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Home > Lifestyle News > Nature And Wildlife News > Article > National Endangered Species Day How Navi Mumbai activists protect flamingos from a capitalist nexus

National Endangered Species Day: How Navi Mumbai activists protect flamingos from a capitalist nexus

Updated on: 15 June,2023 04:21 PM IST  |  Mumbai
Ainie Rizvi |

The IUCN endangered list includes Lesser Flamingo, Mumbai's winter migratory bird, under the 'threatened' category. On National Endangered Species Day 2023, Green activists share how rampant urbanisation has led to the habitat loss of flamingos, setting a disruption in Navi Mumbai's ecology

National Endangered Species Day: How Navi Mumbai activists protect flamingos from a capitalist nexus

First-time Flamingos were observed at Sewri mudflats in the early 1990s. Image Courtesy: Vidyasagar Hariharan

Amidst the burgeoning metropolis of Mumbai, the Thane Creek Flamingo Sanctuary has emerged as India’s first Ramsar site (2022) to get listed within an urban landscape. This listing in the Ramsar Convention mandates a national policy framework and international liaison to safeguard the wetland’s ecology. 

“The illegitimate filling up of water bodies at Talawe wetlands in Navi Mumbai is causing eco-destruction, compelling flamingos to search for another habitat,” observes Neeraj Chawla, a city-based birder and green activist. Neeraj has been documenting the displacement of flamingos for the last five years. He notes that their population is declining owing to rampant development activities unfolding at the Navi Mumbai coast. 

The vast wetland is spread across Mumbai, Navi Mumbai, and Thane spanning a total area of 1690.5 hectares. Owing to the rich biodiversity it houses, it falls under the migratory route of flamingos which stopover to find wintering grounds. “The wetlands harbours a diverse fauna of not just flamingos but several resident and migratory birds,” shares Pawan Sharma, wildlife rescuer from Resqink Association for Wildlife Welfare (RAWW). 

To find out how flamingos are threatened by deep pocket projects, Midday Online spoke to city-based green activists, flamingo researchers, and wetland champions on the battle between ecology and development. 

Capitalist networks vs flamingo habitat 
The Navi Mumbai International Airport project spearheaded by the Adani Group presents a glaring challenge to the area’s ecology. “Water levels are being raised by filling up the lakes and small hillocks are being flattened with blasts to make way for the aspirational airport,” shares Neeraj. Apart from eco-destruction, the blasts have also caused a menace of noise and air pollution, sparking dissent from local citizens. In some cases, the hill blasting has led to cracks in the windows of residential apartments. 

But the apathy doesn’t stop here. The environmental clearance obtained by Navi Mumbai International Airport Limited (NMIAL) puts a question to the assessment procedures conducted by the Ministry of Environment and Forests & Climate Change (MoEF & CC). Despite a mandate to protect the migratory destination of flamingos, NMIAL continues to violate the wetlands at NRI and T S Chanakya, harming the rich biodiverse home of several migratory birds. 

“Through silent actions, they are ensuring that flamingos stop coming to these wetlands,” says Sunil Agarwal, the legal custodian, and champion of the Wetlands in Navi Mumbai. As a result, flamingo city is undergoing a decline in flamingo population as compared to 1.33 lakh flamingos spotted in Thane Creek last year. Sunil credits this onslaught of development to the City and Industrial Development Corporation of Maharashtra (CIDCO), the body that entirely planned and built Navi Mumbai starting in the early 1970s. 

“CIDCO’s age-old urban planning techniques have amounted to a huge ecological cost. Though the city had huge potential to build with nature, it has failed to do so,” says Sunil. Fifty years of urbanisation has resulted in damaging the marshy lands, lakes, salt pans, mangroves, and the habitat of the city’s pride, the flamingo. 

CIDCO denies the existence of wetlands 
CIDCO has acquired these wetlands. In 2009, CIDCO entered into an agreement with Mistry Constructions (Adani Group company) to build a golf course and residential apartments in the adjoining Seawoods Wetlands. As a result, CIDCO in partnership with Mistry, began violating the ecologically rich coastline of Navi Mumbai and denying the existence of wetlands. 

Unfriendly acts by CIDCO against nature included killing mangroves, dumping debris in lakes, and blocking water flow into lakes. Consequently, the rising water levels changed the inter-tidal flow of water bodies, forcing flamingos to migrate away from Talawe wetlands. “Not surprisingly, the fact that the 35.55-hectare golf course project was going to be sitting on wetlands that were frequented by thousands of birds doesn’t seem to have bothered them,” remarks Sunil. 

To mitigate the ecological disaster, green activists from the city petitioned against CIDCO’s environmental violations in the Supreme Court. The court’s verdict came in favour of the green activists and a rule to protect the wetlands was mandated, quashing CIDCO’s grand plans to make a golf course and residential towers, says Sunil. Now, these wetlands are not only protected by a Supreme Court order but by the new Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) rules as well. 

