed —109 cases were reported this year itself in Mumbai’s suburbs.
Mangrove forests are a vibrant ecosystem that harbour animal life, migratory birds and serve as breeding areas for marine species. The forests are also natural buffers during cyclones and tsunamis, absorbing the brunt of the force of waves.
In Mumbai, the mangroves are located next to expensive residential and business areas. The shortage of open land for construction and the high value of real estate means the city’s remaining mangrove forests are facing an uncertain future. Some of the mangrove forests are privately owned and these are the areas that are most vulnerable to destruction, said real-estate experts.
“It is a simple process of illegally acquiring land in Mumbai. First, a wetland patch is identified. Next, encroachments in the form of shanties are allowed to settle on these patches for a few months, which destroy the mangroves. Lastly, the encroachments are removed, construction debris is dumped, levelling takes place and the land is ready for the construction,” said Shabaad Patel, a real estate developer and an environment activist.
He said the rates for illegal residential occupancy differ from commercial ones. “Areas categorised as commercial have higher land rates amounting to Rs25,000 to Rs28,000 per sft,” he said, adding that mangroves in the eastern suburbs are better protected because the land belongs to private agencies.
Citizen activists said the builder lobby in connivance with local politicians have devised unique ways to acquire mangrove patches in Mumbai. “There have been several cases in Lokhandwala where miscreants have cut off the supply of sea water to a mangrove patch, killing the trees. Then invasive species such as Gulmohar are grown on the plot so that authorities are confused about whether there were any mangroves at the site at all,” said Sumesh Lekhi, environmentalist.
Officials from the state mangrove cell confirmed that maximum cases over the past year were reported from the western suburbs and the demand for real estate played a major role. In the past six months, the cell issued notices to 1,500 illegal shanties at wetlands and confiscated 10 vehicles, mostly excavator machines, used to destroy wetland patches.
Law-enforcement authorities said they are on the watch for encroachers. “People causing any harm to mangroves will be doing so at their own risk. We have been using satellite maps to check violations. However, maximum violations are being observed in private areas declared as forest and revenue land,” said N Vasudevan, chief conservator of forest, state mangrove cell. “We have asked the district collectorate and civic body to declare the private mangrove areas as protected forests.”
District collectorate officials said that of the 109 cases this year, 80% were related to debris dumping and illegal encroachments and the remaining were slashing or burning of mangroves. “Land prices are extremely high and people are taking risks by destroying mangroves for maximum profit,” said a senior official from the district collectorate, on the condition of anonymity.
“A three-fold approach is being used to tackle mangrove destruction cases. First, the cognisance and rectification of a case is observed with the help of the mangrove cell. Second, we write to the civic body for removal of debris and lastly the landowner is directed to restore the mangroves,” said Deependra Singh Kushwa, Mumbai suburban collector. “While things will not change overnight, the process is in place and the results will be reflected soon.”
When encroachers blatantly violated court rulings, environment campaigner Vanashakti filed a contempt petition in December in the Bombay high court. “The real estate value of the reclaimed area coupled with the ecological services provided by mangroves makes it economically priceless. Despite several court orders being in place to prevent illegal extensions, violations continue,” said Stalin Dayanand, project director, Vanashakti, who added that time has come for a complete audit of all structures near mangroves.