The biodiversity cost of our urban march

  • Smruti Koppikar
  • Updated: Jun 04, 2015 12:36 IST

In the myriad discussions on urbanisation and, more lately, smart cities or smart localities within cities, an issue that governments rarely bring to the table is that of ecological biodiversity. Cities are seen as concrete jungles and constructed environments with little or no space for bio-diversity. Yet, nothing could be farther from the truth. The range of biological diversity in Mumbai would surprise many.

The International Day of Biological Diversity observed on May 22 every year passed by without much flourish from any quarter except the dedicated naturalists. The United Nations chose the day to commemorate the adoption of the Convention of Biological Diversity in 1992. It acquires a special significance in the context of India’s new thrust on urbanisation and Mumbai’s urban spread.

The built environment in India’s largest 100 cities in the past two decades increased by almost 2.5 times or nearly 5,000 square kilometres, according to official data. Add to this, the vast expanse of infrastructure – roads, bridges, metro networks, railway lines and highways – and the urban landscape expands beyond the official figure. Most of this has come at the expense of natural habitats for plant, animal and bird species. The new built environment has, in a few cases, brought new species too.

Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata are among the world’s 10 largest cities even as India becomes home to a number of fastest growing cities in the world. What is the biodiversity cost of this urbanisation? Whatever may be the achievements – or not -- of the year-old Narendra Modi government at the Centre and six-month-old Devendra Fadnavis government in the state, their decisions and decision-making processes show that neither government is passionate about natural environment and the need to preserve its biological diversity.

In the tug-of-war between natural and constructed environments, their vote would be, in all likelihood, for the latter. This is all the more disturbing because we do not know how much and what of our natural biodiversity has vanished. There isn’t a state registry or comprehensive record of the biodiversity lost to various development projects, including urbanisation.

In Mumbai, the loss has been documented mostly by committed naturalists, students and, occasionally, an enthusiastic media. Sunjoy Monga, the indefatigable environmentalist and a unanimous choice for the inaugural HT For Mumbai changemaker award last year, is a chronicler. The Bombay Natural History Society, also HT For Mumbai changemaker awardee, remains a lone star organisation. Passionate students add their insights to the body of work but these are mostly labours of love.

In his book Mumbai Safari: Nature in the extreme, Monga showed that there has been a 50% decline in wetlands, grasslands and agricultural land in Mumbai region in the decade from 2003-04, and more worrying, a phenomenal 80% worsening of the quality of habitat, which led to a decline in several species. A drop in the ground-level foliage and grasslands meant a loss of ground birds. Bats and butterfly species, too, had reduced as the tree cover in the eastern side made way for buildings. But he found a few new species along the creeks of Mumbai. His book ought to be made compulsory reading for all those in charge of the city’s Development Plan, Smart BKC project, Mumbai Next endeavour and suchlike.

The next big assault within the city is, of course, on Aarey Milk Colony land that has been ear-marked for a metro car-shed and an elevated road among other constructions.

Two student researchers, Rajesh Sanap and Zeeshan Mirza, who studied the area for the past eight years documented, according to reports, a list of 77 different bird species, more than 90 types of spiders, six species of scorpions, 86 species of butterflies and six species of venomous snakes. Others who have tracked Mumbai’s biodiversity believe the city is rather rich in this sector too. The extended Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) holds its own biodiversity wealth, hardly documented but now threatened. A pity then that those with power are not its side.

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