Cough up fines for wetland destruction or pay with your land, says Bombay high court panel
Destruction of wetlands on private land in the state will now attract a penalty. The government will confiscate the land if the owners fail to pay this penalty, according to the new guidelines issued by the Bombay high court-appointed wetlands grievance redressal committee.
The guidelines were decided during the committee’s last two meetings. The panel will has also setup a website (konkanwetland.com) to track complaints, which is expected to be functional by the end of the week, said officials.
Wetlands are areas of land that are either temporarily or permanently covered by water, depending on the season. According to the national wetland atlas developed by the Union environment ministry, the total geographical area of Maharashtra is spread across 3.07 lakh sqkm and the wetland cover is almost 10,145 sqkm, which accounts for 3.30% of the total geographical area.
Members of the committee told HT that this year they received 17 major cases of wetland destruction. First-information-reports (FIRs) were filed and penalties were levied in 11 of these cases. The remaining six are pending and currently under inquiry. While the maximum cases have been identified in Palghar, Thane, Vasai and Panvel, a few cases were also identified in Mumbai.
“In consultation with all the members of the committee, we came to the conclusion that wherever wetland destruction takes place, the local district collector, along with the municipal corporation or public works department, will identify the extent of debris dumped and the cost of restoration will be adjudged by the forest department,” said JR Gowda, member secretary of the committee and deputy conservator of forest, state mangrove cell. “This cost will be levied as compensation or penalty to be paid by the offender. If the latter fails to pay the same after repeated reminders, the area will be recovered as an arrear of land revenue, which will be reflected in the revenue recovery certificate.”
For the 11 cases where FIRs were filed, maximum penalty was levied at Mohri Agashe wetlands in Vasai, where the owner has been fined Rs19,26,297. Another case in Palghar saw a fine of Rs98,000. “The Vasai wetland case, thanks to extraordinary efforts by the local tehsildar (revenue officer), has been identified as a case study for how we will proceed with these guidelines,” said Gowda.
The high court, in August last year, directed the state government to create a grievance redressal mechanism after hearing the contempt petition filed by NGO Vanashakti. It directed that a committee be formed, headed by the Konkan divisional commissioner, to monitor the order’s implementation and receive complaints on wetland destruction through email, WhatsApp messages, toll-free numbers and online on a website. The committee comprises of civic body representatives, the state pollution control board, district collectors, the state mangrove cell, police personnel and Stalin D from Vanashakti, petitioner in the matter.
The Konkan divisional commissioner told HT the same guidelines will be implemented for mangrove destruction as well, which form a part of wetlands. “Once these areas have been confiscated, revenue authorities will have the onus to put these lands up for auction. The idea is to protect the biodiversity of such areas and restore degraded wetlands and mangrove patches in the state,” said Jagdish Patil, Konkan commissioner.
A recommendation by Vanashakti regarding the guidelines was that the details of all properties, which have cases against them, will be put up on the website and buyers will be encouraged not to invest in these properties. This was incorporated by the committee, said Gowda.
“It has been a very tough battle to reach this stage and the committee has finally managed to instill a system in place which will act as a deterrent,” said Stalin D, director, Vanashakti.