Dying mangroves keep flamingos and fish away near Mumbai

Over the past five years, more than 1,000 hectares of mangroves have been destroyed in Uran by the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust , allege fisherfolk
HT visited six spots at Uran, Hanuman Koliwada, Gavhan and Belpada villages for a reality check.(Pratik Chorge/HT Photo)
HT visited six spots at Uran, Hanuman Koliwada, Gavhan and Belpada villages for a reality check.(Pratik Chorge/HT Photo)
Updated on Jun 04, 2018 10:49 AM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByBadri Chatterjee, Mumbai

For the past one-and-a-half years, flamingos have winged away from their usual stop at mudflats and mangroves in Raigad district’s Uran. Reason: Construction of jetties, cargo terminals and roads by the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT). Other agencies have also been blamed for destroying the prime flamingo habitat.

The Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), a wildlife research organisation, confirmed that construction is driving away the migratory birds. “Whether it is small or large wetlands, Uran has lost all of its flamingo habitat,” said Deepak Apte, director, BNHS. “We have time and again informed the state that flamingos and other wetland birds are being squeezed into smaller areas. This does not bode well for the proposed Navi Mumbai airport where these birds have already begun congregating.”

The local fishing (Koli) community has been fighting a legal battle to save the ecosystem from destruction for the past four decades. They alleged that even though the matter has been in courts since 2013, the JNPT has not stopped construction on wetlands. They hope that the Supreme Court (SC), which is likely to pass its judgment in July, will rule in their favour.

JNPT officials said they are the land owners, and different courts have approved mangrove removal.

Four villages hit

HT visited six spots at Uran, Hanuman Koliwada, Gavhan and Belpada villages for a reality check. These villages have 1,630 families which are mostly dependent on fishing. Here, fishermen have reported large scale environmental violations: mangrove destruction by blocking tidal channels and reclaiming wetlands. The fishing community has documents from the forest department that show that 4,500 mangrove trees had perished, with wood from the destroyed trees stored behind terminals.

“Over the past five years, more than 1,000 hectares (equivalent to 675 Wankhede Stadiums) of mangroves and wetlands have either been destroyed or dried up for construction by JNPT, and in the past three decades, the figure is over 20,000 hectares in the four villages. The scale of destruction is huge: each family has lost catch worth 25,000 per month and the natural environment has turned barren,” said Ramdas Koli, 76, head of a fishing committee from the four villages, called Paramparik Macchimar Bachao Kruit Samiti. Koli has petitioned to the National Green Tribunal (NGT) and SC in cases related to mangrove destruction.

Undeterred by the legal battle, JNPT, as an owner of the mangrove land, said it has sought 277 hectares for a special economic zone (SEZ)

“We have got approvals, including premissions from the forest department. We had the permission to destroy 19 hectares of mangroves, but we only removed 15 hectares,” said SV Madabhavi, chief manager of JNPT’s port, planning and development department.

He added that some complaints are surfacing because environmentalists must have spotted some areas where tidal water ingress had stopped. “There is no case of cutting of mangroves. In fact, we have complied with all conditions, and even paid compensation to the state for mangrove restoration,” said Madabhavi.

Mangrove cell denies giving nod

Contrary to the JNPT’s claim to have green clearances for SEZ, the mangrove unit of the forest department, after HT shared the images of mangrove destruction with it (see case studies), denied giving its nod to the project.

“The Bombay high court on January 27, 2010 made it clear that irrespective of land ownership, the destruction of any mangroves in Maharashtra will attract provisions and penalties under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 and the Environment Protection Act, 1986,” said N Vasudevan, additional principal chief conservator of the state mangrove cell. “Based on the directions from the state government, we will examine the situation.” The state environment department said it will direct its mangrove cell to issue notices to JNPT for ecological destruction as alleged by the Kolis. “The Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority (MCZMA) issued environment clearances to JNPT, on the condition that mangroves should not be destroyed,” said Satish Gavai, additional chief secretary of the environment department and chairman of MCZMA.

Waiting for relief

In October 2013, fisherman Ramdas Koli filed a complaint with the NGT to draw its attention to alleged ecological violations by the public sector units (PSUs), risking the livelihood of residents of the four villages. After a protracted battle between PSUs and the Koli community, in August 2015, a SC bench ordered the PSUs to pay the compensation. “We have already paid our compensation share of 64 crore to the registry of the SC,” said Madabhavi.

Dilip Koli, another fishermen, said none of the residents has received a single rupee from the PSUs. Lawyers representing the Kolis said for the past three years the matter has been relegated to the background. Zaman Ali, counsel representing Ramdas Koli and 1,630 fishing families in SC, said the SC has listed the matter for July 23.

Activists said this is the largest wetland destruction in India.

The Uran wetlands, a thriving ecosystem for birds and aquatic life, have been systematically decimated, said Stalin D, director, NGO Vanashakti. “Hundreds of acres of mangroves are being killed either by dumping debris in Uran taluka. This urbanisation has paralysed the lives of the fishing community,” said BN Kumar, activist and Navi Mumbai resident.

Meanwhile, upset over mangrove destruction, members of a Navi-Mumbai based fishing community filed fresh complaints with various state government bodies on May 29. “These areas are natural sources to combat pollution and heat, and act as bulwark against floods. These valuable resources need to be restored. This kind of senseless development will displace the local fishing community and destroy the ecological diversity,” said Nandkumar Pawar, head, Shree Ekvira Aai Pratishthan.

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