No wildlife at Aarey site? Did MMRC lie to get Rs 5,000 cr loan for Metro?

Feb 12, 2015, 12:30 IST | Ranjeet Jadhav

Despite several leopard sightings and man- animal conflicts reported in Aarey Milk Colony, the authorities claimed in an official report that the Metro line III would have no environmental impact there

Did the Metro authorities lie about the forest and wildlife in Aarey Milk Colony in order to secure a loan for the Metro line III project from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA)?

The proposed site for the Metro car depot in Aarey Colony
The proposed site for the Metro car depot in Aarey Colony

This is the question activists have raised on reading the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report that claims that constructing the Metro car depot in Aarey Colony will have no major ecological impact because there is no wildlife at the site.

A picture of a leopard clicked by Ranjeet Jadhav three months ago, just a km away from the spot
A picture of a leopard clicked by Ranjeet Jadhav three months ago, just a km away from the spot

It should be noted that the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) and Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRC) seek nearly R5,000 crore in financial assistance from JICA for the project. However, sources said that the Japanese body would only give the nod if the project was environment-friendly.

Forest officials routinely patrol Aarey Colony to look for leopards and to educate locals about man-animal conflict. This alone is adequate evidence of the big cat’s presence there. File Pic
Forest officials routinely patrol Aarey Colony to look for leopards and to educate locals about man-animal conflict. This alone is adequate evidence of the big cat’s presence there. File Pic

“JICA is very much pro-environment and wildlife-friendly, and whenever they give soft loans for construction projects worldwide, they ask the concerned agency to prepare an EIA report. Only after they are satisfied do they give final approval for the funds,” said an MMRDA official requesting anonymity.

The MMRDA plans to construct a 30-hectare car depot in Aarey Milk Colony near Picnic Point, at the cost of R130 crore. The Rail India Technical and Economic Service (RITES) prepared the EIA report and the MMRC sent it to JICA in September 2012.

On the basis of that report, a year later, JICA signed an agreement with the government for an Official Development Assistance (ODA) loan of R4,700 crore (or 71 billion yen) for the construction of Metro line III (Colaba-Bandra-Seepz corridor).

Metro’s green lie
In the environmental report, the Metro authorities downplayed Mumbai’s wildlife considerably, particularly within Aarey Milk Colony. The report, of which mid-day has a copy, states, “No wildlife is observed at the project site”.

This is in direct contradiction to reports from local residents who say they have spotted leopards even within 200 metres of the site, as well as media reports which have highlighted several leopard encounters there in the past.

In fact, even though it is well known that Aarey Colony is situated alongside the Sanjay Gandhi National Park and acts as a buffer corridor for the wildlife there, the EIA report stated that the site is “located in the city area”.

In reality, Aarey Colony is home to leopards (Panthera pardus) and other wildlife, a fact supported by various studies and media reports. The discovery of Lychas aareyensis a species of scorpion that was first found in Aarey and named after it also points towards the biodiversity there.

The car depot site, in particular, comprises both woodland and grassland, and has been witness to leopard sightings. There are other glaring discrepancies in the report it didn’t even get the size of SGNP right.

The report states that the nearest protected area (Sanjay Gandhi National Park) has an area of 19.18 sq km, while the official Forest Department figures peg the national park’s size at 103 sq km.

‘Must investigate’
Members of the group Save Aarey Milk Colony, who have long been opposed to the car depot proposal due to its environmental impact, were the ones who unearthed the discrepancies in the EIA report after writing to JICA directly.

They now suggest that JICA should investigate the report before committing funds to the Metro project. “Aarey, once part of the SGNP forest, continues to act as its buffer area. With so many leopard sightings, birds, flora and fauna, it is ironical that the MMRDA says there is no wildlife here.

I feel that JICA should investigate the matter before sanctioning any financial assistance to MMRDA-MMRC, because development cannot be done at the cost of the environment,” said Manish Sethi, an active member of the group.

He added that despite all accounts to the contrary, the authorities claimed that there was no wildlife at the car depot site, even though the report did not mention any scientific studies such as camera trapping exercises to study animal movements in the area.

Leopard sightings
Local residents say they frequently see leopards, even in the Navapada tribal hamlet barely 200-300 metres away. “Now that the authorities have installed lights there, perhaps the animals are avoiding the area, but if there were no leopards or other wildlife in the area, then how did human-leopard conflicts take place in our pada 18 months ago?

There are people who have seen leopards crossing the road and going into the grassland and the woods near car depot site,” said Ramesh T, a local. A ‘Mumbaikars for SGNP’ survey in 2012 stated that there are 5-6 leopards in Aarey Colony, while researchers also claim to have found leopard scat around the car depot plot. Not to mention, a little girl was killed in an encounter with a leopard in 2013 500 metres away.

JICA’s response
When Save Aarey Milk Colony activist Rishi Aggarwal wrote to JICA to inform them of the environmental damage that would result from the Metro project, the organization accepted the complaint and promised to look into the matter, which could delay the Metro III project.

In its reply to Aggarwal, a JICA representative wrote, “I am writing with your e-mail dated on 3 February 2015 in regard to the request to raise objections to Mumbai Metro Line 3 Project. Please be informed that your request was accepted on the date of 10 February 2015. Please find our letter of acceptance per attached.”

Aggarwal hopes that something concrete will come of JICA’s response and said, “I am very happy that the JICA has accepted my letter which stated how the car depot will have an impact on the environment and biodiversity of Aarey Milk Colony. We hope they ask MMRDA to shift the location of car depot.”

Official speak
Ashwini Bhide, the chairman of MMRC said, “The point mentioned in the report about ‘no wildlife’ is specific to the plot and not the entire Aarey Milk Colony. The report was prepared by the team after visiting the location and doing proper assessment. JICA is more sensitive when it comes to environment related issues and so the EIA has been prepared specifically for the plot.”

Expert speak
Because of their elusive behaviour, it is not easy to spot leopards. I don’t know how the EIA team that prepared the report drew the conclusion that there is no wildlife on the plot. In order to support their claim, they should do a proper camera trapping exercise for at least four to six months.  - Rajesh Sanap, Ecologist

There are not just leopards, but so much biodiversity in the entire Aarey Colony. If the agency that prepared the EIA can’t read scientific reports then they should at least read newspapers with reports about the amazing biodiversity of Aarey Milk Colony. - Vidya Athreya, leopard expert, Wildlife Conservation Society

Leopard-man conflict
>> In October 2013, four-year-old Hiya Mhase was killed in a leopard encounter in Khadakpada, which is 500-700 meters away from the proposed car depot site

>> In the same month, Sunil Bhor (10) was injured in human-leopard conflict at Navpada, just 300 meters away 

>> A total leopards of 28 leopards were trapped and rescued in and around Aarey Milk Colony from 2004 to February 2014

>> In 2014, a leopard cub died in Aarey Colony due to a road accident

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