Girish Chandwadkar, 32, a Thane resident is passionate about bird photography and visits mangroves in and around Mumbai during holidays.
But lately, Chandwadkar feels that infrastructure projects have rapidly encroached on mangroves around the city. “Today, we are surrounded by an absolute concrete jungle from all sides. Eco-systems like wetlands and mangroves will be remembered only through pictures and videos,” said Chandwadkar, consultant, communication design, Tata Interactive Services.
Green activists and wetland ecology experts echoed Chandwadkar’s thoughts and want the government to take urgent action to declare wetlands, mudflats and mangroves as eco-tourism hubs and declare them as protected areas.
This coincides with the World Wetland’s Day theme of ‘Wetlands and Tourism’. On February 2, World Wetlands Day marks the anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on Wetlands in 1971, in the city of Ramsar in Iran, with the aim of conserving these spaces. India is a signatory to the Convention.
Currently, three proposed big infrastructure projects — The Navi Mumbai International Airport (NMIA), the coastal road project along the western coast and the Mumbai Trans Harbour Link (MTHL) — pose a threat to wetlands and mangroves.
“The proposed coastal road from Mantralaya to Kandivli will impact mangroves at Carter Road, Chimbai village, Khar Danda and Versova. These are popular recreational spaces. The freeway will completely change the face of the coast at these place. Besides, from the transport point of view the freeway will not really ease traffic congestion,” said Rishi Agarwal, secretary, Mangrove Society of India, Maharashtra chapter.
The MTHL, on the other hand poses a direct threat to 15,000 migratory flamingos and the habitat of 150 bird species at the Sewri mudflats, that has been declared as an Important Bird Area (IBA) by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS).
“The MTHL’s current route is bound to hamper the mudflats and bird habitat. We are trying to convince the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (MMRDA) to realign the route 700m south from the original location to mitigate the impact on mudflats,” said Asad Rehmani, director, BNHS.
Leaving aside the impact of proposed projects, reclamation at Uran, Airoli and Kasheli in Thane has already wiped out wetlands and also resulted in the vanishing of migratory birds, seen at Uran also.
Environmentalists stress the need for citizens to be vigilant and not allow government to bypass existing laws. “The 64 hectares of land acquired for the Kanjurmarg landfill directly comes under CRZ – II, where no development is allowed within 100m of the high tide line. The Kanjurmarg site is marshland and creek inlets exist nearby. How can they operate a dumping ground here,” said Stalin D, project director, Vanashakti, a non-government organisation.
Wetlands under threat
Ten years ago, professor Amol Patwardhan would go to Kharegaon, a fishing village close to Thane creek, to watch migratory birds at the mangroves.
“Today, there are hardly any mangroves - thousands of slums have encroached on the wetlands. This has affected the diversity of mangrove species,” said Patwardhan, entomologist, teaching at KJ Somaiya College, Vidyavihar.
Considered one of the biggest creeks in India, flanked by mangroves and home to more than 150 bird species, the Thane creek is today plagued by slum encroachments, discharge of effluents from industrial units in the Thane-Belapur Industrial Complex and debris dumping.
In March 2007, the state government granted environment clearance to a private company for setting up a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) on 54.22 hectares at Kopri, an inter-tidal zone 200 metres from Thane creek. Vanashakti, a non-government organisation, filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Bombay high court challenging the green nod. Stalin D, Vanashakti’s project head, says wetlands are protected areas and the Kopri wetland falls under Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) I, where no development is allowed.
“The CRZ law is being totally ignored. The state has reclassified the Kopri wetland area as CRZ- III only to facilitate the SEZ project on the ecologically sensitive wetland,” said Stalin. “Wetlands are not wastelands.”
A study published in June 2010 in the Journal of Environmental Protection found soil samples from wetlands in the creek contained heavy metals such as nickel, zinc and others discharged by the Thane-Belapur Industrial Complex.
Efforts are on to protect the creek. Last month, the HC ordered the civic body to stop dumping solid waste into the creek. The government also plans to declare it a flamingo sanctuary. “It must be protected for our sake and not just for biodiversity,” said Asad Rahmani, director, BNHS. - (Input from Snehal Rebello)
Once known as a haven for around 200 species of migratory birds, the case of Uran wetlands is a prime example of how negligence can result in destruction of wetlands.
According to an on-going study by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) called ‘Avifaunal study of Navi Mumbai International Airport’, around ten species of migratory water birds that make the Uran wetlands their home between October and February have not been sighted for around two years. Migratory birds such as pied avocets and greater and lesser flamingos are no longer sighted here.
Experts and green activists blame large-scale reclamation and industrial activity carried out by the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT) and the Navi Mumbai Special Economic Zone (NMSEZ) for the change.
“The entire Uran taluka has witnessed massive industrialisation and it has not stopped. The reclamation in front of Nhava Sheva police station has adversely impacted the bird diversity since they have lost their source of food,” said Sujit Narwade, project scientist, Navi Mumbai International Airport Bird Survey, BNHS.
Environmental action groups had alerted government agencies such as city and industrial development corporation (CIDCO), the state government and the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) about the impending loss of bird habitat, but nobody paid heed. Locals from Funde village too staged dharnas but failed to garner any response.
“What happened at Uran should not happen anywhere else. The JNPT wants to scale up its infrastructure so that 10,000 ships can operate there. The reclamation has taken away the most ideal wetland habitat of migratory birds in a matter of two years,” said Goldin Quadros, Goldyn Quadros, wetland ecology expert, Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON). JNPT Chairman L Radhakrishnan was not available to comment on the issue of reclamation at Uran wetlands.