Swapnil Rawal, Hindustan Times, 14 December 2018
The Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority’s (MMRDA) planned to redraw boundaries of the Matheran Eco-sensitive Zone (ESZ) in its Regional Plan, which proposed to change the land use of some portions of the hill station and use it to develop restaurants, recreational facilities, and film and allied production activities.
The ministry of environment and forests has turned down the state government’s plan to reduce areas marked as eco-sensitive zones in Matheran, and use the land to build townships, educational institutes and a film studio, among other things.
The Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority’s (MMRDA) planned to redraw boundaries of the Matheran Eco-sensitive Zone (ESZ) in its Regional Plan (RP), which proposed to change the land use of some portions of the hill station and use it to develop restaurants, recreational facilities, and film and allied production activities. However, it needed the environment ministry’s approval to change land use terms as Matheran — which lies in the ecologically diverse western ghats and is full of rich, semi-evergreen forests — was notified as an ESZ in 2003. There can be no development activities or hazardous industries in areas categorised as ESZs.
With the ministry turning down the proposal, MMRDA officials said the state government would have to prepare a separate proposal to reduce the Matheran ESZ. For now, MMRDA has no plans to do so, officials said.
“We proposed a revision in the ESZ boundary based on current forest cover,” an MMRDA official said. “The ESZ was notified in 2003, and the data used then was from 1995. The forest cover had reduced by 2016, and therefore, a change was proposed. The MoEF wrote to the state asking it to keep the boundaries of the ESZ as it were,” the official added.
MMRDA oversees development in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR), which includes Mumbai, Thane, Navi Mumbai, Kalyan-Dombivli, Ulhasnagar, Bhiwandi- Nizamapur, Vasai-Virar, Mira-Bhayandar, Ambernath, Kulgaon-Badalapur, Matheran, Karjat, Panvel, Khopoli, Pen, Uran, and Alibaug. It also looks after more than 1,000 villages in the Thane and Raigad districts. The MMRDA’s Regional Plan 2016-2036 was for the entire region, excluding areas government by municipal bodies.
In the draft development control regulation for MMR 2016-2036, MMRDA “revised” the boundary of the Matheran ESZ “based on updated information from the forest department”. In its regional plan, MMRDA proposed changing the land use from Green Zone to Institutional Zone.
Following the ministry’s instructions, the urban development department issued a notification approving a zonal master plan for the Matheran Eco-sensitive Zone. “The comments made by the MoEF in the minutes of a meeting were incorporated in their request, the changes have been made and a notification has been issued,” said Nitin Kareer, principal secretary, urban development departments. The zonal master plan will come into effect from February 6, 2019.
The hill station covers an area of 214.73sqkm and has a 200m buffer zone. Matheran’s resident population is 4,393, according to the 2011 census. Debi Goenka, executive trustee, Conservation Action Trust, said, “The ESZ comes under the environment protection act; whereas MMRDA is an organisation that builds infrastructure and is interested in commercial activities. The plan was prepared to accommodate builders while pretending to be environmentally friendly. The Institutional Zone was slipped in saying that there is a need for colleges and hospitals. It [ministry’s decision] is a welcome decision.”