Stop construction on mangroves in Panje: Environment minister
Mumbai: Maharashtra environment minister Aaditya Thackeray has ordered a stop on all construction and reclamation activities on mangrove forests at Panje in Navi Mumbai.
The decision comes after a series of complaints from environmental groups over six months, and means that development of the Navi Mumbai Special Economic Zone (NMSEZ) and other construction activities planned by the City Industrial Development Corporation Ltd (Cidco), the planning agency for Navi Mumbai, will be on hold.
The decision to stop construction in Panje was taken during a meeting chaired by the minister on March 3, with an order being issued by the Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority (MCZMA) to the Raigad district collector on March 4.
Raigad collector Nidhi Choudhari confirmed that there was a ban on any construction or reclamation at Panje. “Our officers will ensure strict adherence of these directions by the environment department,” she said.
The details of the meeting were revealed in a right-to-information (RTI) response received by environment group NatConnect Foundation on Wednesday after it sought information on whether Cidco had obtained environmental clearance from MCZMA while drawing up its construction plans in the Dronagiri node that includes Panje.
Spread across 213 hectare (ha) core and 157 ha buffer area, Panje attracts up to 1,50,000 birds (migratory and resident) during winters, according to the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS). CIDCO had incorporated wetlands between Panje to Dongari in its Dronagiri development plan and even marked the area as sectors numbered 16 to 28.
According to the letter issued by MCZMA, which HT has a copy of, the district coastal authority under the chairmanship of the collector is empowered to stop and remove unauthorised constructions in coastal regulation zone (CRZ) areas, which are in violation of CRZ norms. Panje was declared as CRZ 1 by MCZMA in November 2019.
The letter, signed by Narendra Toke, director environment and member secretary MCZMA, further highlighted that repeated complaints had been received by MCZMA alleging debris dumping and mangrove destruction at Panje, and a site visit by the collector’s office had confirmed violations and a truck driver was booked in December. “During a meeting convened in the matter, it was directed that ongoing activity at the site (Panje) should be stopped immediately… dumping activity if any should be stopped,” the letter read.
Environmentalists welcomed the move but said caution was needed. “We are happy that the minister has acted,” said BN Kumar, director, NatConnect. “However, we will keep vigil to avoid any environment violations in absence of officials busy on coronavirus care duty.”
BNHS had stressed on the protection of Panje to avoid bird hazards to the Navi Mumbai International Airport. Their study had said that reclamation of the Panje wetlands could divert birds to marshes near the airport. “Saving Panje is vital and BNHS welcomes the state’s decision,” said Deepak Apte, director, BNHS adding, “Saving roosting and resting sites like Panje for migratory birds is critical in their annual migration.”
What was happening at Panje?
Apart from being an important bird area, the protection of Panje has been a demand for ecologists since September 2018. A petition was filed before the Bombay high court by environmentalist Nandkumar Pawar for the overall protection of Panje in December 2018. The state wildlife board had decided to declare the area a bird sanctuary in 2015, but the notification was never published. In June this year, Cidco placed security guards at Panje, among other areas in Uran, denying citizens access and also banned fishing. Cidco marked sectors within Panje for the development of the Navi Mumbai Special Economic Zone. On November 1, Panje and Karanje wetlands were safeguarded as Coastal Regulation Zone I by the Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority in an affidavit before the HC. In December, the forest department confirmed mangrove destruction at Panje. High tide water ingress to Panje was stopped from January onwards and it is currently dry. Frequent cases of debris dumping continued at the site until the latest order was issued by the state’s coastal authority.