First Post, 18 September 2018
Taking the encroachment of protected environmental zones seriously, the Bombay High Court on Monday ordered a complete freeze on any construction on mangroves across Maharashtra. Reinstating an interim order it passed in 2015, the bench also prohibited any sort of commercial exploitation of the mangroves.
The court order came on a bunch of petitions on environmental concerns raised by citizens and the Bombay Environmental Action Group (BEAG). It held that the destruction of mangroves was in breach of citizens’ fundamental rights guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution. The bench of justices AS Oka and RI Chagla said Maharashtra was duty-bound to protect and preserve all mangrove-rich land across the state.
‘State duty-bound to preserve environment’
The court said that any ongoing construction work on mangrove land and its surrounding buffer zone must be stopped immediately, and that henceforth, no construction on such an area will be permitted unless, in a rare case, it is meant for public good. However, such permission will be granted only through an order of the high court, the judges stipulated.
In 2016, the Maharashtra government had notified 15,087.6 hectares of mangroves across the state as reserved forestland, which made constructions within 50 metres of a mangrove belt illegal. Although this order did not include 10,000 hectares of privately-owned mangrove land, the court has now directed the state government to identify all such private plots. It has ordered the Maharashtra government to declare them as protected or reserved forest area within 18 months in accordance with the Indian Forests Act, 1927, and accordingly transfer the land to the jurisdiction of the Maharashtra Forest Department.
The bench also prohibited any dumping of construction debris or other waste on mangrove land. All development plans for the future will have to take this judgment into consideration, the Bombay High Court said.
2015 interim order proved ‘ineffective’ to ward off illegal activity
The court’s order was merely an extension of an interim order it passed in 2005, with similar directions passed to protect mangroves.
However, the pleas the bench heard on Monday highlighted several instances of rampant destruction of mangroves and wetlands across the state despite the order in place. Earlier, the petitioners had told the high court that the existing mangrove cell of the Maharashtra government had failed to implement the 2015 order, and instead, it had regularised over 3,800 illegal structures on mangrove land.
In fact, while hearing a separate but related petition against illegal construction on the beaches of Alibaugh, the bench expressed shock at the rampant construction in the tourist hotspot in complete disregard for the law.
While taking note of the expansive mansion built by fugitive jeweller Nirav Modi, apart from 160 other illegal private structures owned by filmstars, businessmen and other wealthy individuals, the high court directed authorities to demolish all unauthorised constructions.
The bench noted that in 2009, Modi had merely been granted permission by local authorities to carry out some repair work in his three farmhouses in the area, but he had ended up carrying out fresh construction exceeding 695 square metres, in violation of the state’s land rules and coastal zone norms.
The bench also directed the Maharashtra government to file an affidavit detailing the findings of the inquiry and the remedial steps it has initiated.
Meanwhile, with regard to mangroves, the court said that henceforth, any destruction of mangroves will invoke penal legal action against violators. It also directed the Maharashtra government to constitute, within a month, a committee to protect and preserve the protected lands. This committee will also be responsible for checking violations and ensuring that all directions in the judgment are implemented.
On Monday, the Bombay High Court had said that the state will now have to restore to its “original condition” mangroves that have already been destroyed.
With inputs from PTI