Proofing the City’s Bulwarks

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Citizens are fighting to protect Mumbai’s first line of defence against the sea – its mangroves.

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“How many cities can boast of a concentration of more than ten-twelve thousand flamingos?” asks Dr. Parvish Pandya, Associate Professor in Zoology at Bhavan’s College, Andheri. He enthusiastically explains the presence of the thousands of Lesser Flamingos at the Sewri mudflats to hundreds of Mumbai’s avid bird watchers and students alike on a beautiful Sunday morning. These flamingos migrate from the Rann of Kutch and are even believed to have come all the way from Africa to feed on these mudflats in Mumbai. There are, however, no accurate studies carried out on the migratory pattern of these birds unlike in other countries where bird watching groups themselves track these birds which have been tagged by biologists.

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Dr Pandya explains that the mangroves have been constantly sacrificed to make Mumbai the megacity that it is and repercussions of mindless development have been seen in events like the July 26, 2005 floods. Mangroves clean the air and water and provide a nursery for aquatic animals, but most importantly, they are the only barrier between the mainland of Mumbai and its unpredictable sea.

Mumbai is an ever transforming, dynamic city. Starting off as seven separate, lush islands it coalesced into a solid landmass after massive land reclamation projects literally filled up the sea and formed the cosmopolitan, integrated city as we know it today. This city opens itself up to the sea and balances its various megastructures almost miraculously as the millions that inhabit every inch of its available space. The city’s conundrum is that it liberates in a way which suffocates. It lures people to move here and somehow survive in the hope of realising their grand dreams while living in shambles.

It is almost unfair to expect a city to deal with its environmental crises while millions live on the streets in unimaginable conditions, neglected. Apathy breeds in an environment where barely getting through the day is the chief concern of most people. There are still those who fight for a cause that they feel deserves attention. This might come more easily to someone like Elsie Gabriel, an environmentalist from Powai. She is the founder of the Young Environmentalists Program Trust and works closely with Police Mohalla committees, the Advanced Locality Management (ALM) of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA). She has been advocating a cleaner Powai Lake for a decade now, “which the government and Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) did clean up, but that hasn’t been a continuous process.” She seems proud of the Powai community which can come together for a cause and work “with the system.”

A different kind of fight has been fought by Stalin, Director of Projects at Vanashakti, who wants to preserve Mumbai’s mangroves at all costs. Vanashakti began as an organisation opposed to the Forest Rights Act, and today, works towards saving the coastal mangroves and against mining projects in the Western Ghats.

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A cramped room in Bhandup Village, filled with heaps and mounds of files covering a range of petitions, is their office where the action unfolds. Cases are fought against violations of environmental laws from this office with the help of simple tools like the Right to Information (RTI) Act and satellite images on Google Earth which have recorded rapid devastation of the mangroves since 2002. Stalin is a crusader who has been fascinated by life forms in the wetlands since his childhood. Today, he fights for whatever is left of the mangroves, around which he has grown up, in Bhandup’s Agri fishing community.

He is up against a “herd of crooks in a fight which is often a lonely, losing battle, against a system which doesn’t help in any way.” His most engaging battle has been to protect the Kanjur mangroves from the newest dumping site in Mumbai which engulfs a prime mangrove area; what he appeals is under the Coastal Regulatory Zone (CRZ) 1 category, which makes any kind of dumping or construction in zones designated as such, illegal.

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“By virtue of being a CRZ, these areas are the first lines of defence in the coming years to combat rising sea levels and protect the coastal ecology,” he says. This dumping site came up as a replacement for the Chincholi Bunder (Malad) site which was brought down by the ‘active citizens’ of the area, only to be replaced by the Inorbit Mall and housing complexes built by the Raheja group. He shows me satellite images of the site in which one can see drastic changes in the mangroves of Chincholi Bunder as it gets ‘developed’ in less than 10 years. Such a rapid transformation violates the Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) rules of the year 2000, which make it a compulsion to wait for at least 15 years before starting construction on a dumping site, in order to keep the air and groundwater relatively clean and safe.

The Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) and Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority (MCZMA) were ordered by the Supreme Court to find a more suitable spot for a dumping site. Accordingly, the salt pans of Kanjur Marg whose lease had expired, were chosen. The MCGM applied to the Ministry of Environment and Forests for environmental clearances and was granted the same. It was said that this would be the most ‘scientific waste management site in India’, and would become an example to emulate.

The ‘Windrows composting’ technique which was ordered is not being followed and the waste is dumped directly onto the wetlands without segregation. Today the waste has exceeded well beyond its holding capacity of 2.5 lakh tonnes in a process which the MCGM calls ‘Bioreactor technology’, which is basically the dumping and levelling of the garbage. Of course to tackle the issue, the city will have to start segregating its garbage at source so that dumping directly onto the wetlands can be drastically reduced and the disposal of waste can be more organised.

Ekvira Aii Pratishthan, an associated NGO working in the same region, garners support from the local community and any concerns of the locals is taken up by Nandakumar Pawar to the concerned authorities. For him, saving the mangroves is an emotional cause, “I have been fishing here for 40 years now. We are passionate about the mangroves which are of sentimental value to us.”

Ramesh Raghurawat Pawar, a security guard for the Salt department at the Kanjur Mangroves and a former fisherman, has seen the deterioration in both the quality and number of fish over the last two decades and states that the dumping site has only made things worse. “In the last ten years, fish have become almost extinct due to pollution. About four years ago I could still sell some fish, but not anymore. Only a handful of people fish now and although fishing has died as a profession, for us it’s important to save the waters from further damage.”

Only time will tell whether the Kanjur dumping ground will also take a turn for the worse, like the Deonar dumping ground, one of the other two dumping sites in Mumbai situated on reclaimed mangrove land. The ground at Deonar produces noxious fumes, fires and causes innumerable health hazards for everyone in its vicinity.

The Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) General Manager Isaac Kehimkar knows that environment is the last logistical concern of any new development project. The BNHS has petitioned against the new Nhava-Sheva Sea link to protect the flamingo habitat by shifting the bridge a further 500m away from Sewri Bay, but that too seems to be a lost cause.

Another case Stalin is fighting is a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) against the Bombay Port Trust for the improper location and storing of coking coal at Sewri. This, according to the NGO, has killed 30 hectares of mangroves and is still a threat.

Citizens of the city are historically known to stand up for a cause and fight for their beliefs. The environmental movement doesn’t seem like one such crusade, but nevertheless, manages to invite people from all walks of life for various reasons. “Mumbai’s future depends on nature. Any high tide during monsoon or a tsunami can affect millions of people if the mangroves aren’t protected. The seriousness that the issue of protecting mangroves deserves is not being accorded to it,” says Harish Pandey, one of the founder members of The New Link Road Residents Forum and now a member of the local government mangrove committee headed by the Tehsildar of Borivali. An exceptional case in which a private builder had been booked for contempt and was asked to pay for the damage caused by dumping debris onto the Dahisar mangroves was fought by Pandey. Jayesh Shah, the builder from Ravi Group who was involved in illegal dumping of debris, was not prosecuted although his bank account was sealed and he was forced to pay for the damage caused to the mangroves.

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Active environmentalists like Harish Pandey, Stalin, and Rishi Aggarwal (Mangrove Society of India, Mumbai) believe in the judiciary. They share the belief that existing laws are good, but only if they are correctly implemented by the concerned authorities. Pandey faces several challenges like dealing with several departments for a single issue and endangering himself by filing RTI applications. “I have been booked for extortion and attempt to murder. My family has been threatened and my house trespassed upon. Most people fear such consequences and complain to us on the condition of anonymity,” he says.

Activism has hurt Stalin’s personal life but his passion for the cause is too strong to ignore. “I can either sit and grumble or try to be a part of the solution. There can be no results with a defeatist attitude.”

Photos: Munmun Dhalaria

 

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