8,000 hectares of mangroves destroyed, creeks blocked, highrises up on marshland in Uran
Fifteen low-lying villages in the once ecological refuge of Uran fear going under water with the rains after debris chokes mangroves, and a tidal channel is blocked for road widening
Driving in Uran, a coastal town connected by the hip to Navi Mumbai, can be toxic for the lungs, especially if you have your car windows rolled down. A far cry from the erstwhile land of mangroves and wetlands — as seen in 'archival' images on Google — this dusty town is growing above its own rubble. At last count, the daily count of dumpers loading debris into Uran was 3,000, says environmentalist and member of the Bombay high court-appointed state mangrove committee, D Stalin.
The rapid rate at which towering residential complexes, industrial and road and flyover projects are coming up in the coastal town, has transformed this once green lung of Raigad district into a wasteland, where mangroves are quickly dying due to unchecked landfilling activity. The ecological destruction has been compounded by unseasonal flooding, which according to locals, has been on for the last few years, but only gained attention earlier this year, when on the occasion of Holi, during high-tide, nearly five villages faced waterlogging.
2017: A flock of migratory birds at Panje wetland. This week, only two flamingos were visible on what is now a dry stretch
A few weeks ago, when both CM Devendra Fadnavis and the mangrove committee intervened, debris dumping came to a temporary halt. "But by then, damage was already done," said BN Kumar, director of The Nature Connect, which is one of the environmental groups spearheading the movement to save this town's ecological habitat. The unhindered destruction has exposed 70,000 residents living in 15 low-lying Koli and Agri villages in Uran to the threat of going down under, when monsoon hits Mumbai a week from now, warns Kumar.
Who killed the mangroves?
For the last few years now, Uran has been in the eye of a storm for illegal dumping of debris. But, the immediate threat to these villages came soon after a natural tidal channel that brought water from the Arabian Sea into a 4.6 ha mangrove patch near NH348 in Pagote was blocked with debris by highway authorities who undertook a road-widening project on the stretch, allegedly after clearance from government-owned City and Industrial Development Corporation (CIDCO), which owns 27,150 ha of ecologically sensitive land in Uran. "Until a few years ago, the creek in this mangrove forest was a rich fishing zone where you'd get everything from prawns and tilapia to crabs," says Nandakumar Pawar, head of environmental cell, Shree Ekvira Aai Pratishtan.
Debris generated by the construction of the NH348 is being dumped in a mangrove patch near Pagote village allegedly after clearance from CIDCO. Since September last year, this has led to the destruction of mangroves in a patch of 4.6 ha. Pics/Sneha Kharabe
Pawar says the tidal channel was blocked last year post monsoons, after work began on the highway. "Within a matter of months, we noticed that the mangroves had started drying out. Mangrove forests require regular flushing of tidal water, at least twice a day. Stagnant water kills them," says Pawar. By early this year, all the 4,600 trees on this land had vanished. Today, what remains is a quagmire with dead barks.
After Pawar and Kumar brought this to the notice of the mangrove committee, they issued an order to the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI), first in January, and later in May, to unblock the channel. Kumar says that while NHAI acted on the order two weeks ago, only a small passage was opened.
Janba Patil from Kunde says, that authorities created a bund last month after a child nearly drowned in a waterlogged pit. But, this ‘solution’ also prevents sewage water from flowing out of the village, increasing mosquito breeding in the area
When contacted, Pramod Patil, nodal officer of environment and forest at CIDCO, says that now that the water flow has resumed, they will wait for a few months to see if the dead mangroves resurrect naturally. "But, it's common knowledge that mangroves once dead, are dead forever. They can only be rejuvenated by planting fresh saplings," argues Pawar, adding that blocking of natural channels, is a clear violation of Coastal Regulation Zone 1A and the HC's order (see box), but no action has been taken yet. Patil, who passed the buck to the NHAI for neglecting the mangroves, said that they don't intend to plant any saplings at the moment. "If the mangroves don't grow, we will issue a tender to plant new saplings later."
Only two years ago, a 4.5-ha mangrove forest (4,450 trees) at JNPT Terminal 4, near the Hovercraft Jetty in Uran, was destroyed in a similar fashion. The mangrove committee, which was formed last year, recently fined JNPT R1 lakh for the damage. But this amount is insignificant, when you consider the large-scale destruction being done, says Kumar.
Pawar claims that these channels are being blocked intentionally to destroy the mangroves, as CIDCO wants to grab land for real estate purposes. Incidentally, Uran is also one of the sites for the industrial city project, which is being jointly developed in a phased manner by CIDCO and Reliance Industries Ltd chairman Mukesh Ambani, Jai Corp. India and SKIL Infrastructure Ltd. Pawar adds that since landfilling and reclamation activity began in early 2000, nearly 8,000 hectares of wetlands and mangroves were destroyed in the region.
On high alert
Uran villages — Kunde, Nawghar, Funde, Pagote, Bhendkhal, Sawarkhar, Sonari, Bokarvira, Chirle, Hanuman Koliwada, Dongri, Panje, Dhutum, Pohi, Nagaon, Paundkhar and Dighode — are currently on edge because of destruction of mangroves in the surrounding areas, says Kumar.
