Biodiversity zones that make Mumbai livable will vanish, if urgent measures are not taken’

Environmentalist Naresh Chandra Singh founded a group with other concerned citizens to tackle environmental concerns in Navi Mumbai.

Naresh Chandra Singh, 46, is a native of Kharghar who hails from Manipur in the Northeast of India. A childhood endowed with nature allowed him a natural passion for the environment and its preservation. A job in American IT consulting firm Gartner led him to set up a base in Kharghar, which introduced him to the vast natural landscape of the district and Navi Mumbai as a whole.

The slow degradation of nature in Navi Mumbai in the context of rapid urbanisation has compelled him to fight for the precious biodiversity that surrounds and sustains the area.

In 2018, he and other concerned citizens filed a PIL in the Bombay High Court against CIDCO (City and Industrial Development Corporation) to preserve a pond in Kharghar, after which, they worked hard to get more public participation by founding a group by the name ‘Save Kharghar Wetlands and Hills.’

Some of the group’s landmark work includes the documentation of flora and fauna found in the wetlands, hills and grasslands of Kharghar, communication through various channels to reach officials in the government and discuss important matters regarding the conservation of nature in Kharghar. They also succeeded in collaborating with other, similar groups such as ‘Save Navi Mumbai Environment’, ‘Save Panje’, and ‘Save Aarey’.

Read more: Despite CM Uddhav Thackeray’s support, fight to save Aarey far from over

What are major environmental issues in Mumbai that concern you?

Continuing degradation of Mumbai’s natural wetlands (including mangroves, coastal water bodies, mudflats, saltpans) and hills (that are an extension of Sahyadris aka Western Ghats) due to rampant infrastructure/real-estate development and illegal settlement/commercial-activities. 

What do you think the implications of these are, long term? If not addressed?

A. Already, these environmental issues have led to disturbing the ecological and natural balance of Mumbai city and its surrounding areas. If these are not stopped, more man made disasters including massive floods of the 2005 levels and fatal landslides are inevitable. Also whatever biodiversity zones that make Mumbai livable for its citizens as well as the wildlife it draws will vanish, pushing the city to even bigger strife that can’t even be imagined and predicted currently. 

Read more: Despite hundreds of crores spent of desilting, why Mumbai could still see flooding this monsoon

How has the “save Navi Mumbai” campaign helped  enforce public pressures on the government to conserve the wetlands and local biodiversity?

As far as I know, it was unplanned. It began as a coming together of  alert citizens who love the nature around them. It was typically in response to some threats caused or posed to the natural biodiversity zones surrounding them like Talawe, which concerns  Sunil and Shruti Agarwal andKharghar’ beautiful wetlands and hills that concern  Jyoti Nadkarni, Tarang Sarin and myself. There are numerous others fighting for each sector of Navi Mumbai, Panvel and Uran. Each of us support them, communicate and work with each other in various initiatives. 

Thousands of Navi Mumbai residents are facing serious health hazards due to the rise in industrial pollution. How do you respond to this problem?

The situation particularly in places like Kharghar, Panvel and Taloja are indeed very dangerous from an air and water pollution perspective. Recent findings by organizations like Watavaran recognized how dangerous and risky the air we breathe is.The contamination levels of water has been so high that we have dubious records of street dogs coloured in blue by coming in touch with chemical effluents released by the industries that line the city  we live in. Despite National Green Tribunal orders and a committee overseeing the situation and penalties imposed, the pollution levels remain very high beyond safety levels. And there are no solutions in view as the industrial organizations based here appear to be very powerful and influential. 

Navi Mumbai international airport project has become the cause of several social, environmental and ecological concerns. Could you comment on this?

It has been noted by very well known experts like Daryl D’Monte that NMIA is a big disaster in the making. Despite the warnings, multiple governments have pushed ahead with this project. Even today the criteria for getting the environmental clearance for this project are far from being met. The promise to create mangroves parks, compensate for the wetlands, river and mangrove ecosystems that are already destroyed beyond recognition seem only on paper. And the fears of flooding and other ecological disturbances like massive migration of the fauna to be found there are all coming true, with repeat events  in the areas affected by the project. 

