Navi Mumbai couple fights to save a bird haven from becoming a golf course

By Tanvi DeshpandeonNov. 29, 2020inEnvironment and Ecology

  • A Navi Mumbai couple has been fighting to save 80 hectares of wetlands in Navi Mumbai that are home to thousands of flamingos.
  • The wetlands were proposed to be converted into a golf course and residential complex but in 2018, based on their petition, the Bombay High Court quashed a notification to this effect. The forest department now plans to declare the area a conservation reserve but is facing resistance from within the government.
  • While these wetlands constitute a small percentage of the area of Navi Mumbai, they support more than a hundred species of birds, including many migratory species.

What started as a police complaint about the destruction of mangroves in 2016 turned into a passion for conserving wetlands for the Agarwals. This Navi Mumbai couple, both in their 50s, has been fighting to save 80 hectares of wetlands in Navi Mumbai that are home to thousands of flamingos. The wetlands were proposed to be converted into a golf course and residential complex but in 2018, based on their petition, the Bombay High Court (HC) quashed a notification to this effect. The forest department now plans to declare the area a conservation reserve but is facing resistance from within the government.

Navi Mumbai, a satellite city of Mumbai, is more scenic and serene as compared to the commercial capital owing to large number of trees, open spaces, mangroves, mudflats, salt pans and a creek. Thousands of migratory birds visit the area every year.

Several residents of Navi Mumbai have been fighting to save their local environment, specifically the wetlands, from destruction for years now. These wetlands are under threat from proposed construction for residential and other infrastructure projects. One example is a movement to save Panje wetlands in Uran, a part of Navi Mumbai, where the core wetland covers about 213 hectares and is an important site for migratory birds. This wetland is also close to a proposed airport. Not far from Panje are two more wetlands – one, measuring 13 hectares, behind Training Ship Chanakya (TSC), a maritime academy on Palm Beach Road and another near NRI Complex, a residential complex in Navi Mumbai’s Seawoods area. The NRI Complex wetland is located south of TSC with an area of around 20 hectares. While these wetlands constitute a small percentage of the area of Navi Mumbai, they support more than a hundred species and most of them are migratory with declining populations around the globe.

Greater and lesser flamingos take flight over wetlands in Navi Mumbai. Photo by Vidhari911/Wikimedia Commons.

Sunil and Shruti Agarwal and their two children, moved to NRI Complex in 2016. On one of their morning walks, they saw an instance of mangrove destruction. They quizzed the labourers and eventually, an FIR was filed at NRI Complex police station. They have been fighting against the destruction of mangroves and these wetlands since then.

“We had not been environmental activists before we got into this issue. We had fought against defacement of Navi Mumbai due to hoardings in the past. Even today if you ask me the definition of wetlands, I won’t be able to tell you. But all I can understand is something wrong is happening,” said Shruti Agarwal, a television producer. The couple also raised alarm when hundreds of trees were cut at the wetland citing permissions from local authorities. As work on the wetlands got more demanding, Sunil, a self-employed chartered accountant and Shruti decided to take a break. Now their children also help them in their cause.

Mangroves and mudflats line Mumbai and Navi Mumbai’s coast. Map from Google Earth.

What is the fight about?

In a Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) report published in 2019 titled ‘Coastal Wetlands and Waterbirds of Navi Mumbai: Current Status’, both T.S. Chanakya (TSC) wetlands and NRI complex (Talawe) wetlands find an elaborate mention. The TSC wetland has 21 bird species including four near threatened species and one vulnerable species. Between January and September 2018, BNHS recorded waterbirds on the TSC wetlands including near threatened species (IUCN status) such as painted stork, lesser flamingo, Eurasian curlew and curlew sandpiper. These species were also observed at the NRI Complex wetland during this period. The NRI Complex wetland hosts 37 waterbird species, including four near threatened and one vulnerable species, according to the report.

According to documents from City and Industrial Development Corporation (CIDCO), the agency responsible for the proposed infrastructure works in the area, there are three plots in question, viz, pockets A, C and D located in Seawoods, Navi Mumbai. Of these, zone changes have been made in Pocket A (20 hectares) and D (0.85 hectares) – and proposed in Pocket C (47 hectares) – to facilitate the development of the golf course and residential area and make the areas economically viable. The golf course, approximately under 20 hectares, is planned on parts of NRI wetlands while the residential complex will come up on a 13 hectare plot part of TSC wetlands. The changes were made according to Maharashtra government’s notification of October 5, 2016, for a sanctioned modification to Navi Mumbai’s Development Plan.

View of Navi Mumbai’s Talawe wetland, the proposed site for a golf course and residential towers. In 2018, the Bombay High Court quashed the notification based on the petition filed by the Agarwals. Photo from Sunil Agarwal.

However, the same BNHS report has warned of landfilling, excavation of soil, intensive fishing and overcrowding as threats to the TSC and NRI wetlands. Therefore, as a conservation and management action, the report has suggested, “land reclamation work should be strictly prohibited at this site. This wetland (TSC) should be declared amongst protected areas associated with Thane Creek Flamingo Sanctuary (TCFS) because water birds from the sanctuary are using it as high tide roost when sanctuary gets flooded during high tide.” For NRI wetlands also, the report has suggested managing traditional fishing practices in a way to manage the water level in the wetland for birds and that crowds should be regulated.

Sub-unit Panvel that consist of the T.S. Chanakya Wetlands and NRI Complex wetlands finds a mention in the National Wetland Inventory and Assessment (NWIA) Atlas. Even though NWIA does not list all 2.01 lakh wetlands covered under it, a Bombay HC order referred to TSC and NRI wetlands as part of NWIA.

“If these wetlands are declared a conservation reserve, it will be a victory for us. These wetlands are protected by Supreme Court (SC) order but construction could start just because of a CIDCO order. If these 2.01 lakh wetlands are protected as per SC order, it is only SC that can change this status,” said Sunil.

First published by Mongabay India on 23 Nov. 2020

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