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An entire ecosystem at risk from Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train

By Badri Chatterjee, Mumbai
PUBLISHED ON SEP 22, 2019 11:52 PM IST

The construction of the Mumbai-Ahmedabad High Speed Railway (MAHSR) project will not only lead to the loss of mangroves, but will destroy an entire eco-system, according to a report.

Eleven types of mangrove species, the habitat of 177 species of resident and migratory birds, otters, turtles, fish, crabs, oysters, wild boar, monkeys, flying fox, fishing cats, civets, mongoose, wild cats etc. frequently entering the mangroves for feeding and shelter — will be directly affected.

These details were revealed as part of a yet to be released 85-page project report by the Mangrove Society of India (MSI) from June 2018 on the environmental impacts of the bullet train, accessed by environmentalists from The Nature Connect and Shree Ekvira Aai Pratishtan (SEAP) under a right-to-information (RTI) response from the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) earlier this week.

At an estimated cost of Rs1.10-lakh crore, the bullet train that will run at 320kmph and cover the Mumbai-Ahmedabad distance in an expected three hours.

The report concludes: the socio-economic impacts of the effects on mangrove ecosystems may include increased risk of flooding, increased erosion of coastlines, saline intrusion and increased storm surges. Acting as a bridge between land and sea, mangroves are a natural buffer and a carbon sink larger than tropical rain forests.

“The present study reveals that the construction of MAHSR will help in quick transportation of population to and fro from both metropolitan cities. However, the construction of the corridor will have an adverse impact on mangroves at certain places along the alignment. The destruction will include (some of the important commercial) faunal and floral species, no doubt, the activities will have impact on the environment and socio-economic aspects of the local population,” read the report.

Environmental implications were assessed across Thane, Palghar, Kopar Khairane, Diva, Kewani, Bhiwandi, along Vaitarna estuary, and Bharuch (Narmada River), Gujarat in 2017, by dividing the stretch across six gradients. The report was also the first assessment of the total loss of mangrove trees for the project, pegged at 1, 50, 752 across 18.9 hectares (ha). However, the nodal authority for the project, National High Speed Rail Corporation Limited (NHSRCL) reassessed the loss of mangroves and brought it down to 32,044 mangroves to be destroyed across 9.8 ha.

The MSI is a research body working on mangrove conservation across the country’s coastline since 1990. Members, including late Arvind Untawale (passed away on September 7), carried out a field visit along the entire alignment to check biodiversity loss. They suggested a list of mitigation measures to be implemented well before construction commences. “As the bullet train will go underground along the Thane creek flamingo sanctuary, the area will remain protected. However, some rare mangrove species will be lost along other areas of the alignment. Wildlife (mostly mobile species) is likely to move further into the dense expanse of mangroves, but damage to their habitat cannot be ruled out,” said Vinod Dhargalkar, joint secretary, MSI. “Every mangrove species has their specific zonation (area where they best survive). Well-planned afforestation done exactly at those sites, with specific species lost, will help revive the ecosystem within next five years.”

Apart from careful replantation, post construction, reduced water quality, changes in hydrology and drainage, and noise pollution from the speed and sound of the train may pose another threat for intertidal habitats at the banks of the estuaries and creeks, said Pramod Salaskar, another member, MSI, who carried out the field visits. “Both sides of the of the project corridor needs to be well protected to avoid direct contact with wildlife by constructing boundary walls or having elevated corridors with noise barriers or other abatement measures,” he said. “The livelihood impact will be severe, especially for farmers, as several hectares of rice fields will be lost.”

The NHSRCL said all mitigation measures mentioned in the MSI report to reduce the impact on wildlife and mangroves will be adopted (see graphics for entire list). “The alignment in mangrove-affected area, especially Thane creek, passes through a 30m underground tunnel to avoid disturbances to the flamingo sanctuary and nearby mangroves. The main motive behind passing MAHSR through an undersea tunnel was not only to protect and preserve mangroves, but not to disturb the flora and fauna of the sanctuary,” said Sushma Gaur, additional general manager (corporate communications), NHSRCL. “On completion of construction, ecological monitoring will be carried out to assess the magnitude of impact on mangroves and wildlife across the alignment. Noise barriers are planned along the viaduct to mitigate the train operation noise. We are still working towards reducing more mangrove areas before construction starts.”

