Mangroves hacked at Panje, environment violations pile as HC panel yet to meet after March
Mangrove destruction and construction within 50 m of the vegetation was banned by the Bombay HC in September 2018
Mangrove destruction was reported from the Panje area at Uran in Navi Mumbai on Wednesday, as a patch of the salt-tolerant trees located in the middle of the wetland was spotted missing.
A complaint was filed with the mangrove cell and Bombay high court (HC)-appointed state committee that was set up to protect mangroves and wetlands along the Konkan coast.
Environmentalists said they felt frustrated, as the HC panel has not met since March, despite repeated reminders by its own members to expedite the hearing of the complaints. The committee’s member secretary said about 10 new complaints and close to a 100 previously heard complaints are still pending.
On Wednesday, a closer inspection of Panje by local birders unearthed chopped off branches of about 15-18 mangrove trees buried in sections of the wetland.
“We had visited the site last week and the mangrove trees were still there. Unidentified persons mercilessly chopped off the trees after rainwater receded. There have been attempts to block high-tide water in a bid to dry up the site,” said Parag Gharat, an Uran resident and a keen birder.
He alleged that he was threatened by industry officials. “Since they have spotted me several times in the area, I have been told not to take pictures and stay away from the site, or I may be roughed up,” he alleged.
Spread across 213 hectare (ha) core and 157 ha buffer area for migratory birds’ roosting, Panje is a natural habitat to up to 1,50,000 birds, including both migratory and resident, during winter. The west side of the wetland shares a border with a narrow patch of mangrove that is up to 500 metres (m) wide and 1.5-kilometre long, while the east side is surrounded by degraded mangroves, villages and roads. Sections of Panje towards the Arabian Sea have been declared by the Maharashtra authorities as Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) I, the highest ecological protection.
Mangrove destruction and construction within 50 m of the vegetation was banned by the Bombay HC in September 2018.
Environmentalists, the City Industrial Development Corporation Limited (CIDCO) and private companies have been in a tussle for over two years to protect Panje from proposed industrial and residential projects.
States bodies claimed the area was not a wetland, despite the fact it was identified as one by the National Wetland Atlas, Maharashtra, in 2011.
Hours after Gharat shared the images of the hacked mangroves, environmental groups such as Shree Ekvira Aai Pratishthan (SEAP) and NatConnect Foundation sent complaint letters to Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray and urged him to book the violators . They also requested for closed-circuit TV (CCTV) surveillance at the site in a bid to protect the remaining mangrove patches.
“This kind of illegal activities are carried out at night with the help of local residents. Panje wetland is being reclaimed to be under the control and illegal possession of the Navi Mumbai Special Economic Zone. The project proponents are preventing local fishermen, birders and researchers from entering Panje,” said Nandkumar Pawar, head, SEAP.
BN Kumar, director, NatConnect Foundation, said, “Vested interests are active and damaging the biodiversity by chopping off mangroves in the absence of any official surveillance since the state authorities are busy with tackling the raging coronavirus disease (Covid-19) outbreak. The HC committee must hold an online meeting to take stock of the situation and instruct appropriate authorities to file contempt cases for dereliction of their duties.”
Neenu Somraj, deputy conservator of forests (mangrove cell) and member secretary, HC panel, said, “Panje has been a matter of concern for a long time because it is not an identified wetland on paper. Mangrove destruction is a serious offence. Our range forest officer has been informed to verify the allegations. Further action will be initiated against the guilty.”
In September 2018, a two-member HC division bench, comprising Justices Abhay Oka and Riyaz Chagla, while banning mangrove destruction in Maharashtra had directed the state authorities to form the grievance redressal committee to identify the vulnerable mangrove forests and wetland patches along the Konkan coast and ensure restoration of these sites to their original condition.
On Wednesday, the state published a list of transfers for top bureaucrats with former Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC) commissioner Annasaheb Misal appointed as the Konkan commissioner. “I have just taken charge. We will do the needful,” said Misal on holding the next HC-committee meeting.
On August 17, HC panel member Stalin D wrote to the additional commissioner Konkan to convene a meeting soon. “Previous directions passed by the committee have been ignored by various state bodies and the crisis has deepened. More reclamation is happening and also permissions are being given for constructions on khazan lands, wetlands, water bodies etc. It is crucial for the committee to look into these pressing issues at the earliest,” said Stalin.
Somraj said 15 fresh complaints had been received across the Konkan coast since the last meeting was held in the first week of March.
At least 10 complaints were related to Uran, including Panje, while the rest were from Versova, Dahanu and Alibag.
A total of 97 complaints are still pending, where a first-information-report (FIR) was registered, but charge sheets are yet to be filed. “Besides the non-appointment of the Konkan commissioner, revenue officials from all districts had been busy with the management of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the mangrove cell has followed up on all the complaints, filed punchnamas and documented each matter to be presented before the committee. Now, we are waiting for the next meeting to be called,” said Somraj.