The state mangrove cell, which was created in 2012 to stop the destruction of the vital coastal ecosystem, has only pursued seven cases against offenders even as the city’s mangrove forests continue to be destroyed through illegal land reclamation.
There has not been a single conviction in the past four years though 115 cases were registered during the period.
According to data accessed by Hindustan Times, destruction of wetlands by dumping and encroachments accounted for 80% of the cases, with the rest related to hacking and burning of mangrove forests.
Mangrove cell officials said the prosecution rate was low because the culprits were unidentified.
“In most of the registered cases in forested areas, offences have been committed by unidentified persons. Due to the unavailability of CCTV cameras and low manpower, there is lack of evidence in most cases,’’ said a senior official from the state mangrove cell adding, “There has been no convictions yet because of delay in court proceedings wherein cases go on for years.’’
Activists also pointed out there is a huge gap in the implementation of laws made to protect wetlands. Stalin Dayanand, project director, NGO Vanashakti, said, ”The system has failed miserably in penalising the destroyers of mangroves. This is primarily happening because of too many lower courts giving stay orders in contravention of high court orders. The cell needs to be more proactive as there have been cases where they have let offenders walk free.’’
‘’The mangrove cell is not able to deliver end results is shocking. Unless the cell or the collector sets examples by punishing the violators, there will be no deterrence and the violations will continue,’’ said Harish Pandey, secretary, New Link Road Residents’ Forum.
Environmental activists said the lack of manpower in the cell is one of the main reasons for the poor policing and prosecution of offenders.
‘’In most cases in Mumbai, there is no conclusive evidence to nail offenders and the abysmal number of forest staff is responsible for this, as statements are not properly recorded that leads to loopholes in most cases,’’ said Godfrey Pimenta, trustee, Watchdog Foundation.
Pimenta added that according to the Environment Protection Act, 1986, the minimum imprisonment in mangrove destruction cases is five years and it is a non-bailable offence. ‘’This act has never been taken seriously by the state machinery,’’ he said.
The current manpower within the state mangrove cell, inclusive of administrative officers and forest guards is 64 personnel.
‘’We have sent a proposal to the government to sanction 95 additional forest guards for better vigilance and they have sanctioned five vehicles for patrolling,’’ said N Vasudevan, chief conservator of forest, state mangrove cell.
Vasudevan added that the cell has removed about 3,000 illegal huts constructed in protected wetland areas in Cuffe Parade, Malwani, Cheeta camp, Trombay, Chikuwadi and a few locations in Thane, Navi Mumbai in the past two years.