Coastal Road project: Will get nod under wildlife law before reclamation, says BMCUpdated: Jul 14, 2020 00:48 IST
The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) on March 12, 2020, told the Supreme Court (SC) that they would obtain clearances under the Wildlife Protection Act (WPA), 1972 prior to commencing reclamation for the Coastal Road project that would potentially disturb coral habitat. The affidavit was received by the environmental groups, objecting to the project construction, on Saturday.
The affidavit was in response to an interim application (IA) filed by Conservation Action Trust (CAT), activist Shweta Wagh, and others in February this year that sought a stay on ‘rapid’ reclamation activity that could ‘permanently destroy the city’s coastline. On June 8, the Bombay high court (HC) had dismissed another petition filed by 20 south Mumbai residents (Save Our Coast) that challenged reclamation during the Covid-19 lockdown. The Supreme Court will now hear the matter on July 16.
BMC’s affidavit, submitted by the project’s chief engineer Vijay Nighot, rubbished claims made in the IA that corals had been destroyed while highlighting their presence was ‘miniscule’. BMC said pertinent sections of WPA do not apply to them in this case since the intertidal area was never declared a national park or a sanctuary. BMC, however, accepted to transplant the corals.
“In any event, the petitioner (BMC) undertakes to obtain a WPA clearance prior to carrying out any reclamation activities that potentially disturb the corals present,” the submission read.
Corals are marine invertebrates that attach themselves to rocky intertidal regions. They garner the same protection status as that of a tiger or an elephant (schedule 1) under WPA. Any clearance under the Act is issued by the state chief wildlife warden.
The Maharashtra forest department said no proposal had been submitted by BMC so far for wildlife clearances. “BMC has been directed to take precautions during reclamation to ensure no corals are harmed,” said Virendra Tiwari, additional principal chief conservator of forest (Mangrove cell).
“None of the areas with coral presence have been touched so far. Wildlife clearance will be taken after basic reclamation is complete. The corals will be transplanted, and then those areas will be reclaimed. The MBMP is being carefully implemented,” Nighot said.
However, Wagh alleged that BMC had already violated WPA as they were applying for clearance after basic reclamation was done. “Nobody knows the extent of damage already on site,” she said.
For the past five months, over 40 of 90 hectare (ha) has been reclaimed for the 9.9-km current phase of the project, which is to be an eight-lane highway connecting Marine Drive to the southern tip of the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, BMC said.
BMC also submitted a September 2019 report by the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO), Goa, that found the presence of six coral species along the south Mumbai coast, presence of dolphins, 17 bird species, and rich benthic marine life while developing the marine biodiversity conservation and monitoring plan (MBMP) for the project. NIO suggested a ₹2.9 crore budgetary plan for the MBMP including translocation of corals. However, BMC said the funds had not been allocated yet and it was the responsibility of project contractors.
NIO has identified two species of corals of the Rhizangiidae family (Oulangia and one unidentified species) with 18 colonies across 0.251 square metres (almost 3-feet) in the Worli region of the project site. At Haji Ali, another species under the Dendrophylliidae family along with Rhizangiidae were identified across 1.1foot area. Remaining species of corals were identified 1.8 km away from the project site in Marine Drive. “Destruction of corals should be avoided: transplantation and restoration of corals inside proposed project site at suitable places is one of possible ways to conserve them while regular monitoring during project execution is necessary,” the NIO report said.
Environmentalist Debi Goenka said the NIO study should have been done before environment clearance was granted and WPA needed to be obtained before construction began. “This was conveniently ignored by the Central and state committees that issued clearances to the project,” he said.
On December 17, 2019, the SC had put on hold previous orders by the HC (from July 2019) that quashed coastal regulatory zone (CRZ) clearances to the civic body, and allowed reclamation of land but restricted BMC from carrying out any other development work. The HC’s order from July 16, 2019 while staying the project had said, “Notwithstanding the fact that corals presence is minuscule, the same shows that the ecosystem in the area (project zone) is conducive to corals. It establishes that the area is ecologically sensitive...we hold that BMC could not have commenced work without obtaining WPA permission.”
THREAT TO MARINE LIFE: NIO REPORT
NIO also said the presence of dolphins within a 10 km radius of the project site was threatened by increased turbidity and noise levels with vessel movement as a potential threat. Destruction of habitat and noise may affect foraging behaviour of 17 migratory and resident birds, and may move away from the project area. Disturbance in marine environments could lead to recurring cases of harmful algal and jellyfish blooms.
MARINE BIODIVERSITY CONSERVATION, MONITORING PLAN FOR COASTAL ROAD
· Destruction of corals should be avoided: Transplantation and restoration of corals inside proposed project site at suitable places is one of the possible ways to conserve them while regular monitoring during project execution is necessary
· Regular observational monitoring, solid waste and oil pollution management, contingency plan for any incidences, participatory approach for sustainable resource utilisation and stakeholder management
· On-site marine mammal observer has to be deployed to monitor the movement of important species
· Vessel movement has to be regulated. It has to be halted at the sighting of any marine mammals in the active working zone
· Management of plastic, marine litter, garbage
· Several bivalve species of commercial importance in study area: Necessary to protect them by blocking certain areas as no harvest zone to protect, especially clams, oysters and shellfish
(Source: National Institute of Oceanography, Goa Study)