How will it change the entire ecosystem as huge tracts of prime coastal land and mangroves have been taken over for development of the green field project?

The answers above are explanatory.  We don’t even know what the long term impact would be like when it finally becomes operational. Like impact on pollution, the flow of rivers and water bodies and streams whose rainfall discharge system has been disturbed massively. 

Kharghar Wetlands and Hills is doing great work in Mumbai as reports suggest, what are some of the major initiatives and actions proposed?

We are doing social awareness building activities on both social media as well as through on the field activities such as school and village awareness campaigns, birding trips, natural water body and hills cleanliness drive, afforestation drive, etc. These are done either directly or through supporting other groups. 

This is apart from building a body of work that includes scientific listing and evidence  of flora and fauna found in both wetlands, hills, grasslands and mangroves present in our city. Our members are part of district and municipality level environment and wetland committees created officially in association or by the government authorities. We also actively engage with agencies such as Maharashtra Forest, BNHS, and other similar associations and departments to influence a better outcome for conserving the natural environment that the city of Kharghar has been endowed with. 

Naresh Chandra Singh
Pic: Naresh Chandra Singh

There are viral visuals of revelers caught in the flash floods at Kharghar hill, Navi Mumbai. Was it a freak accident or did it involve some larger issues?

Although these may appear like freak accidents, they have become so regular and common across Kharghar hills that they can be easily linked with grave signs of things to come. Due to incessant quarrying of stones on Kharghar hills the slopes have become increasingly bare with little traction and ground water transmission and sponge action that the flora have on the rain water. The result is aggressive runoffs, causing even more damage to the already fragile rock faces. Also the water bodies and river-stream system have been either reclaimed or obstructed, thus leading to sudden accumulation of water that has on multiple occasions resulted in fatal drowning of revelers on these hills, that is so vast and long that police bans are often ineffective to control the access to the dangerous parts of these hills.  

Issues like the destruction of mangroves, lakes and wetlands in Navi Mumbai are undue unabated .The residents have been taking up the matter frequently, so is there some hope for a tangible outcome soon?

Our efforts have been on for quite long now that the authorities are becoming aware of a section of citizens that are now alert. So, we wish to believe that there are positive outcomes at least in terms of the pressures that we seek to apply on the authorities. This includes legal action wherever it is required, although we don’t want to further burden an already overburdened judiciary. We also believe that our actions have led to greater awareness among the public at least about the flora and fauna present amidst us, thus leading to an indirect moral support for our movements. In fact, it is likely that we might have succeeded at least in not allowing the powerful sections of builders and town authorities to run amok and finish off whatever  remains of the mangroves, lakes and wetlands in Navi Mumbai. It is a big struggle but one which needs to be continued with hopes that a sustainable balance will be worked out. 

Some reports in the media suggest that the PMO has asked the Ministry to check the rising threat of bird-hits at Navi Mumbai airport. Do you see this as hopeful? 

We often see such announcements only to come to know later that they get lost among  other priorities. However, we do hope that there are bureaucrats in the center and state that will realize that the airport and commercial infrastructures like these are only one aspect of human lives and that we have to also share this planet with the other residents of it for our own sustainable future. 

Mumbai is facing a serious threat to Marine creatures, I read some reports about Dolphins, whales and porpoises dying at the shores. Is that true ?

The growing amount of trash we release in the seas is wreaking havoc to the marine life that lives and comes in our Arabian sea shores.  The government’s plans to ban plastics have been quite ineffective. And the drains and discharge systems often get choked due to the huge non-biodegradable waste that gets mixed with all the other discharges we let out to the sea on a daily basis. Unless we citizens become more responsible and the government agencies become more sincere in their approach, I only see such challenges growing. This is not good for the marine creatures that live in and around Mumbai’s shores. 

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