Above: Mangrove forest at Charkop in Mumbai/Photo: DLS/commons.wikimedia.org
Though the environmental clearance of the Bullet Train project lists stringent conditions for the protection of mangroves, the fact is that there is no land available for their reafforestation
By Debi Goenka
The recent flooding of Mumbai and the surrounding areas shows the risk of destroying mangroves. This is something the Maharashtra government should seriously look into. More than 54,000 mangroves will be razed in Maharashtra for the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project. This was stated in a written reply by transport minister Diwakar Raoteto to a question raised by Shiv Sena legislator Manisha Kayande. Raote told the Legislative Council that the government will plant five times the trees (not mangroves!) that will be cut for the project. Raote also said: “The project will run on high pillars, to ensure the damage to mangroves and the environment is minimum. The floodwater will not enter Navi Mumbai as no mangroves are being cut in the area.”
As I had mentioned in an earlier column, the project proposal does not take into account the environmental and ecological costs. Again, as mentioned in this column, a project that will probably cost more than `2,00,000 crore has not gone through either an environmental or social impact assessment. This is because the much-diluted laws of our country do not require railway projects to go through environmental scrutiny.
Whatever little attention has been paid to this aspect has been because of the very lax requirements of Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), which signed an MoU with the railway ministry to partially fund the project. Thus, public hearings that would have normally been mandatory under the Environment Protection Act have not been held under the provisions of the EIA Notification of 2006, but as per a self-determined procedure arrived at by the National High Speed Rail Corporation Ltd (NHRCL) and JICA.
As per the environmental clearance dated April 5, 2019, in Maharashtra, 32.4302 hectares of mangroves fall under the Right of Way of the bullet train project, out of which only 13.3668 hectares shall be removed. Several additional conditions pertaining to the protection of mangroves have also been imposed. These are as follows:
- Prior clearance under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 for diversion of mangrove forests as may be applicable shall be obtained before start of work in mangrove areas and mangrove buffer.
- Prior approval of the High Court of Mumbai shall be obtained in view of the direction issued in connection with felling of mangroves and its conservation before execution of the project.
- Based on the current data on mangrove felling, the Mangrove Cell, Thane, Forest Department, Government of Maharashtra, shall prepare a comprehensive mangrove plantation and management plan and the same shall be implemented by it during the course of execution of the project. This plan is for additional mangrove plantation in the ratio of 1:5 mandatory requirements under CRZ regulation. Requisite funds for the same are to be deposited to the Mangrove Cell.
- Flow of natural tidal water to mangroves should remain unaffected and thus, adequate measures are to be provided to maintain uninterrupted tidal water to mangroves. Design for it could be decided in consultation with the Mangrove Cell.
- A committee under the chairmanship of Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (WI.) Maharashtra comprising representatives from agencies such as
Mumbai-Ahmedabad High Speed Railway, wildlife wing of Thane Division, Mangrove Cell, Mangrove Foundation, Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority and Bombay Natural History Society be constituted to oversee the implementation of mangrove afforestation and flamingo, mudflat and mangrove conservation and restoration and other recommendations as stipulated above. Prior approval of the High Court of Mumbai shall be obtained before execution of the project.
These conditions, on paper, seem stringent. Unfortunately, what has been overlooked is the fact that there is no land available in these areas for mangrove reafforestation. The efforts of the Mangrove Foundation of Maharashtra to replant mangroves have been a complete failure—so much so that it has refused to make available details even under the Right to Information Act of where they have carried out their previous afforestation activities.
NHRCL has filed a writ petition in the Bombay High Court challenging the earlier decision of the Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority (MCZMA) not to grant it permission to destroy 24.0253 hectares of mangroves containing 53,467 trees. As mentioned earlier, NHRCL has not made the ministry of environment a respondent; neither have the original petitioners in the original mangrove petition—the Bombay Environmental Action Group and me been joined as parties.
And even though this is a proposal for diversion of forest land, the forest department has not been joined as a party. Instead, the Mangrove Cell, that will be paid the money for reafforestation, has been made a respondent. Doubtless, even this will be approved by the authorities, even though no one has any idea where 67.5 hectares of land will be found for replantation.
In all probability, given the fact that the Dahanu authority insists 10 times the number of trees be planted for every tree that is proposed to be cut, this figure is likely to increase.
Fortunately, on June 12, 2019, when this case came up for hearing, the division bench headed by the chief justice passed an order directing NHRCL to join the Bombay Environmental Action Group as a respondent and serve them with a copy of the writ petition. The case is listed for hearing on August 1.
In the interregnum, based on a site visit carried out by the deputy conservator of forests, Thane Circle, NHRCL discovered that by relocating the proposed station at Thane, the number of mangroves that would be destroyed would be reduced by 21,423, and the area destroyed reduced by 3.561 hectares. This is a welcome development. The question that remains to be answered is why was this option not considered earlier?
The most critical issue is the lack of clarity on where the mangrove plantation will be carried out. Given the fact that mangroves grow in site-specific locations, and they cannot now be planted on mud flats, it seems difficult that mangrove reafforestation for this project can be carried out. The larger issue, of course, is whether artificial plantation can ever replace a natural eco-system.
The recent flooding of Mumbai should make everyone sit up and see the danger in destroying mangroves. The chief minister, however, has now come up with a new argument—he feels that mangroves cause flooding! As long as we have such enlightened decision-makers, the only hope for the protection of our mangroves continues to be our judiciary.
—The writer is Executive Trustee, Conservation Action Trust