In defense of Environment - Open Letter to MPs

Dear Honourable Members of Parliament,

Greetings on the occasion of Kargil Vijay Divas!

Thanks to the valiant efforts of combined defence forces, India has been able to spoil the Pakistan designs to occupy the Kargil Hills and rule over the NH1.

Imagine a hypothetical situation – the absence of the defence cover! We don’t have to explain the dreadful resuls!

We presented this backdrop to remind ourselves of yet another scary scenario – the absence of the protective mangroves which defend the coasts from the attack of the tidal waters.

And this is a fervent appeal to all of you to look at the widespread environment degradation in Mumbai Metropolitan region (MMR) under the garb of infrastructure development and act in the interest of the coasts of Mumbai and India.

This has already led to loss of all-important mangroves equivalent to the size of – hold your breaths – 100 Azad Maidans or 330 Ramlila grounds and much more is still being lost.

At the outset, we would like to stress that we are not against any infrastructure project for the good of the nation.

But our moot point is – do we have to cause environment destruction in the name of development and force people to face the consequences? Can’t we find alternatives?

We, in fact all of you, are very much concerned about the impact that these projects leave on the environment. Aren’t we?

As you all aware, work on the Ahmedabad-Mumbai Bullet Train is all set to start.

Unfortunately, tragedy is, we (meaning neither the governments not the people in general) seem to have learnt any lessons from our experience by playing with the Nature – the recurring Mumbai floods and last year’s Kerala disaster.

Let’s begin with the future - the upcoming Bullet Train that will mow down 54,000 mangroves.

Mangroves, as we all should know, are very important for the coastal areas as they act as a buffer to protect the land from erosion caused by tidal attack. They are the natural barriers. Our natural defence.

Mumbai, the financial and political donation capital of India, is an island, surrounded by the Arabian Sea. Any loss of mangroves is a loss to the city. And 54,000 mangroves to be hacked just for one project is not a small number.

Mumbai MPs should know this! The historic Azad Maidan is about 10 hectares. The Bullet Train is going to kill mangroves equivalent to five-and-half Azad Maidans.

And, here is one more shocking news! The Railway Minister tells Parliament that his ministry is not governed by the Environment Act which, as he claims, given virtual license to play with the environment. That’s how he justifies the hacking of 54,000 mangroves.

The Maharashtra government says it has scaled down the mangrove loss to 32,000 trees which is equivalent to the size of three and half Azad Maidans.

Dear MPs, this is only a tip of the iceberg!

In Uran in Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR), we have already lost about ten lakh mangroves – equivalent to the size of 100 Azad Maidans or over 300 Ramlila Maidans of Delhi – in the name of Navi Mumbai SEZ.

Please allow us to explain:

The NMSEZ, incorporated in 2004, has failed to take off even after acquiring 2,100 hectares. The local fishermen community has lost their source of income as the project proponents fenced off the plots given to them. What is more, several villages have started reeling under floods as the creek flow has been blocked at several places due to reckless and even illegal landfill.

Let’s come to 15 years later developments. According to a Reliance notification to the stock markets, NMSEZ and RIL have entered into an MoU to develop 4,000 acres of the SEZ land into an industrial township. This, after the Maharashtra government granted NMSEZ the change-of-use permission for the real estate development.

One may ask - so, what?

So, the landfill of NMSEZ started without either the Raigad district collector’s permission or the requisite CRZ clearances. We have the official responses to queries under the RTI Act to this effect.

After much follow-up, the Bombay High Court-appointed Mangrove Monitoring Committee halted the landfill, but not before the loss of mangroves across at least 1,000 hectares in Uran. This is in addition to the burial of wetlands spread across 1,200 hectares in the same region.

These are not mere statistics. These are facts.

You may wonder as to why we are raising these issues all of a sudden now?

We have been regularly conveying these losses to the government and the authorities through our letters/RTI petitions to the Chief Minister, the Mangrove Committee, the Environment and Forest officials, the district administration and so on.

Yet, we must say, we have all collectively failed to protect the wetlands and mangroves.

To list some of the catastrophic losses:

JNPT has illegally constructed Shiv Smarak (Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Memorial) on an illegally buried wetland. This project was launched by Union Minister Nitin Gadkari and Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis. (We have RTI responses to demonstrate the illegality).

The Mangrove Committee, too, ordered to halt the landfill, but JNPT and its contractors cared two hoots.

In an earlier case, JNPT had killed 4,500 mangroves (over 4.5 hectares) during the construction of its Container Terminal-IV. We are not saying this. The fact came to light in another RTI application to the Forest Department and the HC appointed Mangrove Committee had fined JNPT Rs one lakh – you read it right, just Rs one lakh – for the damage.

The NHAI, in its expansion of road on NH-348 near Punjab CFS in JNPT area of Uran, caused death of close to 4,600 mangroves (over 4.6 hectares) by needlessly blocking free flow of creek water which is essential for the survival of the sea plants. NHAI in their wisdom had not listened to the Mangrove Committee which told the former to open up the water channel for the mangroves. And it was too late when the NHAI contractor opened a small channel. The mangroves were dead and useful only as firewood.

Now comes the Navi Mumbai SEZ and the loss to eco system is already explained above.

Much of the NMSEZ mangrove loss has happened during the recent Lok Sabha election period when the environment officials were away on poll duties. We complained to the Election Commission of India (ECI) which, we are informed, has taken up the issue nationally. Let’s hope, the ECI will take some steps to prevent such losses to the eco system in future.

As of these losses are not bad enough, the Bullet Train is coming like a bolt from the blue to take a massive toll of the life-saving mangroves.

While soaking in the victory celebrations, we request you all to look around the realities of life, the loss to environment and the impact on our loves – not necessarily the future generation.

Nature does not wait to strike back.

Yours sincerely,

B N KUMAR – Director, The Nature Connect

NANDAKUMAR PAWAR – Head, Shree Ekvira Aai Pratishtan