“Aarey is the most abused and exploited land mass in Mumbai”

Mumbai has multiple agencies engaged in “development”. Every agency is trying to outdo the other with one project or the other. This creates chaos.

Stalin Dayanand is an environmentalist and Director of the Mumbai-based environmental NGO, Vanashakti.

His passion for environmental protection and conservation has resulted in many success stories in Mumbai and elsewhere in the Maharashtra.Some of his landmark works include keeping wildlife corridors in the western Ghats  of Maharashtra from falling prey to to mining, securing protection for wetlands in Maharashtra, protecting mangroves in the Thane creek and Sewri and saving over 3000 trees from being cut for a road widening project in Wada.

He is campaigning hard to protect 3000 acres of open spaces and forest lands in Aarey Colony Mumbai from being taken over by developers, making an effort to revive lakhs of trees in Mumbai that were being choked under concrete and also been instrumental in getting Mumbai its second wildlife Sanctuary, the Thane Creek Flamingo Sanctuary.

Citizen Matters spoke to him about saving the mangroves and legal battles to revive the Ulhas river and other issues of importance to Mumbai’s biodiversity.

Read more: Citizens get their hands dirty to clean up Mumbai’s Bandra Talao

Q. Massive degradation of the environment, destruction of mangroves, wetlands and forests continue to be the big worries for Mumbai. How to strike a balance between development and environmental protection in big urban citiesi?

A. Mumbai has multiple agencies engaged in “development”. MCGM, MMRDA, MHADA, etc which keep pushing their projects. Different political parties control different agencies and every agency is trying to outdo the other with one project or the other. The sad part is that what citizens want is never asked by any of the agencies or by the government.

Someone sitting in an air-conditioned office gets a vision and the state agencies rush to fulfill that at the cost of bulldozing the environment. In the past twenty five years I have not seen a single day when some road or the other has not been dug up even if it was in perfect condition. Constant digging and construction has ensured that air pollution levels remain high and affecting the health of the citizens.

The destruction of forests, wetlands, mangroves is constantly going on. The government does it while talking of sustainable development and the land mafia do it with political patronage. No effort is made to ensure that the environment is not compromised while executing projects. Lets take the example of the Coastal Road. The road was sold as a extremely important project, a facelift for Mumbai. The irony is that while the road needed only 20 odd hectares to be built, a whopping 110 hectares of land was reclaimed from the sea. The presence of corals and rare marine life was hidden from the public and statutory bodies. When confronted with proof from naturalists and NGOs, a translocation was agreed to.

A city facing the risk of major inundation due to sea level rise has chosen to increase its risk by engaging in massive reclamation! Creating land was the main objective and it was masked under the cloak of a ‘development’ project.

Another example is the proposed setting up of a railway service station inside a forest in a no development zone called Aarey at the cost of 4000 trees on the banks of a river. The government cared two hoots about the law.  It took seven years of relentless battle by citizens to stop the project and the fight isn’t over yet. This project had at least seven other barren lands to be set up but yet chose to come to a forest.

Why could the road not be built on stilts? Why could the service station not be made on barren lands? So when destruction of nature happens despite options being there to avoid the damage, it cannot be called sustainable development.

We have never opposed any project, we have always suggested less damaging options to execute it.  To strike a balance the government must engage with citizens while planning a project and not fire fight when the destruction starts. Lack of dialogue and lack of participative governance is the root cause of all the destruction.      

Q. What is your NGO’s stand on construction and development that Mumbai Port is seeing on Marina Bay.

A. So long as there is no reclamation, loss of ecology, we don’t see any reason why Mumbai should not have coastal tourism. Recreational spaces are needed and if the marina can demonstrate that it is actually in public interest and it is not being done to allow the rich to hog the coast or grab land and create exclusivity it should be ok. Natural spaces are the property of the commons and private control over it is not acceptable. So, we need to wait and read the fine print before taking it further.  

Stalin Dayanand

Q. There are reports about encroachment of mangroves and wetlands in and around Mumbai during the pandemic. Has the government taken steps to deal with it?

A. The government gave the land mafia a free run during the pandemic. Encroachments were rampant. Despite timely intimation being given to the statutory authorities and the ministers, nothing was done. The national park has lost almost a hundred acres to encroachments and deforestation. Aarey forests saw hundreds of encroachments. Mangroves in Charkop, Dahisar, etc were destroyed by the mafia. The pandemic provided amnesty for encroachers to expand their footprint at the cost of the environment.     

Q. Powai Lake is facing neglect and dying a slow death. What can we do to save it?

A. Enormous quantities of sewage continue to enter the Powai Lake and the water is sent to Aarey where poor labourers drink it too. The crocodiles in it do not have proper basking areas and people harass the reptiles when they come near the shore. The lake has lost its peripheral green cover with buildings and hotels coming up. The lake and the forests abutting it must be handed over to the state forest department. Tourism is welcome at the lake but not at the cost of the ecology Water hyacinths have eaten away the lakesides and in summer the water has reduced by 30-40% . The machines brought in to clean the lake of weeds is lying unused for years now. Nor have we seen it being used. The lake has the potential to become a world class tourism location and also an important bird area provided there is a will to do it.

