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Forests on our coastline

mumbai Updated: Jun 02, 2011 02:24 IST
Snehal Rebello

The city has got a new bunch of mangrove protectors. In a notification issued on March 23, the state environment department set up a 10-member District Coastal Zone Monitoring Committee, authorised to act immediately on reports of mangrove destruction.

The committee, headed by the collector, comprises policemen, forest officials, fishermen, state pollution board officials and experts from non-government organisations, among others. It is empowered under the Environment Protection Act (1986) to take action against the destruction of the ecologically-sensitive mangroves.

“The committee can remove encroachments and unauthorised structures on mangrove land, confiscate vehicles, take up cases suo moto or based on complaints or even through newspaper reports,” said a senior official from the environment department on condition of anonymity as he is not authorised to speak to the media. “The collector also has the power to levy a penalty or recover costs from offenders.”

While the committee will look at violations in all coastal regulation zones (CRZs), another committee was formed in January to exclusively look at violations in mangrove areas. The committee, headed by the tehsildar, met for the first time on February 14.

“In the next 15 days, we will send a proposal to the government to demarcate these protected mangroves as reserved forests, which will enable the forest department to take action against offenders,” said suburban collector Nirmal Deshmukh.

With the formation of the committees, the state seems to be taking note of the threat faced by mangroves, which act as buffers against tidal waves, prevent flooding and are a cradle of marine life.

Infrastructure projects and illegal construction of residential and commercial complexes as well as encroachments on wetlands have gobbled up 40% of the city’s mangrove cover in the last two decades. “There are various laws, as well as a court order, banning the destruction of mangroves. To create another policy is to create another piece of paper. I don’t see how it will make a difference,” said Debi Goenka, Conservation Action Trust.

It was Goenka’s public interest litigation in 2005 that led to the Bombay High Court designating mangroves as forests. The court directed that destruction of mangroves would attract stringent punishment and that all complaints had to be filed to the divisional commissioner, Konkan region.

Between November 2005 and May 2010, 115 complaints were registered with the commissioner. Of these, 9% were filed against unidentified persons and no arrests were made in 14 cases where first information reports (FIRs) were filed.

There are cases of mangrove destruction in Kandivli, Malad, Bhandup, Kanjurmarg, Mulund, Thane, Mumbra, Diva and Kalwa. “Despite stringent court orders and with specific responsibilities fixed on a senior official, violations are still going on. Inquiries go on for years and in many cases complaints are repeated,” said Goenka. “Filing an FIR against unidentified persons is superficial action.”

Following the court order, about 5,000 hectares of mangroves in and around Mumbai were notified as forests. But there is no manpower to guard these wetlands.

According to forest department officials, a proposal to appoint more guards is still to be sent to the government for approval. “There is one man to guard the mangroves from Mahim to Malad. Unless there is manpower, the law is only on paper,” said Rishi Agarwal of the Mangrove Society of India. “The offender must go to jail. That’s a more powerful message.”

Citizens have stepped in to protect mangroves. In Dahisar, citizens and the Bombay Environment Action Group, got a Supreme Court order directing a builder, who had built bunds to stop flow of seawater to a mangrove patch, to restore the 400-hectare wetland patch. When the builder failed to restore the area, the government took over the work on May 1. Several bunds have been opened giving the mangroves a fresh lease of life.

“Every morning, we conduct a check on the progress and communicate to the authorities what needs to be done. This is passed on to the workers,” said Harish Pandey of the New Link Road Residents Forum. “There are grey areas and we want to conduct a joint inspection with the authorities in the near future.”