Maharashtra forest department begins demolition of structures inside mangroves

News | 18th April 2022


While ‘Mission Begin Again' applies to all walks of life post the lockdown phase, the state forest department has also enthusiastically vouched for it by recently starting a special demolition drive of illegal structures within the areas notified for mangroves in and around the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR).

Just last week, several concrete structures inside the notified mangrove area were demolished by the mangrove cell officials at Kopri in Thane. More demolitions are expected here and also around coastal areas, such as Juhu, Versova, and parts of Navi Mumbai, where there are notified mangrove forests.

Additional principal chief conservator of forests (mangrove cell) Virendra Tiwari, said, “It was surprising to see pucca concrete houses built illegally inside the notified mangroves at Kopri.

Our officials are undertaking field inspections at all notified reserved forests to check for such illegal shanties and houses so that demolitions can be carried out. We are following the earlier Bombay High Court orders that mangroves are protected forests and hence no illegal encroachments or structures should be allowed in them.”

Environmentalists have welcomed this determined move by the forest department, though they feel that a lot more needs to be done in order to fully protect Maharashtra’s green coastline.

“It’s good that the mangrove cell has started demolishing illegal structures inside mangroves and is taking legal action on the encroachers. I also want to urge them to revisit the demolished sites regularly to ensure encroachers do not return,” said Director of Vanashakti NGO, D Stalin, who is also the member of the high court-appointed wetlands and mangroves panels.

Debi Goenka of Conservation Action Trust (CAT) echoed similar views on this issue. “The PIL of Bombay Environment Action Group had resulted in the landmark interim court order of 2005, and the final verdict of 2018 -- that all mangroves must be protected in the state. So, it is good that demolitions have restarted in mangroves areas, but I feel that the officials must also take a look at those mangroves that are not yet notified, in order to safeguard them from encroachments.”

“The action against encroachments on mangroves is a welcome step and, in fact, the mangrove cell is bound legally to protect the sea plants that protect the coast from high tides and act as an efficient rain forest,” said B N Kumar, Director of NatConnect Foundation.

The slum encroachment, though, is a matter of concern and just a tip of the iceberg as compared to destruction happening across other parts of the coast such as Uran, Kharghar and Ulwe, Kumar added.

The greens pointed that the mangroves ought to have been handed over by various agencies to the forest department for conservation as ‘reserved forests’ as per the high court ruling of September 2018. Yet, the process has been slow even three and half years after the judgement, Kumar regretted. The state government and the High Court-appointed mangrove protection and conservation committee have also issued directives to government agencies to quickly complete the process of transferring all mangroves to the forest department.

Vast stretches of mangroves under JNPT and NMSEZ have been destroyed in Uran, with no official agency acting against them despite the high court judgement. The FIRs against NMSEZ and the lone instance of imposing a penalty of Rs 1 lakh on JNPT are negligible as compared to the irreparable destruction, NatConnect explained.

“Mangroves are rich breeding ground for a variety of aquaculture, and the local fishing community lost their source of survival,” lamented Nandakumar Pawar, Head of Shri Ekvira Aai Pratishtan. All our complaints to the authorities have fallen on deaf ears as large-scale violations of the provisions of the environmental clearance have gone scot-free, Pawar said.

The MCZMA itself just passes the buck to the district coastal zone committees which do not seem to bother about the violations, Pawar added.

“The sad part is,” Kumar argued, “even the HC-appointed committee directives have been ignored and as a result of which debris on mangroves under NMSEZ is yet to be removed, choking and killing the vital sea plants.”

In Kharghar, too, local activists Naresh Chandra Singh and Jyoti Nadkarni have been complaining against the encroachment on mangroves and unauthorised prawn farming. “Inspections have taken place with no action whatsoever,” Nadkarni said.

“We wonder why and how agencies such as Cidco turned a blind eye to the encroachment,” Singh said.

The issue assumed a serious turn recently when a lady birder was abused and threatened by goons at the Kharghar illegal prawn farm site.

While Cidco has not taken any action to protect the mangroves, the forest department hasn’t stepped in either. “It is the issue of jurisdiction and our hands are tied as it is Cidco’s area,” a forest official said.

Maharashtra has over 32,000 hectares of mangroves -- 16,984 hectares of which are now declared as protected forests. Over 13,000 hectares of mangroves, including the 900 ha stretch under Godrej, are privately owned mangroves. Cidco recently handed over small patches of mangroves totalling about 350 hectares; it has over 1,000 hectares which is yet to be transferred to the forest department for protection.

Kumar pointed out that hundreds of hectares of mangroves under NMSEZ are yet to be accounted for. “On our complaint, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackaray has asked the forest department to look into this which, in turn, passed on the buck to the mangrove cell,” NatConnect said.

Following a contempt petition filed by Vanashakti in the Bombay High Court, JNPT was literally forced to admit that it has 913 hectares of mangroves in its project area and the port promised to hand over sea plants to the forest department after getting a high-resolution satellite imagery.

Meanwhile, there is no accountability for the thousands of mangroves buried for the JNPT SEZ project, Pawar pointed out, and suggested that the forest department just go with the official coastal zone maps and take over the mangroves. “If they wait for agencies like Cidco, we will only lose more mangroves to land sharks,” he warned.

If one just drives past the Vashi toll naka, off the Thane Creek, the irony cannot be missed. Hundreds of healthy mangroves have been uprooted and pushed aside by gigantic machines on both sides of the road, for the developmental project of extending the bridge over the sea.

“The destruction of the Vashi toll naka mangroves has been done legally for the bridge development project; however, it is still sad to watch these hardy green sea plants that have survived all odds being trampled for infrastructural development,” said Kumar.

Vijay Singh, Mumbai Mirror, Navi Mumbai