Gone with the wind

29 November,2010 01:03 PM IST |   |  Sudeshna Chowdhury

In another case of development at the cost of environment, Mumbai is all set to lose one of its biggest wetlands in Juhu as authorities plan a major commercialisation drive in the area

In another case of development at the cost of environment, Mumbai is all set to lose one of its biggest wetlands in Juhu as authorities plan a major commercialisation drive in the area

Standing on the terrace of a tall building in Juhu, you cannot miss a marvellous view of a large tract of land with lush surroundings, where rare species of birds can be heard chirping.

GREEN ALERT: The Juhu wetland, which is about to get all
commercialised PIC/ SANTOSH NAGWEKAR

You start wondering if you are in Mumbai at all. Yes, we are talking about, what many consider as, Juhu*s best-kept secret - one of the biggest wetlands in Mumbai, sprawling over 60-odd acres.

Inhabited by migratory birds and various life forms (both flora and fauna), it is also one of the very few surviving wetlands in Mumbai. This wetland is sandwiched between the rapidly expanding Nehru Nagar slum and the Pawan Hans Flying Club in Juhu.

However, in a tussle between the Airport Authority of India (AAI) and the slum dwellers, this green cover might become a casualty.

The huge marshland is owned by the AAI , which is coming up with a plan to commercialise the whole area and if sources in the AAI are to be believed the wetland area will not be spared.

" It is just a matter of time. We are in touch with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). Once the clearance is obtained we will use the area for hangars and aircraft. Going by the master plan we will leave the wetland area as it is but eventually we will secure that area for our own purpose," explained an official from the AAI.

EATEN UP: Anusha Babbar and Avii Shovakar, Juhu residents, point to
the slums, which have encroached upon the wetland in Juhu

BIODIVERSITY SPOT: Rare species of bird call the wetland their home

The AAI authorities claim the wetland poses a bird hazard to the aircraft.

That*s one of the concerns, which is prompting the AAI to swallow up the entire wetland area.

Adesh Shivkar, a bird expert counters this with, "It is black Kites and pigeons which cause these accidents and the reason is due to the ever piling garbage which attracts these birds. Wetland birds are not responsible for this and killing their habitat is not the solution."

In fact, some work in the wetland has already begun. An AAI official said the road construction on the periphery of the wetland had started and after completion the Central Industrial Security Forces (CISF) would be posted there for vigilance.

But, the AAI is facing impediments from a different quarter -- slum dwellers who are increasingly encroaching on the wetland.

Slum dwellers in Nehru Nagar have spread themselves over six acres of the green cover. Their march over the marshland continues.

The BMC has undertaken a series of demolition drives, the latest being in 2008, but slums are only increasing.
u00a0"After every demolition drive, the shanties and the hutments resurface within a few days of the drive. Hence, we had approached the BMC and the Juhu police for help. The police said that they were busy with the festival season and that the demolition drive would be carried out later. Even last year we were given the same reason," said Lal Ratnakar Singh, General Manager of the AAI division in Juhu. The AAI claims that in 2008 they had built a wall to stop further encroachment but the encroachers broke down the wall and the *illegal* occupation of the land continued.

"In fact people from the slums themselves have written to the AAI to stop further encroachment as living standards are deteriorating everyday. The BMC has not been able to clean the gutters due to the slums and the piling garbage completely worsens the condition during the monsoon," Singh adds.

" Police vigilance is required for at least sometime to not allow the slums to resurface. That is not been happening. Hence now the CISF will be posted there to take care of the whole area. This will ensure that the slums do not come up after they have been razed," he adds.

But the police say guarding the wetland is not their responsibility.

" It is not possible for us to guard the area. The only responsibility that we have is to take care of the law and order and provide security when the demolition is happening," said an official from the Juhu police station.


The slums, the authorities say, are also a huge threat to the security of the aircraft.

"People from the slums can just walk into the area. There have been robberies and thefts in the past. It is a security hazard," said an official from the Pawan Hans Flying club, which is very close to the slum clusters and shares its boundary with the wetland.

However, officials in the AAI and the Juhu Citizen Welfare Group (JCWG) allege a nexus between unscrupulous slumlords and politicians who do not allow the slums to be permanently removed, given the fact that it is a huge vote bank for political parties.

