The biodiversity cost of our urban march
In the myriad discussions on urbanisation and, more lately, smart cities or smart localities within cities, an issue that governments rarely bring to the table is that of ecological biodiversity. Cities are seen as concrete jungles and constructed environments with little or no space for bio-diversity. Yet, nothing could be farther from the truth. The range of biological diversity in Mumbai would surprise many.
The International Day of Biological Diversity observed on May 22 every year passed by without much flourish from any quarter except the dedicated naturalists. The United Nations chose the day to commemorate the adoption of the Convention of Biological Diversity in 1992. It acquires a special significance in the context of India’s new thrust on urbanisation and Mumbai’s urban spread.
The built environment in India’s largest 100 cities in the past two decades increased by almost 2.5 times or nearly 5,000 square kilometres, according to official data. Add to this, the vast expanse of infrastructure – roads, bridges, metro networks, railway lines and highways – and the urban landscape expands beyond the official figure. Most of this has come at the expense of natural habitats for plant, animal and bird species. The new built environment has, in a few cases, brought new species too.
Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata are among the world’s 10 largest cities even as India becomes home to a number of fastest growing cities in the world. What is the biodiversity cost of this urbanisation? Whatever may be the achievements – or not -- of the year-old Narendra Modi government at the Centre and six-month-old Devendra Fadnavis government in the state, their decisions and decision-making processes show that neither government is passionate about natural environment and the need to preserve its biological diversity.
In the tug-of-war between natural and constructed environments, their vote would be, in all likelihood, for the latter. This is all the more disturbing because we do not know how much and what of our natural biodiversity has vanished. There isn’t a state registry or comprehensive record of the biodiversity lost to various development projects, including urbanisation.
In Mumbai, the loss has been documented mostly by committed naturalists, students and, occasionally, an enthusiastic media. Sunjoy Monga, the indefatigable environmentalist and a unanimous choice for the inaugural HT For Mumbai changemaker award last year, is a chronicler. The Bombay Natural History Society, also HT For Mumbai changemaker awardee, remains a lone star organisation. Passionate students add their insights to the body of work but these are mostly labours of love.
In his book Mumbai Safari: Nature in the extreme, Monga showed that there has been a 50% decline in wetlands, grasslands and agricultural land in Mumbai region in the decade from 2003-04, and more worrying, a phenomenal 80% worsening of the quality of habitat, which led to a decline in several species. A drop in the ground-level foliage and grasslands meant a loss of ground birds. Bats and butterfly species, too, had reduced as the tree cover in the eastern side made way for buildings. But he found a few new species along the creeks of Mumbai. His book ought to be made compulsory reading for all those in charge of the city’s Development Plan, Smart BKC project, Mumbai Next endeavour and suchlike.
The next big assault within the city is, of course, on Aarey Milk Colony land that has been ear-marked for a metro car-shed and an elevated road among other constructions.
Two student researchers, Rajesh Sanap and Zeeshan Mirza, who studied the area for the past eight years documented, according to reports, a list of 77 different bird species, more than 90 types of spiders, six species of scorpions, 86 species of butterflies and six species of venomous snakes. Others who have tracked Mumbai’s biodiversity believe the city is rather rich in this sector too. The extended Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) holds its own biodiversity wealth, hardly documented but now threatened. A pity then that those with power are not its side.
Professor Nilofar Khan, who has 30 years of teaching experience, has been appointed as the first woman vice-chancellor of the University of Kashmir, officials said on Thursday. The order of appointment was issued by Lieutenant Governor of Jammu and Kashmir Manoj Sinha in his capacity of being the chancellor of the university. She will be replacing Professor Talat Ahmad, who completed his second tenure as the V-C of the university which began in August 2018.
Given the spike in terror attacks in Jammu and Kashmir and threats issued by various terror outfits, the upcoming annual Amarnath Yatra starting June 30 to the cave shrine at 13,000ft in south Kashmir is going to be a litmus test for the government. One of the most revered Hindu pilgrimages in India, the yatra is resuming after two years.
Jammu divisional commissioner Ramesh Kumar along with additional director general of police, Jammu, Mukesh Singh, handed over an appointment letter and ex gratia to the family of Rahul Bhat, a migrant Kashmiri Pandit government employee who was gunned down in the Valley recently. A financial assistance of ₹5 lakh was also handed over to the family. Jammu deputy commissioner Avny Lavasa had also accompanied Kumar.
Following the conviction of banned JKLF chief Yasin Malik by a Delhi court in a terror funding case on Thursday, wife of late Squadron Leader Ravi Khanna, Shalini Khanna, said she was confident of getting justice for Yasin Malik. “Bad deeds lead to bad outcomes,” said the 70-year-old, while demanding Malik be sent to the gallows. Squadron leader Khanna was shot 27 times with an AK assault rifle.
The Jammu and Kashmir Police on Thursday claimed to have solved the Baramulla grenade attack case on a liquor shop with the arrest of four Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists and a terror associate. The police identified the four militants as Shahid Showkat Bala, Safeer Ahmad Mir, Moh Maroof Saleh and Faisal Shaban Gojri, all residents of Baramulla while their associate Hatif Ahmad Sofi was from Arampora.