“CIDCO knows that these wetlands are protected by the Supreme Court order itself.” Despite that, they appealed for interim relief at the Supreme Court in 2019. In rhetoric, Sunil asks “Which Supreme Court will give them relief now that a notification has been passed halting any construction in protected areas?” So, their lawyers stopped coming to the hearing for 4-5 years to delay the mandate. After dodging the hearing for years, CIDCO has served the notice and now the conflict is resolved, informs Sunil. 

Challenges against wetland protection 
Sunil hopes that the hearing will be done soon and the wetlands will eventually be saved. However, there are certain discrepancies that weaken his efforts. The half-baked order by Supreme Court fails to list down the regulatory body responsible for safeguarding these wetlands. As a result, these wetlands remain vulnerable to the land mafia nexus. 

There have been instances where the local residents spotted Mistry’s security guards patrolling the wetlands. “They don’t do anything visibly but carry malicious intent to disrupt the natural habitat,” shares Sunil. These guards incite local fishermen to raise water levels which creates a domino effect on the area’s ecology. The water levels rise, submerging crustaceans which are the primary food for flamingos. As a result, flamingos are forced to fly away in search of another habitat and food. 

Chembur-based Vidyasgar Hariharan spotted two security personnel chasing flamingos away at NRI Wetlands and T.S. Chanakya Lake. This has been happening for the last three years so the local residents decided to take the matter into their own hands. They clicked the pictures of these security guards and informed the NRI police station about the incident. Post-investigation, the residents got to know that these security guards were sent by Mistry Constructions. 

On May 10, Navi Mumbai resident Joita Upadhyay tweeted: “There are people trying to harm and chase the flamingos away from our beloved Navi Mumbai. This is the lake beside Seawoods Estates where a man was seen harming the flamingos and chasing them away. Authorities need to be alerted immediately.” 

Now the residents are forcing the Mangrove Cell to file an F.I.R. against the identified culprits. “Since Navi Mumbai is being termed as the Flamingo City, authorities should ensure that the birds and their habitat are protected. It’s of no use if we just put up flamingo models across the city,” said nature lover Mani Iyer. 

CIDCO continues with the development 
Despite being fully aware of the orders from the Bombay High Court, CIDCO is not ready to recognise the environmental significance of Tawale wetlands. Through diplomatic tacts with Maharashtra Real Estate Regulatory Authority, local builders have received permission to proceed with the golf course construction. 

CIDCO has acquired maximum lands from local villagers, informs Sunil. In return, they are giving the villagers developed land as per the 12.5 per cent scheme. With this deal, CIDCO has come to own vast expanses of Navi Mumbai land at zero investment. This includes wetlands, mangroves, hills and lakes, and other natural bodies. 

However, when CIDCO acquired these lands, the environmental laws were not fully developed. The Environment Protection Act came in 1986 and the laws have constantly evolved now. The new lands mandate every organisation to hand over Mangrove lands to the Mangrove Cell. But, CIDCO remains adamant on retaining those mangroves, informs Sunil. Instead, the city planning agency has leased out the land for developing golf at the wetlands. 

Legal remedies 
“The world wants to conserve the wetlands listed by the National Wetland Inventory and Assessment (NWIA) Atlas, but only the city planner CIDCO is a stumbling block,” said NatConnect Foundation director B N Kumar in his latest missive to the Union Environment Department. 

Since CIDCO is a government body owned by the state government, Kumar requested the CM to nudge CIDCO into withdrawing its Supreme Court petition. The state tossed the responsibility to the Urban Development Department. Another advocate from Navi Mumbai has been filing cases against CIDCO in the Bombay High Court. Sunil is of the opinion that political leadership needs to step up their game against the land mafia nexus. Additionally, the Bombay High Court needs to take this exploitation seriously and start penalising the culprits. 

Changing course of flamingo migration 
Birdwatcher Neeraj observes that flamingos are undergoing habitat loss and changing their flight routes. Also, due to rampant urban development, their population has decreased. “As the wetlands are almost disappearing in Mumbai and New Mumbai due to filling up the ponds and other low line areas in the name of developments, flamingos have no other option but to migrate out of the city.” 

Now due to the Nhava-sheva sea link coming up at the shorelines of Navi Mumbai, the human presence and traffic will increase. This, in turn, will force the birds to find other peaceful areas and they might migrate back to Sewri. Photographer Vidyasagar notes that since last year, Flamingos have been spotted on the western side of Mumbai. They have begun flying towards Lokhandwala and Malad Creek. Vidyasagar recently went on a hike to these creeks and spotted at least 5000. “Entire creek at Lokhandwala was dotted with flamingos during high tide.”

Also Read: These 8 varieties of mangoes from different parts of India are a must-try

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