But Ashok Bhau Jadav, the local MLA, denies the allegation. "We had already demolished the slums in 2008 and had also built a wall to protect the land, but it is the AAI which cannot take care of its own land. Blaming politicians will not help. You have to protect your own house," elaborates Jadav.

Recently, a file, which had the demolition case of the slum pending, went missing from the AAI department itself, said an AAI official.

In this great blame game, it is the rich biodiversity of the area that faces the threat of disappearing.

Wildlife activists and environmentalists warn that the *rape* of such a big wetland will definitely have dire consequences on the city*s ecosystem.

" As Baba Amte had once rightly said: The silent majority will become the silenced majority," says Bittu Sahgal, editor, Sanctuary magazine.

" Collective action is the need of the hour. People should hold rallies and protests against this massive destruction of nature," he adds.

Like environmentalists, the residents around the wetland are concerned over the neglect of the green zone and over the proposed master plan.

" I have grown up seeing this beautiful sight right outside my home. There used to be fish in there, which have disappeared over a period now. The number of birds is also declining gradually," says Avii Shovakar, a cinematographer who has been living in Juhu for 27 years now.

" Even the road that is coming up is into the marsh. It wasn*t there a few months ago. They are just killing the habitat," he adds.

Anusha Babbar, another resident whose terrace faces the wetland laments, "It is a biodiversity hotspot and such a precious ecosystem. It is so rich in its fauna. Different varieties of snakes, lizards and birds are found in this area. How can somebody someday just decide to destroy such a beautiful place?" asks Babbar.

Environmentalists have suggested that wetlands are not only rich in biodiversity, they also provide protection against erosion and floods.

They also help in ground water replenishment.u00a0

But officials in the AAI believe that it is only the water from the gutter that flows into this wetland.

Siddharth Shanghvi, a well-known novelist who also stays in Juhu disagrees. "The AAI authorities will say that this piece of land is a sort of a nullah but it is not. Seeing is believing," says Shanghvi

"Why would you allow encroachment on your land? Why are the authorities not doing anything?" adds a concerned Shanghvi.

The JCWG has been fighting against the encroachment and commercial development plans
" The demolition drive took place in 2008 and back then we could see some semblance of hope. But soon the hutments resurfaced and the political nexus is so great that in a way it is encouraging the growth of the slums," says Anand Desai of JCWG.

" Just six months ago we had appealed to the BMC and the AAI to convert this wetland into a lake but the proposal has not been looked at favourably," adds Desai. If the authorities want to protect the land from encroachment or any commercial development they can, says an upset Desai.

Bird expert, Adesh Shivkar, believe that the way we treat our environment is a direct reflection of how we actually treat each other.

" These few wetlands are very crucial pockets. And what is being done is very shameful. The population of migratory birds, which used to come to these wetlands, has been decreasing over a few years now," claims Shivkar.

"Black-tailed Godwit, Bronze-winged Jacana, Pheasant-tailed Jacana, Common Redshank, Pintail Duck and even flamingoes are spotted there. And it is the birds who came here first and as humans we have no right to encroach on their territory," says an upset Shivkar.

But as the government authorities are busy passing the buck to each other, the green experts and residents believe the city is on the verge of losing another precious habitat.

Environmental experts warn that if the Juhu wetland is allowed to be swallowed up by commercial activity or human march of the squatter, soon nothing of it will be left except its lingering memory.

It faces the same fate as the fifty percent of the nearly 130 water bodies of Mumbai, which have ceased to exist.

REPLACED: A Four acre lake in Sector 2 of Charkop, Kandivli was
destroyed to make way for a fancy residential complex

DEGRADATION: The entire shore of Uran was flooded with plastic
during the recent oil spill in Mumbai

Uran wetland in Navi Mumbai and the one in Charkop, Kandivli are some of the recent cases of wetlands* disappearances, which are fresh in the residents* memories. All protestations by locals and the green brigade proved too weak to prevent powerful builders and developers from destroying the wetlands.

Redevelopment Mumbai wetlands Juhu commercialisation drive
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