Dharmendra Jore: Development vs environment

Updated: Apr 23, 2018, 05:56 IST | Dharmendra Jore

Activists have a fight in hand over relaxing CRZ norms for the ease of creating homes, promoting tourism, even as the HC takes a tough stand on regularising unauthorised structures

Fiona FernandezTwo developments that preceded Earth Day last week have the Bombay High Court and environmentalists concerned. One pertains to a decision of regularising illegal structures that stood on or before December 31, 2015. The state government has bluntly told the high court that since it cannot provide homes to all, it thought of regularising illegal structures within a legal framework instead of demolishing them. The other issue is about amending Coastal Regulation Zones (CRZ) rules for allowing construction activity along the city's coastal line so that dilapidated buildings are redeveloped to give residents new homes.

The decisions demand many explanations from the government, which has not been convincing when it comes to addressing serious concerns that get buried in its adamant approach of pushing populist schemes forward. The high court has taken a tough stand as far as regularisation of unauthorised structures is concerned. The other decision of tweaking CRZ rules which is in draft stages is expected to invite citizens' suggestions and objections. We expect a conflicting opinion on this proposal – both environmentalists and targetted beneficiaries will have their say. No wonder then, if this proposal too is taken to the high court.

For who?
Both high court and activists do not accept the government's stand that the moves are planned only to benefit the poor and needy, and in no way will they benefit the builders' lobby. The high court has asked whether the government will change reservations of open spaces that were gobbled up by the builders or a group of people to construct illegal homes. The government told the court that the respective planning authorities will decide on it. There is no firm commitment from the government and that should alarm the people who care for open spaces and environment.

The government had no satisfactory response to a concern raised by the court, whether the additional burden that unauthorised structures will put on the existing planning and civic infrastructure was assessed. It has also asked for the exact number of illegal structures in Mumbai. The government said it had considered all aspects before it announced the decision last year. The government assured that not all unauthorised structures will be regularised. A division bench of Justices Abhay Oka and Anil Menon is hearing a PIL filed by activist Rajiv Mishra, who has challenged the country's biggest regularisation exercise ever, in which several lakh unauthorised structures in the urban belt are involved.

While announcing the amnesty last year, the government said that the scheme will not apply to unauthorised constructions in ecologically sensitive areas such as mangroves, forest lands, riverbeds, canals, tanks, blue flood lines, defence lands, quarries, heritage sites, dumping grounds, buffer zones, etc. Unauthorised developments in violation of land use plans in non-residential areas won't be covered, it said.

'Precedent with a difference'
In 2005-06, the Congress-NCP government had promulgated an ordinance to protect unauthorised structures in Ulhasnagar municipal limits, but later excluded the 855 buildings whose demolition was ordered by the Bombay High Court. But the latest move may save homes in Navi Mumbai's Digha village, where the Bombay High Court had earlier ordered a demolition drive.

The then governor had returned the Ulhasnagar ordinance to the cabinet seeking clarification if he could sign the ordinance when the high court was hearing a public-interest petition in the matter. Following the governor's probing, the Cabinet had excluded the buildings under litigation.

Development or environment
With CRZ distance to the land area reduced to 50 metres from the previous norm of 100 metres, the state's entire coastline of 720km will now have construction allowed in close proximity to the sea. The Centre has approved this on the lines of Karnataka and Kerala, following the state's specific emphasis on tourism development in Maharashtra's Konkan area. This will also mean opening up of hundreds of acres for development in Mumbai where 27% of its land falls in CRZ (the only such city in the country). The relaxation will also apply to Mumbai's satellite towns. It is expected to ease redevelopment of old buildings that stand close to the sea and create new housing stock.

Activists have started voicing their concerns over the state and local self-government's failure in tackling issues that are harming coastal environment and ecosystem. But we have been hearing from the government planners that there are so many cities across the world that do not have strict coastal regulations that slow their growth. They cite the examples of airports, infra projects and residential buildings standing in the seas or on reclamation.

We would like to tell the planners that the cities they talk about may not have a thing like CRZ, but then, they definitely have very strict rules/regulations and enforcement mechanisms that deter their citizens from harming the environment, especially the seas. Will the government dare emulate the best of global examples before taking a step forward, that may put all of us to a serious risk in the name of development?

Dharmendra Jore is political editor, mid-day. He tweets @dharmendrajore. Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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