Right now every water body has been taken over by politicians and concretised under the guise of beautification. Whatever is done at Powai lake should not be at the cost of the water quality (which needs drastic improvement) and certainly not in a manner that disturbs the crocodiles. Elevated walk ways or cycle tracks (not on cement concrete pillars inside the lake) but on its boundaries would be a good way to go about it  . A separate section needs to be made to allow immersion of Lord Ganesh idols and a ban on Plaster of Paris idols is needed at Powai and all water bodies. The entry of sewage into the lake has to immediately stop.

Q. You have been a part of the Sawantwadi-Dodamarg wildlife corridor project to save flora and fauna. What is its status and what is expected of it?

A. This crucial wildlife corridor has been the subject of deliberate neglect by successive governments. Despite the Bombay High Court declaring the stretch as an Ecologically Sensitive Area, the state has deliberately not moved an inch to notify or even demarcate it.

Eight years after a court order to demarcate the corridor and protect it, nothing has been done. In fact more than 1500 acres of land was deforested. Repeated attempts to get the government to comply have failed and so has the attempt to get a proper court hearing.

What’s sad in this episode is that despite the Forest department having the data of the biodiversity of the corridor with them even in 2015, it was never brought before the court and instead a new study was commissioned with lakhs of rupees being sanctioned for it. For what? The study was not needed.

More than 30 mines are awaiting the clearing of natural forests so that they can begin operations. Local villagers used to transform natural forests into plantations so that later on the miners can get easy forest clearances on the ground since no forests exist. The situation is accelerated by the entry of “investors” from Kerala who are busy transforming the forests into rubber, banana and pineapple plantations. The local landowners get the rent for the land and other locals also are used as labour there. The situation is dire and only the judiciary can help.

Sadly even the change of government has not done anything positive for the wildlife corridor. Small pockets are being notified as conservation reserves to pacify the environmental lobby but the main areas where mining is proposed have been left out of the MoEF and state list of protected villages of the western Ghats.          

Q.  What is happening with the Sanjay Gandhi National Park and its Eco-Sensitive zone (ESZ) for which Vanashakti had fought a protracted legal battle?

A. After a bitter fight, the ESZ notification was published. The draft and the final version were alarmingly different. People were shown one draft and the final one turned out to be something unacceptably new. The new ESZ notification puts the Municipal commissioner in charge of the activites inside the ESZ . This is a complete joke since he is the one who objected to the ESZ being notified and wanted to construct inside the zone.

Today whatever the commissioner decides can be done in the ESZ (except Aarey which has added protection of Green zone status). This must be the most ridiculous ESZ in the whole world where skyscrapers can be constructed, roads made, powerlines laid, cell towers put up bang next to the National park. We have challenged the ESZ notification but we are deeply disappointed that the courts did not see anything wrong with it. Our curative petition is pending in the Supreme court at the moment and that is our best hope to get a proper ESZ notification.   This case is one of gross and blatant miscarriage of justice which we have highlighted before the Supreme Court. Hopefully the court will correct its mistake. But by the time the hearing takes place many buildings have come up and destruction is going on even in virgin areas of the park boundaries.

Q. Aarey forests are also under attack from the encroachers ,buildings and land mafias. Despite NGT orders and Court interventions , we don’t see any end to the problems.

A. Aarey is the most abused and exploited land mass in Mumbai. Every government over the last thirty years or more has allowed it to be perforated, exploited, encroached, gifted to all and sundry who sought land. The current Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government has made the right announcements for Aarey but has not really followed it up the way it should have.

Illegal slums inside Aarey are a huge money spinner for vested interests. No demolitions have happened, no surveys, the forest has been left open for plunder. Only political will, honesty and citizens pressure can save Aarey. Biometric ID cards are a must to arrest the growth of slums in Aarey. Now that some areas have been handed over to the Forest department, we expect that they will patrol it intensely and protect it.      

Q. What will the impact of rising sea water levels on Mumbai?

A. Mumbai will witness increased rainfall and also longer periods of inundation. People living near the coast will be the most affected. The economic losses, loss of property will keep rising . We will lose our beaches to the rising seas and the coastline will witness increased erosion. Fisher folk will need to be relocated and fishing activities in inter tidal areas will be seriously impacted.     

Q. Everytime during the monsoon Mumbai gets choked and flooded. What is the long term solution?

A. The flooding is man made. Loss of dispersal zones for flood water to spread is the root cause of all the problems. Walls have been built on all the four rivers of Mumbai which causes water to stagnate inside the city. The rivers need to swell and ebb and till that is not provided, we will continue to suffer. The problem of choked drains due to careless disposal of single use plastic is the cause of local flooding in many places. But the main cause is lack of flood plains and water holding areas. The near 100% concretisation of the city has not allowed the water to seep into the ground and that is aggravating the problem.    

Q. Mumbaikars have been active supporting a public movement for the environment…

Ans : Residents of Mumbai have shown that they can unite for saving nature. The Save Aarey movement has been active for 7 years or more and that is a remarkable fight. This passion needs to move to other areas as well. Wetlands, Mangroves, also need public movements to protect them. Dahisar Link Road residents forum a citizens body successfully fought to save 400 acres of Mangroves and has got it declared as a forest. This is proof that if citizens unite nature will have a chance.

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