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Sentinels of our coastline

The barren, brown view from Mehul Pandey’s third-floor Versova flat is turning green. The retired government official is witnessing the rebirth of a patch of mangroves, which were buried under truckloads of concrete ambitions until the late ’90s.

mumbai Updated: Apr 07, 2010 19:57 IST
Soubhik Mitra

The barren, brown view from Mehul Pandey’s third-floor Versova flat is turning green.

The retired government official is witnessing the rebirth of a patch of mangroves, which were buried under truckloads of concrete ambitions until the late ’90s. "My son, who moved to Chicago two years ago, refuses to believe that the mangroves are growing back," said an elated Pandey.
http://www.hindustantimes.com/images/HTEditImages/Images/mangroves.jpg
A citizens’ group forced the state to dig trenches at this spot so that sea water could flow in and revive the mangroves there. Puneet Chandhok / HT PHOTO

The view from Pandey’s sea-facing flat offers hope for one of Mumbai’s biggest environmental challenges — preservation of mangroves, which act as buffers along the coastline. The city has lost nearly 40 per cent of its mangrove cover in the past two decades.

Mangroves are critical to Mumbai as they act as buffers along the coastline, which includes large areas of reclaimed land battered by the sea. The damage caused by the July 26, 2005, floods could have been limited if the Mithi river and Mahim Creek mangroves were alive. Mumbai’s mangroves also absorb pollutants, including heavy metals like lead, mercury and chromium, all found in significant concentrations in the Mithi.

In 2000, the Save Forum, a citizens’ group, forced the government to stop dumping debris in Versova through lobbying, forming human chains and online campaigns. Subsequently, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) was asked to make water channels in the kilometre-long plot. “This revived the flow of sea water into the shrubs,” said Deepak Mehta, a member of the group.

On Wednesday, the Bombay High Court pulled up the state government for its failure to follow a 2005 court directive to notify mangrove areas across the state as protected forests. So far, only mangroves in Mumbai, Thane and Navi Mumbai have been notified.

The government is now preparing a mangrove protection policy. “The focus is on restoration,” said Environment Secretary Valsa Nair Singh.

The state government is holding talks with the Gujarat Ecology Commission, which is credited with restoring several kilometres of mangroves along Gujarat’s coastline. “They have done amazing work by investing corporate funds into mangrove restoration,” added Nair.

Environmentalists have mixed expectations from Maharashtra’s policy. “The BMC had sanctioned a budget of Rs 7.5 crore for protection of the Versova plot. Nobody knows what happened to that fund,” said Mehta.

“The policy is promising, but the state should ensure effective implementation and transparency,” said Rishi Agarwal, of the Mangroves Society of India.

The policy, once ready, will have to be approved by the state cabinet. It promises to set up special squads comprising forest, revenue and civic officials at police stations to tackle dumping of debris in mangrove areas. “There is a national mangrove protection policy since 1991 and a Bombay High Court ruling in 2005 for protection of mangroves. I fail to understand how a new policy will make a difference,” said Debi Goenka of the Conservation Action Trust.

‘Offenders should have faced tougher action’

Valsa R. Nair-Singh
Secretary (Environment), Maharashtra

Why is the government planning a mangrove protection policy when we already have a national policy on the issue?

It is a proactive measure. As part of the Coastal Zone Management Committee, it is the responsibility of the state to protect endangered species like mangroves. There has been little effort put into their restoration. That would be the main objective of the upcoming policy.

Environmentalists feel the state government has done little to protect mangroves in the last 10 years.

That is not entirely true. We have to give a quarterly report on mangroves to the Bombay High Court. Local bodies like the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) have made efforts to prevent dumping of debris and garbage on mangroves and the police have filed cases against offenders. I agree that more stringent action should have been taken against offenders.

The government is banking on corporate houses for restoration of mangroves. What kind of response have you got from them?

The response has been encouraging. We want to involve corporate houses investing in projects along the coast. We are in talks with the Gujarat Ecology Commission, which has done an amazing job in restoring mangroves along the Gujarat coastline.