Environmentalists opposing the project said there was no point of socio-economic development if it is not sustainable. “There is one-sided political will to destroy nature and mere tokenism through mitigation measures. There is a need to find an alternative route for this project as it would take at least 15 years to restore what is lost,” said BN Kumar, director, The Nature Connect.

“The survival rate of manually planted mangroves is not more than 30% and in these areas we do not witness any natural growth. Moreover, land required for plantation is scarce, as natural mangrove forests have occupied the entire landmass,” said Nandkumar Pawar, head, SEAP.

GRAPHICS

THE BULLET-TRAIN PROJECT

The Rs1.10-lakh crore bullet-train project will span across 508 km between Mumbai and Ahmedabad. Of this, 155.76 km falls within Maharashtra and 23.5km lies within the state’s coastal regulation zone (CRZ)

A 21-km underground corridor from Bandra-Kurla Complex (BKC) to Kalyan has been planned with 7km passing under the Thane creek. A total of 5.2km of mangroves and mudflats will be lost on either side of the creek, while 1.8km is to be built under the sea bed. There are 12 proposed stations on the Mumbai-Ahmedabad high-speed train route — BKC, Thane, Virar, Boisar, Vapi, Bilimora, Surat, Bharuch, Baroda, Anand, Sabarmati and Ahmedabad.

WHAT’S AT STAKE: SPECIES DIVERSITY AT RISK

11 types of mangrove species: Avicennia marina var. acutissima, Avicennia marina var. marina, Sonneratia apetala, Aegiceras corniculata, Salvadora persica, Acanthus ilicifolius, Derris heterophylla, Bruguiera gymnorrhiza, Excoecaria agallocha, Rhizophora apiculate, Sesuvium portulacastrum

Wildlife: The habitat of 177 species of resident and migratory birds, a large population of otters, turtles, fish, crabs, oysters, animals such as wild boar, monkeys, flying fox, fishing cats, civets, Indian monitor lizard (Varanus salvator) mongoose, wild cats etc. Insects such as different types of ants, beetles, flies, moths, butterflies, grasshoppers, dragonflies etc, Olive Ridley turtles, Loggerhead turtles, green sea turtle, and Hawksbill sea turtles

MITIGATION MEASURES THAT NHSRCL SAYS IT WILL DO

- Tidal water flow, channels and other inlets to mangrove area will not be blocked or diverted. Regular tidal water flow will be maintained.

- Drainage structures at cross way will be designed to ensure continuous flow, thus preventing ponding and flooding.

- Water quality of the all the creek/estuaries will be monitored regularly to see the impact of construction and reclamation activities.

- All drains, pipes, culverts and bridges will be kept open at all times. These will be inspected thoroughly, repaired and maintained regularly.

- Regular inspection of trucks, machinery and equipment used for the project will be done to ensure that they are in good working condition, thus avoiding excessive discharge of carbon monoxide.

- A trash and debris management plan that conforms to the solid waste management policies and regulations will be implemented.

- Noise barriers are planned along the viaduct to mitigate the train operation noise.

- Without changing the location of Thane station, design of station was modified and 12 hectares of affected mangrove region got reduced to only 3 hectares. This way, around 21,000 mangroves were saved, and now only 32,044 mangroves will get affected by the entire project.

- Affected mangroves from the bullet train project will be compensated at the rate of 1:5 ratio, by depositing money with the state mangrove cell, which will do the compensatory afforestation 1,60,000 new mangroves planted against loss of 32,044.

(Source: NHSRCL)

NUMBER OF MANGROVES TO BE LOST WAS CHANGED THREE TIMES

Since June 2018, number of mangrove trees to be lost for the project changed thrice. A proposal submitted before the Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority (MCZMA) in December 2018 by NHSRCL said 1,50,752 mangroves across 18.92 hectares will be lost for the project

On June 25, the Maharashtra transport minister told the legislative assembly that 54,000 mangroves would be lost. Later in July, NHSRCL said redesigning a station held reduce 21,000 mangroves, bringing it down further to 32,044 mangroves to be affected by the project.

LOCATIONS WHERE MANGROVES WILL BE LOST

Ulhas River (Bharodi) Thane, Ulhas River (Kewani) Thane, Ulhas River Malodi-Bhamhangaon, Thane, Ghaskopari Palghar, Vaitarna creek Palghar, Jalsar Palghar

Most of these areas have witnessed flooding this monsoon, which environmentalists attribute to already underway environmental destruction

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