- The city of Mumbai has a 104-square km national park, which serves as the lungs and a water source for the city. It also harbours a unique biodiversity, including large cats such as leopards, within the urban space.
- The Maharashtra Wildlife Board has permitted surveys to explore the possibility of having road-tunnels running under the park.
- This decision by the board has come in for criticism from some experts and some voices from within the government. However, there are other experts who feel that the tunnels are better alternative than other proposals thought of.
Environmentalists are divided over the recent decision of the Maharashtra State Wildlife Board, which is presided over by Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, to permit a geo-technical survey for two 11-km-long tunnels for the passage of cars and other vehicles under the core of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP).
The board met after 16 months, mainly to hear road construction and housing projects in or near the 104 square km SGNP and the adjoining Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary in Thane district. The SGNP is unique, that it is a large area of forest inside Mumbai city. In the recent decades the city has grown all around the national park.
The Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC, a state-owned agency) plans to build the tunnels to connect the western suburb of Borivli to Thane in the east. The peninsula of Greater Mumbai has a congested north-south commute axis and lacks east-west connectivity which the tunnels are meant to provide.
According to an MSRDC official who did not come on record, it is the MSRDC’s responsibility to assist the consultant in obtaining permission from the State Wildlife Board or Forest Department for the reconnaissance, topographic survey and geo-technical investigations to prepare the detailed project report (DPR). MSRDC still hasn’t got the permission.”
Will reduce travel time
Public Works Minister and Thane Shiv Sena MLA Eknath Shinde mooted the project two years ago. “It will not only save time, but also reduce pollution, and help decongest the Western Express Highway as well as [the arterial] Ghodbunder Road,” he had said at the time. “I can assure you that there will be no damage to the forests and the environment.”
He mentioned that then Union Environment and Forests Minister Prakash Javadekar had assured him: “If people benefit without damage to the environment, he would support the project.”
Each tunnel, 13 metres wide and 5.5 m high, will have three lanes which are expected to reduce the commute for a motorist to just ten minutes, as against an hour or more by skirting the park. The project is estimated to cost Rs 20 billion.
As many as 250,000 passengers travel the circuitous 23 km between Mumbai and Thane every day; apart from buses and other vehicles, they use 65,000 cars.
Similarly, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) wants to construct a nine-km-long tunnel between Goregaon in the west to Mulund in the east under the park.
Need a cumulative impact assessment study and not piecemeal ones
At its previous meeting in 2016, the board cleared surveys and feasibility studies for a Rs 10 billion ropeway over the park between Borivli and Thane. Like many other infrastructure schemes, this was said to be the brainchild of Fadnavis and was then supposed to replace the underground tunnels. This obviously aroused the ire of environmentalists because the ropeway was bound to impact the diverse wildlife, which includes 41 leopards, Chital or Spotted deer, grey langur and four-horned antelope, below it.
“We have pulled out of this project,” Sanjay Ubale, CEO of Tata Realty & Infrastructure Ltd. (TRIL), who was a former top state government official, told Mongabay-India. TRIL was awarded the project on the ground that it is building a similar ropeway between Manali and Rohtang in Himachal Pradesh. It was supposed to ferry 5,000 people between Borivli and Thane per hour which by no stretch of the imagination could be considered mass transport.
“The tunnel is a disaster,” said Stalin Dayanand, who heads the NGO Vanashakti. “It will destroy the aquifers and also impact the Tulsi and Vihar lakes in the national park, which supply Mumbai a small amount of its water now. When the project does not stand the test of final clearance, why should a feasibility study be even permitted?” He believes that it is a misconception that the lakes only depend on the monsoon; in fact, they are fed by aquifers.
“Also, it’s time the SGNP and wildlife officials talk about the cumulative impact of all projects instead of piecemeal project impacts,” he added. “Any human activity inside the park will disturb the wildlife and habitat.
Forests are the lungs and a water source for the city
“This was a hurried proposal,” said Bittu Sahgal, editor of Sanctuary magazine, whose recent resignation from the wildlife board was not accepted. “We were given just 48 hours’ notice. To study the detailed project report and environmental impact assessment, we need at least three weeks.”
