Nauzer Bharucha, Times News Network, March 26 2018
A 500-acre sprawl of privately-held land in Goregaon (W) has had no mangroves since 2006, says a state panel tasked to determine if the site was reclaimed and mangroves destroyed. The panel took 2006 as the cut-off date for its study as directives notifying mangroves as ‘protected forests’ came only after a high court order of 2005. But activists have produced satellite images showing the area was once under thick mangrove cover, which was systematically whittled down through the late 1990s and the early aughts.
Much of the land belongs to the Byramjee Jeejeebhoy family and the remaining to the Sahara Group. The owners in 2002 planned a golf course, a clubhouse and villas, but dropped the plan after activists moved court, claiming it involved mangrove destruction.
The state government-appointed committee, chaired by principal chief conservator of forests Shree Bhagwan, said no mangroves were found on the land between 2006 and 2017. Bhagwan told TOI the panel submitted the report to the government early this month.
Prior to the 2005 high court order, mangroves were not included in the definition of ‘protected forests’, the panel said. In January, it approached the Maharashtra Remote Sensing Applications Centre (MRSAC), Nagpur, for a year-wise analysis. MRSAC indicated few changes in mangrove vegetation on the land from 2006 to 2017 and said, “Satellite data of 2006 reveals the same status with few regrown small shrubs. Subsequent open source images of Google reveal the same status—of no mangroves with minor, small perennial scrubs. Analysis of satellite data from 2006 to 2017 reveals that during these years, no mangrove area is seen except for a small patch… In subsequent years, a building and approach roads are seen coming up. Otherwise, the area has only mudflats and some perennial shrubs…”
But activists say “voluminous material” evidencing destruction of mangroves on the plot was concluded in an order of the Union environment ministry on April 5, 2013.
Debi Goenka, executive trustee of the environment group Conservation Action Trust, said, “Largescale destruction of mangroves was carried out by the project’s proponent by building illegal embankments and blocking tidal water flow. Almost all mangroves at the site have now been destroyed. Illegal dumping of debris is sporadically continuing despite numerous complaints.”
Almost two decades ago, the environment ministry set up a two-member committee following complaints from locals and housing societies. This panel visited the site on November 3, 2002, and found large-scale destruction of mangroves. At the time, the ministry also directed the Space Application Centre (SAC), Ahmedabad, to study the status of mangroves on the plot. “A time series analysis was carried out using satellite data between 1990 and 2002. The report by SAC categorically states that dense mangroves existed at the location from 1990 to 1998,” said Goenka. “Sudden degradation of mangroves was observed in some areas in 1996 and bunds or embankments were observed from 1998-’99 onwards, thus stopping the flow of tidal water, which caused the destruction of mangroves.”
City environmentalists who fought the case up to the Supreme Court allege that the state government wanted to release the no-development zone (NDZ) for construction. The land’s owners have consistently denied that the land had mangroves.
Last year, the land was marked by the BMC as a natural area (NA) in the draft development plan for the city. It means no construction can be allowed there. Only a small strip of about 45 acres of the plot has been demarcated for a special planning authority to be used for a public infrastructure project. Earlier, it was reserved for the Metro rail yard.