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‘No decision’ to declare wetlands as bird sanctuaries, says Maharashtra in RTI

Responding to a right-to-information (RTI) request from a Navi Mumbai-based environmentalist, the state revenue and forest department said “no decision” has so far been taken by the state wildlife board (SBWL) to declare wetlands in Sewri, Navi Mumbai and Uran as bird sanctuaries
By Prayag Arora-Desai, Mumbai
PUBLISHED ON JUL 14, 2021 12:57 AM IST

Responding to a right-to-information (RTI) request from a Navi Mumbai-based environmentalist, the state revenue and forest department said “no decision” has so far been taken by the state wildlife board (SBWL) to declare wetlands in Sewri, Navi Mumbai and Uran as bird sanctuaries. These include 1,600 hectares across Sewri-Mahul on the city’s eastern seafront, Panje-Funde in Uran, and the TSC-NRI wetland complex in Navi Mumbai. The government’s response, dated June 11, and shared with HT this week by the applicant NGO, NatConnect Foundation, has drawn the ire of environmentalists, given that it is seemingly at odds with earlier commitments made by the state.

The then Devendra Fadnavis government had, on December 4, 2015, announced via the official Facebook page of the chief minister’s office (CMO), “CM Devendra Fadnavis chaired the 10th meeting of the State Wildlife Board at Mumbai, in presence of forest minister Sudhir Mungantiwar. The board approved three bird sanctuaries in Mumbai region (Mahul-Shivdi, TSC land near Palm Beach and Panje Funde), which will help in conservation of flamingos.” The announcement is still available on the CMO’s official page.

Mitigation measures suggested by Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) were taken into consideration before giving approval to the Mumbai Trans Harbour Link (MTHL) project, the post read. “There is a need to give protected status to the wetlands of southern Mumbai... especially, the Uran mudflats, and the NRI-TSC wetlands, Panje-Funde wetlands,” the BNHS had noted in a 2015 report to the MMRDA, prior to the construction of MTHL, and which was considered by SBWL before it green lit the project. The minutes of SBWL’s December 2015 meeting clearly mentioned that the session had approved the wildlife mitigation measures as suggested by BNHS.

However, almost six years later, there has been little movement toward bringing these wetlands under any kind of legal protection. Instead, the Thane Creek Flamingo Sanctuary was declared in 2015 has been criticised for not including some of the most prime flamingo habitats within its 1,690 hectares delineation.

“There was a public announcement to bring these satellite wetlands under the ambit of the wildlife act. If the plans have changed or scrapped, it calls for a public clarification. BNHS’ suggestion seems to have just slipped through the cracks. More worryingly, the minutes of the December 4, 2015 meeting of SBWL do not reflect any such decision. It makes one wonder if the Fadnavis government jumped the gun on announcing their decision, which had to be dropped later for whatever reason,” said BN Kumar, of the NatConnect Foundation.

HT reached out to Fadnavis for a comment on this development, but did not receive a response until late on Tuesday.

A senior government official privy to the matter, who did not wish to be identified by either name or department, threw some light on the issue. “The bird sanctuaries were approved in principle, but they would have been a challenging task to establish in Mumbai. The government would have had to draw a 10km eco-sensitive zone around the sanctuaries, and this would have jeopardised the MTHL project itself. Besides, there was no separate proposal tabled either by BNHS, or by MMRDA, or by the various land-owning bodies like CIDCO and JNPT to declare the water bodies as sanctuaries.”

This view was echoed by Virendra Tiwari, additional principal chief conservator of forests (mangrove cell). In order to enhance protection for these satellite wetlands, the Maharashtra forest department last June approved and published an official document showing six ecologically sensitive areas in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) as wetlands, as part of a 10-year management plan for the Thane creek flamingo sanctuary (TCFS). Six sites – 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 – were designated officially as satellite wetlands.

Then, in July 2020, forest department wrote to the Cidco and the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT) — who own the land on which this network of wetlands is located — seeking their comments on declaring these six water bodies as Conservation Reserves under the Indian Wildlife Act, which would deter any further development around them. Cidco and JNPT both 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 order which restricts it from developing the TSC-NRI wetlands into an 80 hectare golf course and residential complex. “As it is challenging to declare these areas sas sanctuaries, we have now asked BHNS to formally respond to the points raised by CIDCO and JNPT. Our view is that the wetlands should at least be given Conservation Reserve status. BNHS’ response is yet to come,” said Tiwari.

Bivash Pandav, director, BNHS, said, “I have received the letter, but am presently not in Mumbai. I will review the matter and respond appropriately sometime after July 23.”

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