Deep in the interiors of Malvani in Malad (West), down the lone dusty path behind the Chikuwadi and Patelwadi slums, you can see the tops of mangrove trees above the shanty roofs.
As you head further down the path, the mangroves disappear, replaced by a large, barren expanse of landfill debris.
“Trucks come here every night to dump debris on this plot,” says Prakash Surve, 40, a resident of Patelwadi.
While the slum residents are unperturbed, fishermen like Hareshwar Koli from the nearby Malvani village are disgruntled. “We have been drying fish here for generations. First the slums expanded, and now the mangroves are being reclaimed. We have hardly any open space left,” says Koli, chairman of the local fishermen’s association.
The fishermen of Malvani are not the only Mumbaiites being affected by reclamation. All along the coast, mangroves, wetlands, saltpan lands and even beaches are being encroached and built upon, adding to Mumbai’s growing concrete cover.
In an ongoing study on reclamation in the city, researchers from University of Mumbai’s geography department found that, over the past 13 years alone, 54.72 sq km of land was ‘created’ (or reclaimed) along the coasts. The study was commissioned in 2011 by the Mumbai Transfor-mation Support Unit (MTSU), a think tank for urban planning and policy set up by the state government in 2005. Its first phase was completed in December.
“The study aims to offer a balanced view of the socio-economic and environmental impact of reclamation, so that we can undertake more responsible reclamation in the future,” says Sulakshana Mahajan, a consultant urban planner with MTSU.
As reported by HT on April 21, the study has revealed that, since 1972, reclamation has been responsible for a 97% rise in concrete structures across the city. Between 1995 and 2005, Mumbai lost 40% of its mangroves.
“We need to find out whom such reclamation benefits, and whether it is really required,” says professor Smita Gandhi, head of the university’s geography department and author of the first phase of the study.
Historically, the seven islands of Mumbai came together as a contiguous city because of a series of reclamations that began in the 1700s. Today, despite a series of laws that protect coastal zones and forested wetlands, this practice continues.
Now, in an attempt to save these precious ecological resources, several Mumbai-based non-profit groups, led by environment group Vanashakti, filed a public interest litigation against various state and central government agencies in the Bombay high court in April, seeking protection for all wetlands in the state.
Government response, meanwhile, remains sluggish. “I will inspect whether the mangrove plot in Malvani that is being reclaimed is notified,” says assistant conservator of forests Vasudev Patil.
Twenty-eight years ago, when Tasneem Shukul moved to a sea-facing home in Dadar, the sands of the wide beach kissed her building’s boundary wall and stretched all the way to the Mahim fort.
“My children would regularly run along the beach, which used to be full of soft, fluffy sand,” says Shukul, 48, a homemaker.
Over the years, the view from Shukul’s window has changed. First, the sand began to erode from the beach and the water in the bay became more polluted. “We didn’t realise it then, but this was most likely because of the creation of Bandra Reclamation in the 1980s, which came up where mangroves once stood,” says Shukul.
Most Dadar residents only made this connection over the past three years, after the Bandra-Worli sea link was built and the erosion of sand intensified.
“To make the sea link, large parts of the sea were reclaimed at both ends of the bridge,” says Ashok Rawat, a Dadar-based activist and trustee of non-profit organisation Wecom Trust. “The reclamation has left just a small, funnel-like opening for water from the Mithi river to flow through the bay into the sea.”
With nowhere else to go, the sea water has been welling up at the Dadar beach during high tide, dragging sand away during low tide. To prevent further erosion, the state Public Works Department began piling large boulders onto patches of the beach three years ago.
“Now, there is just a small part of the beach left for people to use, even during low tide,” says Shukul. “And this too is layered with silt and trash.”
The Maharashtra Maritime Board is now reclaiming parts of Dadar beach for an elevated public walkway. “Before this reclamation continues, we should ensure that it will not have an adverse effect on some other part of the coast,” says Shukul.
The view of the Oshiwara coastline from one of its many creek-facing high-rises is disturbing. You can see inlets of the Malad creek snake their way through a lush, almost-uninterrupted mangrove forest.
The interruption comes in the form of a sprawling 500-acre plot of mangrove land that, except along its extreme coastal fringes, stands brown and bare. This plot was gradually stripped of its mangroves by a private developer between 1998 and 2002.
Dwarfed by this mammoth piece of reclaimed wetland is a smaller, 3-acre plot where mangroves have been cut down and reclaimed with land-filling debris since the late 2000s.
Both plots fall in the Coastal Regulatory Zone (CRZ) – I and have been classified as a wetland.
“During the July 2005 deluge, the Oshiwara-Lokhandwala area did not face any flooding because of the mangroves and creeks, but many of the reclaimed lands did,” says Sumesh Lekhi, a businessman and local resident.
This is perhaps one big reason why Oshiwara residents came out in protest against the destruction of mangroves and the reclamation of this land, in 2012, and filed a case in the high court against government agencies for failing to follow environmental laws.
The case is still being heard; the land-filling work on the plots has been stalled. “We have been blessed with thick mangrove cover,” says Lekhi. “It is important for us to protect it.”
Until 1990, Nandakumar Pawar, 53, and his fellow fishermen from Bhandup village fed their families with their daily catch from the Thane creek. In the monsoon, they cultivated paddy on the wetlands around the creek.
Like most others in his village, he was forced to give up his traditional livelihood in the 1990s, as the wetlands dried up and the creek receded.
The problem, Pawar believes, began with the rapid development of Navi Mumbai across the creek. “As parts of that coast were reclaimed, siltation on our side increased. Now, with all the development in Bhandup, Nahur and Mulund, the creek has become just a stinking drain,” says Pawar, who now dabbles in horticulture and construction material supply for a living.
Pawar’s regular fishing spot is now full of thick, wild grass.
Meanwhile, across Bhandup, the BMC has built walls at the edges of the creek and its inlets, as part of its stormwater disposal system. The walls, however, act as a bund, further choking the wetlands.
Even with a map, it would be hard to find the state forest department boards that mark the Dahisar (West) Kandarpada mangroves as a notified forest.
They’re there, but hidden among a number of structures that do not belong in a protected forested wetland area.
To begin with, there is the mammoth Ganpat Patil Nagar slum, a settlement that started out as a huddle of 300 hutments on the edge of the mangroves in the mid-1990s but now comprise more than 8,000 shanties jutting blatantly into the forest.
Next to the slum, the wetlands once housed seven natural ponds that local fishermen used to breed prawns. Today, just four remain.
“Over the past five years, the rest of the ponds were reclaimed to build a large parking lot where at least 100 private tour buses are regularly parked,” says Harish Pandey, Dahisar resident and member of the New Link Road Residents Forum, a local citizens’ group that has been fighting against mangrove reclamation across Dahisar for four years.
To protest against the bus parking and other encroachments, the forum has been sending complaint letters to the state coastal zone management authority and the environment ministry since 2010. “We have seen no action yet,” says Pandey.
Adds SP Matthew, a doctor and fellow member of the residents’ forum: “I moved to Dahisar from Borivli 10 years ago because of its proximity to the lush mangroves, but because of the slum and other encroachments, the green cover has been significantly reduced.”