Thanks to unregulated construction, Panje is slowly losing its biodiversity. Here’s how it affects you

The State Mangrove Foundation has been asking to transfer the Panje and other wetlands of Belpada and Bhendkhal so that they can be conserved properly. But that has not happened.

According to some citizens, the biodiversity in Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) is under threat as the government officials are turning a blind eye to the violations happening in daylight.

With an aim to raise a voice against the destruction of holding ponds area, wetlands and mangroves in MMR, environmentalists have come together for #MumBiodiversityBacho campaign started by NatConnect Foundation.

Through the campaign, they plan to amplify their voice against the destruction of the CRZ (Coastal Regulation Zone) areas including in Panje, NRI Complex amongst others. The campaign appeals to the environment ministry and other authorities involved, to take steps to save the environment immediately.

Water blockage at the Panje site

Saving Mumbai’s wetlands

Once a birder’s paradise, within a decade, Panje’s has become a concrete mess.

The wetlands at the coast, act as an urban sponge that has a capacity to hold water during the high tide. While Panje’s holding pond-1 area in Uran is not yet notified as a wetland by the government, it comes under Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ)-1.

E-mails were sent to the Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Uddhav Thackeray and the Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority (MCZMA) in the month of March and May, to complain about the rapid wetland burial during the lockdown. On 20 May, the MCZMA worte to the concerned authority to verify the complaint and take necessary actions. The MCZMA authority has also asked the Raigad District Collector and other authorities to act on the violated actions in the matter and send the factual details of the case.

Speaking on the matter, Nidhi Choudhari, Raigad District Collector, said, “There have been few complaints regarding debris being dumped at the Panje site for a few years. An action was taken against Navi Mumbai Special Economic Zone (NMSEZ) two years ago and an FIR was also registered. After that case, there has been no such activity carried out. Time and again we have been taken the necessary action. It is a standstill project presently.”

Panje holding pond

On 15 April, the Pune Bench of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) ordered the District Collector of Raigad, City and Industrial Development Corporation (CIDCO) of Maharashtra to follow the order passed by the Maharashtra state’s environment department. The order passed by the environment department on November 2020 asked to restore the free flow of tidal water by opening the sluice gates and removal of the blockages so that tidal water reaches the mangroves and water bodies at village Panje.

Removing blockages

According to the CIDCO officials, a team had visited the Panje site on 25 May. The official who does not wish to be named, said, “We had a field visit with a team to check the site. All the gates are opened now without any blockage for the water to flow. We are going by the order given to us by the environment department.”

According to the environmentalist, the government authority has failed to follow the order which also included removal of the illegal security cabins erected in the CRZ-1 area and stop the work of filling of low-lying areas.

Read more: How citizen action saved Lotus Lake in Navi Mumbai

Nandakumar Pawar, head of Shri Ekvira Aai Pratishtan, who filed the case in NGT, said, “Biodiversity can’t be sacrificed for industrial development. The Panje holding pond-1 is home to migratory birds during the winter season. The CIDCO authorities in one of their early hearings in Bombay High Court had stated that Panje does not have a wetland but it comes under CRZ-1. A few years ago, they had given the land for private development by signing an MoU. As per the law, the CRZ-1 area should not be used for any development. I have been running from pillar to post for a decade by filing RTIs and petitions to stop the destruction caused to these areas by the government authorities.”

He further added, “Last year in February, I had filed a Right To Information (RTI) in the state’s environment department seeking records of permission granted for the construction of concrete wall and blockage of natural tidal water flow around NMSEZ projects sites in Dronagiri. I received a response stating that as per the department’s record, the information of such permission is not available in the office.”

Flood control mechanism

B N Kumar, director of NatConnect Foundation, said, “Panje acts as a holding pond used for flood control mechanism in Navi Mumbai. The NMSEZ had constructed 8-9 feet compound wall around it. While earlier the sluice gates were shut, there was no passage of tidal water in this holding pond which ultimately resulted in the pond getting dried up. After many complaints from citizens, the gates were open but all the five tidal water inlets are still blocked.”

The sector 16 – sector 28 marked by CIDCO authority

Due to less water, thousands of migratory birds which usually visit this area in the winter season have now stopped visiting. “Due to concrete constructions, Panje is slowly losing its biodiversity,” added Kumar.

Raigad District Collector, Nidhi Choudhari, added, “The decision to open or shut the sluice gate is with the planning authority CIDCO. A holding pond has been created with an intention to stop the water from coming inside the city because of which the sluice gates need to be closed down during high tide. We have to make a balance between saving the lives of citizens in the city and also protecting the mangroves. The citizens are lacking to make a balanced decision. They want to open the gate so that the water can come inside for the migratory birds to visit the place but it is not in the interest of the lakhs of citizens staying inside the city.”

Saving the wetlands during the pandemic

While the citizens have been writing to various authorities and ministries, due to the pandemic, the issue is getting side-lined. The citizens claim that this is helping the private and government officials to complete their developmental project activities.

Just like the Panje area, other wetlands and mangroves areas in the MMR region have been facing environmental issues too.

While there has been a lot of complaints on debris being dumped in the mangroves, now the Maharashtra Mangrove Cell has planned to use drones and CCTV cameras to keep track across the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) on mangrove burials.

Environmentalists have been requesting to declare Panje as a bird sanctuary to the state authority. But the request has been pending with the environment ministry. BN Kumar, said, “The State Mangrove Foundation has been asking to transfer the Panje and other wetlands of Belpada and Bhendkhal so that they can be conserved properly.”

According to the information shared by Virendra Tiwari, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests – Mangrove Cell during a virtual meetup event on the occasion of International Day of Biodiversity on May 21 2021, a detailed survey of the vulnerable areas in MMR will be carried out. The primary survey will give out details of the areas and possible costs to cover the area to be kept under surveillance will be decided.

Besides this, during a virtual meetup event, Dr. Bivash Pandav, director at the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) also mentioned that the BNHS is conducting a study on birds flying into the Navi Mumbai’s airport periphery and they will post the reports on the BNHS website soon.

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