Anthony VK Fernandez, a private security guard at the water filtration site in Bhandup Complex at the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP), was killed, while on duty, by a leopard earlier this month. With incidents of man-animal conflict proliferating in and around the park, the encroachment problem is back in focus.
The forest department has been razing illegal shanties, huts and pucca houses in the vicinity. But a lot of work remains as experts who have known the park for more than 30 years say that since 1995 more than 15,000 such structures have come up.
Several cases of man-animal conflict have been reported in the recent past, with leopards venturing into human settlements around the periphery of SGNP. The rise in numbers is certainly a worry as encroachment has resulted in space crunch for animals leading to the situation. Six people were reported killed in separate incidents of leopard attack in and around the park in 2012.
Wildlife experts claim that all the attacks have happened because a leopard often assumes that a sitting human is a prey. However, they also point out that another important reason for the prevailing situation is the space crunch and encroachment issue, which if not checked, may get out of hand in the near future.
Speaking to MiD DAY, environmentalist and leopard expert Krishna Tiwari said, “Apart from encroachment, a lot of construction has happened on the Yeoor side of the sanctuary and near Bhandup, which is a reason to worry. It is good that the forest department has started cracking down on pre-1995 encroachments. But, they must also initiate action against the encroachment that happened between 1995 and 2010.”
An expert who has been closely monitoring the development around SGNP, requesting anonymity, said, “The forest department is doing a good job in clearing the illegal constructions, which the courts had asked to be removed. But between 1995 and 2010 more than 15,000 such structures have come up near Shankar Tekdi in Mulund, Ketki Pada in Dahisar, Sanjay Nagar in Malad, Khindipada in Bhandup and a few other places in and around SGNP.
“Because of invasion into their habitat leopards are coming out of the forest and occasionally attacking humans. Apart from this, the slums near Shankar Tekdi have also cropped up right outside the park’s boundary.”
The removal of encroachment from SGNP started following a court order in 1997, and work is still going on. “The demolition drive started in 1997, but gathered momentum between 2002 and 2006. Later, things slowed down. The operation again picked up pace since October 2012, which is good for the park. Around 2,000 structures at Sanjay Nagar in Malad and Ketki Pada in Dahisar have been razed,” said the expert.
The park is spread over 103 sq km and is home to a wide range of flora and fauna ranging from mangroves to evergreen forests of the Western Ghats. The rich and diverse forest is home to more than 1,000 species of plants, 40 species of mammals, 250 species of birds, 38 species of reptiles and amphibians apart from large varieties of fish, insects and other life forms.
SGNP authorities have already arranged for resettlement and rehabilitation of some eligible slum dwellers, who had started staying in the park before 1995. They have been provided houses in Chandivali area. The resettlement and rehabilitation of other deserving slum dwellers is also in progress.
“Around 61,000 families stay on forestland in areas such as Malad and Kandivli, Dahisar, Sanjay Nagar, Indira Nagar etc. However, only 25,000 families are eligible for resettlement, as several others do not have appropriate residential proof. Till date around 11,000 of them have been relocated to Chandivali,” said a forest department source.
Spots of bother
Ketki Pada, Dahisar (East)
Though there were unauthorised constructions on forestland here even prior to 1995, the numbers rapidly increased later, as the government took no steps.
A wildlife expert said, “ The forest department was at times prepared to take steps against post-1995 encroachment, but it had to back off because of political pressure and lack of police security for demolition drives.”
Some pre-1995 structures have been razed in a recent drive, and authorities say soon the remaining constructions will also be cleared, as a massive demolition operation is about to begin. Motorists on Western Express Highway headed towards Mira Road from Borivli can easily spot the encroachment on SGNP land near Dahisar.
Sanjay Nagar, Malad
Considerable encroachment has taken place in this area. In many parts, illegal structures eating into the forest cover are very visible.
According to a forest department official, “A massive demolition drive was started in this area in December and by the end of the month, more than 3,000 structures had been removed. Unauthorised constructions were also razed from the adjacent Dr Ambedkar Nagar in Malad.”
It is noteworthy that some encroachments near Film City will also be torn down in the coming months.
Indira Nagar, Thane
Another important location on the eastern plank of SGNP, where encroachment has been a major cause of concern is Indira Nagar in Thane, near Yeoor hills. Here too illegal construction was a problem even before 1995, and it has only worsened thereafter.
The forest department is expected to initiate a demolition drive soon.