As Maharashtra seeks Ramsar certification for flamingo sanctuary, crucial component of management plan remains grounded

Updated on Feb 27, 2022 09:51 PM IST

Mumbai More than three years after the state government finally declared 16

Now, however, environmentalists believe that a recent order of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) may set a strong precedent to bringing the remaining wetlands under protection. (HT)
Now, however, environmentalists believe that a recent order of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) may set a strong precedent to bringing the remaining wetlands under protection. (HT)
ByPrayag Arora-Desai

Mumbai More than three years after the state government finally declared 16.9 square kilometre of Thane Creek as a protected area under the Wildlife Protection Act (1972), and more than a year after the forest department tabled a 10-year management plan for the Thane Creek Flamingo Sanctuary (TCFS), a crucial step in ensuring the wetland’s safety has met with a major obstruction -- namely the protection of satellite wetlands in Navi Mumbai and Uran.

As per TCFS management plan, there are six “critical satellite wetlands” which have been identified by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), and which were proposed to be declared as conservation reserves or community reserves to ease development pressures, including Bhandup (11 ha) in Mumbai, Panje (124 ha), Belpada (30 ha), Bhendkhal (8 ha) in Uran, Training Ship Chanakya (13 ha) and NRI Complex (19 ha) in Navi Mumbai. These serve as roosting grounds for flamingos and other waders, who fly over from their feeding grounds in the creek during high tide. “Birds residing within TCFS are also known to utilise the nearby satellite wetlands for food,” the document states.

An action plan for these areas, as included in Chapter 11 of the TCFS management plan, includes the further study to “understand the linkages between TCFS and its satellite wetlands in the radius of 50 km” and “to formulate necessary policy for conservation of identified wetlands”. In July 2020, just one month after it tabled the above plan, the forest department wrote to CIDCO, who owns large portion of the land on which this network of wetlands is located -- seeking their comments on declaring these six water bodies as Conservation Reserves. CIDCO has since rejected this proposal.

In a response to the forest department, CIDCO wrote that these sites “are developable land parcels” which “do not qualify to be declared as wetlands.” CIDCO is also currently fighting a Bombay high court (HC) order which restricts it from developing the TSC-NRI wetland area into an 80-hectare golf course and residential complex. Both regions -- TSC-NRI in the north and Uran wetlands in the south -- are under strain from development activities, as HT has previously reported. Since early January, residents in Navi Mumbai have reported the use of heavy machinery, including earthmovers, drills, dumpers and cranes at Pockets D and E, without any permission from NMMC and in gross violation of CRZ Regulation/ CRZ 2011 Notification etc.

“Before the TCFS management plan can be implemented in full, these sites will have disappeared. So to celebrate the chief minister’s recent approval of a proposal seeking Ramsar certification for TCFS seems premature. Water bodies are reclaimed right from under our noses,” said BN Kumar, a Navi Mumbai-based environmentalist. Chief minister Uddhav Thackeray on February 16 approved a proposal by the state forest department’s mangrove cell seeking Ramsar certification for the Thane Creek Flamingo Sanctuary. A Ramsar site is a wetland area designated to be of international importance – especially for water birds – under an intergovernmental environmental treaty known as the Ramsar Convention.

In fact, Kumar said, environmentalists and experts have been waiting much longer for the state government to protect these satellite wetlands. In December 2015, four months after the notification declaration of TCFS was published, the State Board for Wildlife (SBWL) approved the declaration of over 1,600 acres of wetlands in Mumbai, Raigad and Thane districts as bird sanctuaries, with the express intent of protecting flamingos and other migratory shorebirds. These included the wetlands of Panje-Funde and TSC-NRI, as well as Sewri-Mahul on the city’s eastern waterfront. The proposal has not yet seen the light of day, though the Mumbai-Trans Harbour Link project -- which led to the creation of the TCFS -- has proceeded at a swift pace.

Now, however, environmentalists believe that a recent order of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) may set a strong precedent to bringing the remaining wetlands under protection. On February 22, the western zonal bench of the Tribunal headed by its chairman, Adarsh Kumar Goel, called for the protection of the Panje wetland, noting it to be “factually in existence, even if not notified.” “There is a need to ensure that there is no encroachment or damage to the wetland,” the NGT noted, reiterating the stance of the Supreme Court that the principles of Wetland Rules are applicable not only to notified wetlands but to all wetlands inventoried in the National Wetland Atlas.

“This is the first time that there is such a clear cut order from a court to protect these satellite wetlands, even if not notified. The spirit of this order should be applied to other water bodies at Belpada, Bhendkal and TSC-NRI in Navi Mumbai, which is also factually in existence. The NGT on February 22 ruled that a joint committee of nominees of National Wetland Committee, State Wetland Authority, Maharashtra, MCZMA and the District Collector, Raigad, needs to take necessary steps for the protection, conservation and management of Panje wetland. Similar efforts are needed for other wetlands, to protect the entire ecological network,” said Nandakumar Pawar, a Bhandup-based activist whose petition before the NGT led to its recent order on Panje.

Virendra Tiwari, the additional principal chief conservator of forests (mangrove cell), said, “We have written to the Bombay Natural History Society asking them to comment on the response given to us by CIDCO and JNPT, and are awaiting their reply.”

Adarsh Reddy, DFO, TCFS, said, “This particular mandate to declare satellite wetlands as conservation reserves have been delayed, but other steps are being taken. We have a long-term flamingo monitoring study in progress which will include radio-tagging of birds, and eco-tourism and education exercises are also happening regularly. We will be filing a PIL in the Bombay High Court seeking permission for management of mangroves, which is crucial to preserving the habitat.”

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