On the occasion of World Environment Day, experts reveal how illegal sand dredging has not only robbed Ulhas Creek of 300 acres of precious mangroves, but is also slowly converting it into a flood risk
Just a decade ago, Ulhas Creek was swathed in green with acres of mangroves spread across the water inlet, a sight for sore eyes for commuters on the Central Railway tracks that run alongside.
The picture is very different today, however, with illegal sand mining slowly destroying the waterway, erasing its green cover and destroying 300 acres of mangroves between Diva and Dombivli.
When mid-day visited the creek on Wednesday and Thursday, we found sand dredging work going on in full swing, even though the Collector’s office had assured that action was being taken against the culprits. Pic/Shrikant Khuperkar
Quite apart from the loss of the precious mangroves and all the wildlife that called it home, this constant erosion of the creek has caused it to overrun its embankments, with the water nearly touching the railway tracks now. This is what makes it more than just an ecological concern, say experts, who warn that with the monsoon and continuing sand mining activity, the creek will keep widening and rising until it becomes a flood hazard.
According to experts, not only does the dredging have enormous ecological cost, but it also poses a threat to humans as the creek has now become a flood threat due to its destabilised basin and embankments. Pic/Bipin Kokate
The changes in the creek are evident from pictures across the past decade (see pics), and experts point out that the mangroves are dying because of rampant sand dredging being carried out. Dozens of dredging boats, giant suction pumps, and cranes are at work in the water body every day, illegally sucking out sand from the basin to supply it to cement manufacturers.
According to Stalin Dayanand, director of the NGO Vanashakti, this has led to the disappearance of 300 acres of mangroves in the belt. The NGO has been fighting to protect the mangroves and has even approached the Bombay High Court on the matter.
“The officials always claim that this issue is not under their jurisdiction, and in spite of a clear court order restricting sand mining, the degradation of the basin of the creek is continuing even day and night,” said Dayanand. He pointed out that a few years ago, this stretch was a crucial bird habitat with species such as pond heron, white throated kingfisher, migratory birds like flamingos, for whom this was a nesting site.
However, with the destruction of the habitat, the birds have stopped visiting. Equally worrying is the threat this destruction poses to humans, however. “Earlier, the creek’s width was less and the water was at quite a distance from the railway lines. Over the years, the water has crept closer and now threatens to flood the tracks,” Dayanand explained.
Despite the obvious ecological cost and the flood risk involved, the authorities have had trouble putting an end to the sand mining menace so far. In fact, sand mining is banned in the seven districts of Maharashtra, especially on the coast, but the illegal activity is still rampant.
The main reason for this is demand from the real estate sector, which needs the sand to produce cement. “All this is possible because of the involvement of local politicians, the sand mafia, and government authorities.
There is a need for an enforcement mechanism that can especially look into this issue, as visiting such deserted areas is not feasible and safe. We have travelled across and have faced death threats and were even attacked.
There is a need of continuous patrolling, and satellite images should be considered for a proper vigilance of the actual situation on ground,” said Sumaria Abdulali from the Awaaz Foundation, which is also fighting against the issue.
Satellite images of the Kopar stretch from the past decade clearly show that Ulhas creek has not only widened, but its green cover has also rapidly diminished. Pics/Google Earth
The other side
Thane Collector Dr Ashwini Joshi said, “We have registered more than 40 FIRs in the matter. Yesterday itself I visited Ambivli, where we destroyed the cranes and filed FIRs against the culprits. We have also destroyed more than 20 cranes that were involved in sand mining.” Despite this, mid-day found sand dredging work going on in full swing at the site on both Wednesday and Thursday.
Dr Ashwini Joshi, Thane Collector
The Diva-Dombivli issue does exist and we have been taking action. Even we want to save the mangroves and are working towards it. We have invoked the Environment Protection Act and will not spare the culprits
Param Bir Singh, Thane Police Commissioner
I have given a standing order to the whole department that whenever the Collector’s office approaches us, we should provide all the necessary support, including adequate police force, to take action against the dredging activities