According to him, the project won’t be cleared if the geo-technical surveys show that the lakes will be drained out as a consequence. The tunnels could collapse if this happens.
“The board doesn’t even discuss wildlife issues. There is a fundamental misunderstanding that forests are only for tigers and leopards. The fact that forests act as filters and remove pollutants is ignored,” Sahgal observed. “There is only emphasis on economic, not ecological infrastructure. The role of promoting biodiversity and arresting climate change isn’t taken into account.”
Anish Andheria, who heads the Wildlife Conservation Trust in Mumbai and is also a member of the board, disagrees. “At this stage, the MSRDC is only prospecting the terrain by digging nine boreholes, each of 10 cm diameter,” he said. One is in the recreation area and the rest in the ecologically sensitive zone (ESZ). “The entry points [for the tunnels] will be outside the park. There will be one or two ducts in between to allow gases to escape.”
Better than other alternatives
He considers this a better alternative than building a bridge over the national park. “You can’t say ‘no’ to everything. This project is underground. It will not be injurious to the environment and there will be no encroachments.”
He has also made out a case for the proponents of projects around the park to submit a consolidated proposal in future rather than individual cases, so that the board can take an overall view of their impacts. He said that the chief minister has asked the proponents to send such proposals before the board meets next.
Mumbai’s leading nature photographer Sunjoy Monga, who has written a book titled City Forest: Mumbai’s National Park in 2000 with 200 vivid pictures, also supports the tunnels. “It is the way out for the future,” he told Mongabay-India. “It will offset the pressures to construct highways through or near the park. Anything built on the surface extracts a high cost on the environment.”
On the BMC’s Goregaon-Mulund Link Road (GMLR), he advocates locating the entry closer to the Western Express Highway instead of the Film City in Goregaon East, which abuts the park.
“As long as 15 years ago, the BMC built a pipeline between Bhandup and Mulund in the eastern suburbs 60 metres deep,” he pointed out. “The construction shouldn’t take place near the hills and noise which can disturb wildlife will be mitigated, unlike in the case of a surface road. To cope with the sheer volume of traffic, east-west connectivity is necessary.”
Mumbai’s public transport activists, however, point to a chicken-and-egg situation: the more you provide infrastructure for cars and other vehicles, their number only increases, negating any role such roads may have in reducing travel time.
According to A. K. Mishra, Maharashtra’s chief wildlife warden, the concerns about the tunnels are unfounded because the process of screening projects is rigorous. “The project has to be vetted at three or four levels and everything is governed by Supreme Court orders as well,” he said.
“Wildlife is not so delicate that the animals will be disturbed by the surveying process. SGNP is totally surrounded by slums and high-rise buildings. Aeroplanes are constantly passing overhead and vehicles are also plying because of the BMC waterworks. So if the animals are disturbed just by simple drilling, what to do about these other disturbances? Mishra asked.”
The Supreme Court has ruled that any proposal which falls within the ESZ of wildlife parks requires clearance under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. Proposals which fall within 10 km from the boundary of parks require sanction of the State Board for Wildlife Protection, followed by that of the National Wildlife Board.
Mishra has reportedly recommended that the promoters of most of such current projects should deposit Rs 1 crore for the conservation of SGNP and Tungareshwar if a project lies outside the ESZ but within 10 km. For those within parks, the proponents should pay 2 per cent of the project cost.
Criticism from within the government
On rare occasions, forest officials have strongly opposed projects. Two years ago, Mohan Jha, former additional principal chief conservator of forests (Wildlife) West, criticised the GMLR in a note: “The project will adversely impact the environment and wildlife, and the future of SGNP and its uniqueness will be doomed, leading to a great loss of a lifeline and the green lungs of Mumbai city,” he observed.
“A survey for one project – the ropeway across SGNP is already submitted – and another project for a tunnel passing through SGNP is likely to be submitted by the same authority. All these projects will systematically destroy the uniqueness of SGNP. No survey should be allowed because any such survey will be a pure waste of time and resources.”
The survey was sanctioned with the proviso that “no tree felling, clearing brush wood removal of/destruction of wildlife” would be permitted. The BMC has attempted to do away with the public hearing period for this project and reduce the time for the environmental assessment from 12 months to three.