In the destruction of wetlands, is CIDCO above the law?

Our statutory authorities are the custodians of our ecosystems, but the experience with CIDCO shows citizens have to keep a close watch.

With the effects of climate change in front of us, protecting our natural environment is what we should be doing, but the situation on the ground is different. In Navi Mumbai, at the centre of all development is the planning authority of Navi Mumbai, the City and Industrial Development Corporation of Maharashtra (CIDCO). The city of Navi Mumbai was entirely planned and built by CIDCO, starting in the early 1970s. Fifty years on, Navi Mumbai is threatened by urban planning that is destroying its environment.


Read more: Activists win in the fight to save Panje


Let’s go back to over two decades ago, to the late 1990s. Information in the public domain indicates that CIDCO had proposed to build a golf course in Navi Mumbai. On several occasions since 1997, it had invited expressions of interest, but nothing happened. Finally, in 2002, the plan for a golf course and country club seemed to be materialising. 35.55 hectares of land (about 88 acres in Pockets A, B, C, D, E) at Palm Beach Road, Sector 60, Nerul was earmarked for the purpose.

Litigation from the start

In 2004, the project was awarded to a private builder, Mistry Constructions Pvt. Ltd., but the matter went into litigation, supposedly because the bidding process was not transparent.

Despite the petition by one of the losing bidders, Makhija Developers Pvt. Ltd. and court hearings, in 2009, CIDCO went ahead and issued a letter of allotment to Mistry Constructions. In 2010, the Bombay High Court quashed the allotment and directed CIDCO to invite fresh bids. All the details of the case and final court order dated 20th January 2010 can be read here.

Mistry Constructions challenged the judgement of the Bombay High Court in the Supreme Court. In collusion with Makhija Developers, it fraudulently obtained an order dated 25th February 2014 from the Supreme Court. This was after Makhija Developers informed the Supreme Court that they wish to withdraw the writ petition unconditionally, something that was not opposed, either by Mistry Constructions or other respondents, including CIDCO.

How could a petition be withdrawn after it had attained finality and the matter was before the Supreme Court, especially when the petition was disposed off by Bombay High Court through a fairly long judgement?

Supreme Court order

The Supreme Court’s brief order of February 2014 held that the project was old and Mistry Constructions had spent a huge amount of money, and directed CIDCO to provide necessary assistance to them to complete the project without unnecessary delay. The civil appeal was allowed and the Bombay High Court order and judgement of January 2010 was set aside, surprisingly without any reason assigned whatsoever. The kind of order which the Supreme Court passed is not known to law and such an order has to be treated as non-est.

2004 to 2014 – ten years is a long time and a lot had changed. The biggest change was in the value of the land. The area that Mistry Constructions got for Rs 33 crores had soared to around Rs 7000 crores. Why CIDCO let go is a mystery. Land prices are currently even higher now with plots being sold for as much as Rs 3 lakh per sq metre.

Backed by the Supreme Court order, CIDCO and its partner for the golf course, set to work to develop the 35.55 hectares. In all these years, though, it was never disclosed to any of the courts that out of 35.55 hectares, approximately 33 hectares were identified as wetlands. Most of the area included the Training Ship Chanakya (TSC) and NRI Complex that constitute the Talawe wetlands.

Talawe wetlands
Talawe Wetlands – supposedly not a “wetland”, November 2021. Pic: Arvinder Sehdeva

Protection of wetlands

Through various legislations and court orders, many environmental rules were introduced over the years, through which wetlands are supposed to be protected by the government and its citizens.

  • As per the Wetland (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2010, wetlands are recognised as a unique and productive ecosystem. Under the scope of the legislation, ISRO was commissioned to create a Wetland Atlas. State governments were directed to prepare a ‘brief document’ inventory of wetlands of the state.
  • Vanashakti moved the High Court in 2013 vide Public Interest Litigation 87/2013 to compel the Maharashtra Government to participate in the protection of wetlands by preparing the brief document and by actively undertaking satellite mapping of the entire State of Maharashtra.
  • The Bombay High Court vide its order dated 14th October 2013 directed the government to ban construction on all wetlands in Maharashtra which figure in the atlas prepared by the Central Government. The division bench directed the secretary of the Urban Development Department to issue a necessary circular and ensure that civic bodies stop ongoing construction on wetlands.
  • The State Wildlife Board, chaired by then chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, on 5th December 2015, accepted a proposal by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) to declare TSC, NRI and Panje wetlands as bird sanctuaries.
  • The Bombay High Court formed a State Wetland Grievance Redressal Committee with the Chief Secretary of Maharashtra State as the Chairman vide its order dated 25th July 2016.
  • Following the directives of the Honourable Bombay High Court in PIL 87/2013, the Government of Maharashtra setup a Grievance Redressal Committee vide notification dated 17th October 2016, to conserve and protect the wetlands.