Kundegaon sticks out as a sore thumb because it has been experiencing both, unseasonal and monsoon flooding during high tide for the last 10 years. It was only in May, after the CM responded to The Nature Connect's complaint and promised to look into the issue that CIDCO authorities were alarmed, says Kumar. "But the efforts have been half-hearted and thoughtless," says 60-year-old Janba Patil, a Koli fisherman from Kunde, who lost his three-year-old nephew after he drowned in the floods that hit the village in 2009.
Janba's fears are not unfounded. Last month, another kid from Kunde, which has a population of around 900 people, had to be rescued when he slipped into a waterlogged pit. Soon after, in a face-saving measure, "some authorities" blocked the mouth of the creek, across the village with debris and sand to create a bund. This creek is also surrounded by mangroves.
"We were told that this would prevent creek water from spilling into our village. While we haven't faced waterlogging since then, what it has done is blocked the flow of sewage water from the village, from going out. Because of this, mosquito breeding grounds have increased. In fact, the mosquito menace is so grave that you wouldn't manage to stand here after 5 pm without being chewed up," Janba's 26-year-old son Sanket says.
"Can you imagine what will happen when it starts raining?" Janba's wife Pushpa asks. "Not only drainage, that creek also served as an outlet for rain water. Now they have blocked it. If there's high tide, and it rains, our village will drown."
In February, CM Devendra Fadnavis unveiled the statue of Chhatrapati Shivaji at the Shivaji Memorial in Dastan Phata in Uran, which is being constructed on a wetland that attracted a variety of birds
Patil of CIDCO, denies his agency had anything to do with the blocking of the creek. "There is no reclamation work being done by CIDCO, especially where mangroves are involved. We don't know who did it or when, but I can guarantee you that it wasn't our job." He admits that Kunde along with Bokarvira, Panje and Pagote, "will be washed out by the sea," if urgent action is not taken.
Patil says the situation in Uran today, has little to do with debris dumping, and more with non-maintenance of the bunds in these areas. "CIDCO didn't maintain the bunds, because of which water started entering these villages. Only 15 days ago, we got a nod to install pipelines with flap-gates at these bunds. Tenders have been issued. These flap-gates will control the flow of excess water during high tide in the monsoon," Patil says. He, however, was non-committal on when work would begin. A road in Kunde has also sunk, he adds. "We will increase the height of the road to prevent any further damage."
At the holding ponds, which CIDCO has built to prevent flooding, authorities plan to keep 25 per cent of the sluice gates shut to control tidal flow. But, Dilip Koli, a fisherman from Hanuman Koliwada, whose village is also at risk, says these holding ponds have only been eating into their livelihood. His village too, has around thousand residents, all of whom rely on fishing for survival.
"When they don't release water during high tide, fish don't enter the creek, due to which our catch is severely affected," said Koli. In 2007, CIDCO authorities had built a holding pond across Hanuman Koliwada, which affected the businesses of several fishermen, many of whom now, barely manage to get fish for personal consumption. "But, it has not saved our village from flooding," shares Koli.
Also Read: How to choke a wetland in Mumbai
Nandakumar Pawar, head of environmental cell, Shree Ekvira Aai Pratishtan, claims that creeks in Uran are being blocked intentionally to destroy the mangroves, as CIDCO wants to grab land for real estate purposes
"The whole flood control mechanism is hogwash," says Kumar, adding, "Kunde and other villages cannot escape the floods with flap-gates [sluice gates]. CIDCO is misleading everyone." He adds that letting only 75 per cent of the tidal water to flow into the creeks from the holding ponds, is also a "foolish decision" because it will kill the mangroves eventually.
The mangrove committee itself admits to be fighting a long and arduous battle. Stalin says authorities can't deny the ongoing reclamation work in the region. The situation, he says, has only taken a turn for the worse after the Maharashtra government decided that the Special Economic Zone in Navi Mumbai could be used for residential complexes and industrial construction.
"Wherever you go [in Uran], there is some construction activity going on, and there is no intimation as to what is being done, or who is carrying out work at the spot. We have passed directions that every spot where there is a dumper visible or has reclamation activity, should have a board indicating who is doing work there. But that has also not been adhered to," he adds. "Unfortunately, the current machinery is inadequate. But, all said and done, the committee is placing every violation on record, and will bring it before the court."
All is not lost
In 1997, Society for Ecological Restoration launched a mangrove restoration project in the Godavari and Krishna mangroves in Andhra Pradesh. The restoration employed canal techniques, instead of simple plantation of seedlings. By 2004, a total area of 520 ha of degraded mangroves was restored. Apart from this, its crab and otter population also increased substantially.
What the HC said
The Bombay high court in September last year ordered the protection of mangroves and a 50-metre buffer zone around such plots across the state. The bench had also confirmed the court's 2005 orders banning destruction of mangrove land, while ordering the state to launch criminal prosecution against persons who destroyed them. The state was also directed to replant mangroves that were destroyed.
Rs 1 lakh
The amount that JNPT was fined for destroying a 4.5-ha mangrove forest land near the Hovercraft Jetty
Debris trucks make their way to Uran daily, according to environmentalists
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