53% of state’s mangrove area now legally a ‘forest’
More than half of the state’s total mangrove cover was protected as a legal ‘forest’ at the end of 2021, up from 30% at the beginning of that year
MUMBAI: More than half of the state’s total mangrove cover was protected as a legal ‘forest’ at the end of 2021, up from 30% at the beginning of that year.
This means that, to be diverted for any non-forestry purpose, project proponents must seek mandatory forest clearance (FC) from the forest department, in addition to the Bombay HC’s permission and CRZ clearance. Moreover, in case of any land use violation (such as illegal dumping, unauthorised clearing or landfilling of mangroves or hindrance to flow of tidal waters), the forest department will have the jurisdiction to take action against offenders and remediate the area. In effect, any kind of development will be practically impossible without being subjected to scrutiny by state and central authorities.
On mangrove land that is not legally a forest, this responsibility lies with the land-owning agencies, either urban local bodies or special purpose vehicles.
The increase of 23 percentage points from 30% to 53% in mangroves as forest follows a Bombay High Court order and subsequent litigation to ensure compliance with the direction.
The state government in 2021 brought 2,427 hectares of mangroves under the purview of Section 4 of the Indian Forest Act (1927), and 9,785 hectares under purview of Section 20 of the Act (indicating that any third-party claims over the land have been settled after inquiries by appointed survey officers).
Maharashtra’s total mangrove cover is approximately 32,000 hectares, of which 16,984 hectares are now legal forests, and require clearance under the Forest Clearance Act (1980) to be diverted for any non-forestry purpose.
Of the remaining, close to 3,000 hectares of mangroves will be brought under the ambit of the act in 2022, officials said. This is because 13,000 hectares of mangroves have been identified as being on private land.
“Any mangrove cover on privately owned land cannot be declared as a reserve forest. But they are nevertheless covered under the Environment Protection Act, as per the Coastal Regulatory Zone rules. So while it won’t require forest clearance to divert the land there is still a layer of protection. Besides, the Bombay High Court also has to give permission for diversion of mangroves as well,” said Virendra Tiwari, additional principal chief conservator of forests (mangrove cell).
Mangroves play an import role in coastal and intertidal ecosystems, fostering a range of biodiversity in addition to other ecosystem services including protection from flooding and storm surges, helping soil stabilisation, and being valuable carbon sinks. For metropolitan cities like Mumbai that are vulnerable to climate change, they are significant in mitigating its adverse impacts.
In 2021, a total of 927 hectares of mangroves in Ratnagiri, 121.8 hectares in Palghar, and 1387 acres in Thane district were brought under Section 4 of the Forest Act, while 3,090.9 hectares in Mumbai’s suburbs, 2,302 hectares in Raigad, 2013.5 hectares in Thane, 2004 hectares in Palghar and 374.5 hectares in Sindhudurg district were brought under purview of Section 20.
“This whole process starts by first declaring the mangrove site as a reserved forest under Section 4 of the Forest Act, which we had done even earlier, starting 2015. What follows, as per Sections 6 to 19 of the Forest Act, is the process of settlement of any rights that other parties may claim over the land. Following this, some portion of the land may be excluded from the final notification under Section 20,” Tiwari explained.
A significant development in mangrove conservation in the past year also includes the transfer of mangrove land by government agencies to the forest department for safekeeping. In 2021, a total of 1,810 hectares of land were handed over to the mangrove department for safekeeping by the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation, the Mira-Bhayander Municipal Corporation and the City Industrial Development Corporation (CIDCO). “Just over 3,000 hectares of mangroves on government land are expected to be transferred to us in the new year, with a major chunk of about 1,400 hectares being in Vasai-Virar, 900 hectares at the Jawaharlal Nehru port in Uran and another 800 or so hectares scattered across other bodies,” Tiwari said.
As per data shared by the state forest department, a total of 715,352 mangrove saplings were planted on 161.47 hectares of degraded land across Maharashtra’s coastal districts in 2021. This restoration drive is slated to continue between 2022 and 2026, with 3100 hectares of mangrove swamps slotted for plantation work in this period with the aid of the Green Climate Fund of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), of which the forest department has already received ₹4.7 crore. “Further tranches will be released once we have finished spending the initial installment,” said Tiwari.
BN Kumar, a Navi Mumbai-based activist, who has been campaigning for better protection of mangroves in and around Uran, said that the area of pending takeover could be much more than 3,000 hectares.
“The forest department is yet to consider mangroves under Navi Mumbai SEZ which are huge. They have not yet asked the consortium for information on mangrove cover, even though the land belongs to CIDCO, which has an ownership stake in the SEZ. So those lands are government lands, and the mangroves should rightly be brought under the ambit of the Forest Act. Our request to the chief minister has been referred to the environment and forest departments for action,” said Kumar, who runs the NGO NatConnect Foundation.
Total mangrove cover in Maharashtra: 32,000 hectares
Area under Section 4 of Indian Forest Act, 1927: 16,984 hectares
Area brought under Section 4 of the IFA (1927) in 2021: 2,427 hectares
Area under Section 20 of IFA (1927): 11,549 hectares
Area brought under Section 20 of IFA (1927) in 2021: 9,785 hectares
Area yet to be brought under IFA (1927): Estimated 3,000 hectares
Mangrove area handed over to forest department by other government agencies in 2021: 1,810 hectares
Mangrove area proposed to be restored in five years: 3,100 hectares