Mumbai: Dharavi slums eating into mangrove forest, and no one knows how

Oct 17, 2016, 08:40 IST | Ranjeet Jadhav

While illegal structures have been growing steadily over the past two years in the mangrove cover near Dharavi, the Mangrove Cell, which is just a stone’s throw away, is yet to lift a finger, as this cover is not a ‘notified’ mangrove forest

It’s no secret that mangroves have been vanishing all over the city – after all, the BMC has done little to protect these precious green lungs. In fact, the toothless civic body isn’t even able to stop land sharks from gobbling up the mangroves at its own doorstep in Dharavi, where slums have wiped out 1,200 sq m of the forest over the past year.

mid-day visited the spot and also took aerial pictures that clearly show how the illegal hutments are creeping in on the mangrove cover at Dharavi. Pics/Sameer Markande
mid-day visited the spot and also took aerial pictures that clearly show how the illegal hutments are creeping in on the mangrove cover at Dharavi. Pics/Sameer Markande

The mangrove patch in Dharavi is not just a critical habitat for several species but is also a crucial protective barrier from flash floods during heavy rainfall, as the trees and the swamp act like a sponge and soak the overflow of water. However, these forests slowly began to disappear because of rampant encroachment, prompting the state to set up the Mangrove Cell in 2012.

Also Read: Mumbai: NCP leader booked for illegal construction near Versova mangrove forest

But land grabbers don’t seem to fear the authorities at all. In fact, over the past 5-6 years, they have gobbled up at least half an acre of mangrove trees in Dharavi alone, even though the Mangrove Cell’s office is barely 3 km away. On its part, the state is either not bothered or simply does not have the authority to do anything about this uncontrolled destruction.

Fresh encroachment
The Dharavi mangrove forest is not easily accessible by road, and the extent of encroachment can only be seen clearly from high-rises, of which there aren’t many in the area. However, the damage is visible from buildings in Bandra-Kurla Complex (BKC), from where one of the officegoers alerted mid-day about new illegal structures that have mushroomed there recently.

“My office is right next to the Mithi river in BKC and we have an aerial view of the mangrove forest. Over the last two years, I have seen at least 50 new hutments that have cropped up there. What is shocking is that the Mangrove Cell’s office is close by, but they seem least interested in the forest,” said the source.

mid-day visited the spot and also took some aerial photographs that show how the illegal hutments are creeping in on the mangrove forest behind Peela Bangla (Yellow Bungalow).

Toothless response
Green activists allege that this encroachment has been going on for years, and if officials had taken steps in the beginning itself, they could have put an end to this menace long ago. But when mid-day spoke to officials from the cell, they said that they do not have the power to take action if the mangrove patch is not under their jurisdiction, which defeats the entire purpose of the Mangrove Cell.

“It is true that the new encroachment has come up is in an area with mangrove cover, but nothing could be done about it because we don’t have the staff or the jurisdiction,” said one staffer, requesting anonymity.

Read Story: Mumbai: Mangroves made way for parking space, say angry locals

The cell does not have the power to act against encroachment in mangrove patches that are on private land or under another authority, like the Revenue department. mid-day has published reports on many such instances where the cell has passed the buck on to the tehsildar or collector, who rarely take action (see box).

Activists have now pointed at the flaw in this arrangement of jurisdiction, and demand that the government should simply bring all mangrove patches under the jurisdiction of one agency.

Official speak

N Vasudevan, Mangrove Cell Commissioner
‘The encroachment is at the mangrove forest near Mithi river at Dharavi, which is under the jurisdiction of the Revenue department. They are yet to hand over the same to us’

Deependra Singh Kushwah, Suburban District Collector (Suburbs)
‘We will look into the same and verify the details, after which action will be taken if there has been any violation.’

Green voices

Stalin D, Environmentalist from NGO Vanashakti
‘If we don’t want to witness another flood like the July 26 deluge, it is important to protect mangrove forests, particularly those that are by the river Mithi. It’s high time that the Mangrove Cell take serious note of the illegal encroachment taking place in the mangroves near Dharavi.’

Rishi Aggarwal, Environmentalist
‘After the Mangrove Cell was formed, we had expected that there would some promptness in action, but nothing seems to have changed. It is only when the issue is highlighted in the media that the authorities take serious note. We had expected some action at least in Dharavi, where encroachment is going on right under the BMC’s nose.’

Sustained coverage

March 1, 2014: (‘Under collector’s nose, encroachment in BKC killing its mangroves’) Hardly 100 metres from the office of the Suburban Mumbai Collector in Bandra (East), mangroves were hacked off mercilessly by slum dwellers every day

May 29, 2014: (‘How 1 acre of mangroves vanished in nine years’) Illegal dumping of construction debris and the gradual growth of slums led to the death of over an acre of mangroves acre in Malad (W).

November 2, 2014: (‘For sale! R50,000 for 10x10 feet shanty on mangrove belt in Versova’) Land mafia destroyed mangroves to construct huts sold at a throwaway price of R50,000. After mid-day’s report, action was taken, but the construction has started once again

May 13, 2016: (‘NCP leader’s school gobbles up open space, and claims it is protecting it’) Locals allege school run by NCP leader Narendra Verma had destroyed half an acre of trees and was nearly encroaching upon the Versova mangrove forest.

May 6, 2016: (‘Mangroves made way for parking space, say angry locals’) Angry locals in Dahisar East protested and drove out private tourist bus operators who had cut down a huge portion of the mangrove and parked vehicles there.

Number of illegal structures that have come up in the last year

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