Violations galore

Over the past few years, there have been several writ petitions filed against CIDCO for various environmental violations and unfriendly acts against nature. These include killing mangroves, dumping debris in lakes and blocking water flow into lakes. 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.

Flamingos at Talawe
Flamingos flock Talawe, May 2020. Pic: Surabhi Agarwal

Though the project was proposed in 2002, plans were developed only after the Maharashtra Government issued a notification on 5th October 2016, which changed the land use of the area under Maharashtra Regional Town Planning (MRTP) Act – from green zone to residential.

The land use change was challenged in court by local residents who had found that the National Wetland Inventory Assessment Atlas that ISRO had compiled for the Central Government carried a map that clearly showed that of the 35.55 hectares of Pockets ‘A’ to ‘E’ at Sector 60, Nerul, Navi Mumbai, about 33.45 hectares of the area fell under ‘wetland’.

A copy of the map from National Wetland Atlas supplied by DCF Mangroves Cell
A copy of the map from National Wetland Atlas supplied by DCF Mangroves Cell, Jayrame Gowda

Read more: How a Navi Mumbai citizens group fought for the flamingos


A different route to approval

As thousands of crores were at stake, CIDCO decided to get the project approved by the Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority (MCZMA). The major change in plan was that the golf course area was reduced and construction of 17 buildings with 1,564 flats and 20 offices was added to the proposal.

To ensure that previous litigation about wetlands did not affect the chances of approval, the CIDCO MD went to the extent of giving a letter dated 19th Jan 2017 to MCZMA saying that “Pocket A, B, C, D and E of Sector 60 Nerul Navi Mumbai which are proposed to be developed for the project under consideration are part of land acquired by CIDCO for development of Navi Mumbai and is not the Wetland.”

Having deceived authorities with the assurance that no wetlands existed, CIDCO received the go-ahead to proceed by MCZMA in April 2017.

Letter from CIDCO MD to MCZMA Jan 2017
Letter from CIDCO MD to MCZMA, Jan 2017

Citizens keep the pressure

The work on these wetlands started in October 2017, but we immediately complained to the Wetlands Committee which stopped the work. We also filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in Bombay High Court which put a stay on the land use notification of the Maharashtra Government.

We, the present generation, have the responsibility to act as a trustee of the rich natural wealth for the future generations. The issue is not merely about climate change; it is about climate justice.

– Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi

Subsequently, CIDCO appealed in the Supreme Court and in July 2019, the stay on the change in land use was lifted. The order did not mention if CIDCO could resume work on its project. Citizens kept the pressure with PILs and giving evidence of wetlands, and while all this was going on in the courts, CIDCO quietly resumed work with massive felling of 700-odd trees in the period December 2019-January 2020. Further, in February 2020, the final wetland list proposed by the district administration excluded TSC and NRI Complex, and this seemingly paved the way for the project to continue. Citizens were free to file objections and currently the project has been halted.

Another golf course in the vicinity

Through all this, golf never did go off CIDCO’s radar.

In 2016, it developed a 9-hole golf course at a different site in Kharghar Valley, about 10 km away from the proposed Palm Beach Road one, on a much larger area of 52.70 hectares. In fact, CIDCO recently announced plans to increase the area to make it an international level 18-hole golf course. With this, there is definitely no need for another golf course in the same area.

Current status of the threatened wetlands

The wetlands have been protected for now but there are questions that still baffle many. Why is CIDCO determined to kill off the natural environment that we should be looking to protect? Why did the CIDCO MD give a letter to MCZMA denying the existence of wetlands – a move that would give huge benefits to a private builder, apart from destroying nature?

Finally, we see that CIDCO has violated the environment rules and lied its way to get approvals. Is CIDCO above the law?

Also read:

Comments:

  1. Rahul Dhumal says:

    We should protect all the wetlands and anything that damages the environment. Few handful greedy people cannot be allowed to ruin the nature n beauty of Navi Mumbai or any other city.

  2. Satyajeet Rajeshirke says:

    Destruction of wetlands is informative article and shows how great and consistent efforts make change for better life

  3. Vandana Gupta says:

    Very informative, well written article. In the way you people are making efforts to save our environment commendable job indeed.

  4. Dr Bharatbhushan Verma says:

    Yes, it is a reality representing the greed of human encircling the Government definitions contrary to its establishment. it actually represents a grave act of corruption but presented with leniency.

    Corruption is the
    largest possible disaster to mankind and more dangerous than a terrorist act but here in India, Indian inhabitants are so compromised and threatened that they have developed a belief that they can do nothing about it because whole of the machinery including the Judiciary is affected and live in fear.

    My only question to them is How can you deliver justice while living in fear?

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