- In an important decision to protect the mangroves in Gujarat’s Kachchh district, which is also the habitat of the indigenous Kharai camels, the National Green Tribunal has asked the authorities to ensure a free and continuous flow of estuarine water in the creeks.
- In India, Kharai camels, also known as swimming camels, are only found in Gujarat. Of the estimated 4,500 Kharai camels, about 40 percent are found in Kachchh.
- During the hearing, it was found that around 750 acres of mangroves were destroyed and removed in the region. The NGT asked the authorities to find those responsible and levy environmental compensation on them for the restoration of damaged mangroves.
For the indigenous “swimming camels” of Kachchh and their mangrove habitat, a decision by India’s green court has come as the saving grace from threats to the ecosystem and the unique camel population.
In order to protect the mangroves in the western district of Gujarat, also the habitat of Kharai camel species, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has asked the authorities to ensure that there is “free and continuous flow of estuarine water in the creeks” and there is “no obstruction of any kind.”
The green tribunal’s decision came in a case filed by the Kachchh Camel Breeders Association (KCBA) who alleged that there has been rampant clearing of the mangroves in Nani Chirai and Moti Chirai areas of Bhachau Taluka in Kachchh by the Deendayal Port Trust (DPT), in violation of the provisions of the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification (CRZ) 2011 as well as Forest Conservation Act 1980. The role of the DPT, formerly known as Kandla Port Trust, also came under the green tribunal’s scanner during the case.
Located on the Gulf of Kachchh on India’s west coast, DPT was constructed in the 1950s and is the largest port in terms of volume of cargo handled.
According to the KCBA, these areas are close to the habitat of indigenous Kharai Camel species which live among the mangroves and are the source of livelihood for many camel breeders of the region. They had alleged that DPT cleared the mangroves without obtaining the required CRZ clearance as well as forest clearance, and that the Coastal Zone Management Authority (CZMA) and the forest department of Gujarat have not taken any concrete action to prevent the indiscriminate destruction of mangroves.
The association had also complained that DPT have allotted the areas (under its control), falling under the zone regulated by coastal norms, for extraction of salt. That has resulted in the destruction of mangroves due to obstructions that have been raised in the creeks without the permission of the authorities concerned.
According to the KCBA, the area is the habitat of about 400 Kharai camels, who for eight months in a year, are completely dependent on the mangrove islands. In India, these camels are found only in Gujarat.
As per Sahjeevan, a non-governmental organisation that has been working in the region for the welfare of Kharai camels, Kachchh had 2,200 Kharai camels five years ago which in 2018 dwindled to 1,800. Gujarat is now estimated to have about 4,500 Kharai camels, which are also known as swimming camels.
In its judgement on September 11, 2019, the green tribunal’s bench headed by Justice Raghuvendra S. Rathore directed that “there shall be no obstruction of any kind in the creeks and free and continuous flow of estuarine water in the creeks will be ensured.”
It also directed Gujarat’s forest department, CZMA and revenue officials to “jointly inspect the area to find out the persons who were responsible for obstruction of the creeks and take action in accordance with law including the recovery of environmental damage and cost of restoration of mangroves damaged” within one month of the decision.
It additionally asked the Gujarat government’s forest department to take “immediate action to restore the mangroves which are damaged within a period of six months.”
Read more: Swimming camels, mangrove islands of Kutch face mounting challenges
Mangroves in the Kachchh region were destroyed
As part of investigations, in this case, a joint inspection of the area, where alleged violations took place, was done in April 2018 by a committee of officials from Gujarat’s Pollution Control Board (GPCB) and the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB).
The committee, in its report, observed that earthen bunds were created stage-wise for “creating pans for salt farming and land levelled at several places” during which mangroves were uprooted. This also resulted in the blocking of minor creeks, obstruction of the flow of seawater which caused mangroves to dry up.
According to another report by a sub-committee constituted by Kachchh’s collector, which visited the affected area in March 2018, “destruction of mangroves habitats and removal of mangroves in an area of about 750 acres” was noted. Of the 750, 250 acres area had moderately dense mangroves and the remaining 500 acres were open mangroves (sparse mangrove). As per the Indian government’s State of Forest Report 2017, the total area of mangroves in Gujarat is 1,140 square kilometres (281,699 acres).
In its order, the NGT noted a lack of demarcation between land belonging to the DPT and the revenue land (of Gujarat government) which has led to encroachments on both sides. In the absence of sufficient monitoring, salt pans have been created by constructing bunds across creeks and this has led to the death of mangroves.
Mangroves are a special class of trees that grow in estuaries and intertidal regions along the creeks and coasts. The green tribunal noted that mangrove forests are among the most productive ecosystems on earth and serve many important functions including water filtration, prevention of coastal erosion, carbon storage, and timber and biodiversity protection. Mangroves also play an extremely important role as windbreaks along the coastline which protect coasts during cyclones and tsunamis. Additionally, “mangroves are also the nursery grounds for several fish species and other marine fauna,” and keep coastal zones healthy and vibrant, noted the NGT.
Given the role that mangroves play, the NGT noted that “it is incumbent upon everyone concerned to conserve and protect the mangroves. Other than Sunderbans and Andaman & Nicobar Islands there are few locations in our country where mangroves thrive and Kachchh coastline is one such location and, therefore, Gujarat forest department and Gujarat coastal zone authorities have (a) special responsibility to conserve and protect the mangroves in Gujarat coastline wherever they occur,” the NGT said.
The tribunal also directed the GCZMA to take immediate action “if there has been any activity which is in violation of CRZ Notification 2011,” Mahendra Bhanani, who is the camel programme coordinator with Sahjeevan, welcomed the NGT’s decision and said it would ensure protection and conservation of the entire ecosystem in the area.
“This decision would ensure the protection of Kharai camels and mangroves in the region. The protection of mangroves would ensure the livelihood of thousands of people including fishermen as well as of those dependent on the Kharai camels. Not just them, the protection of mangroves would lead to protection of sea biodiversity as well,” Bhanani told Mongabay-India.
Read more: March of industrialisation tramples Kutch’s coastal ecology
Take action for the violation of coastal zone norms
Senior environmental lawyer Sanjay Upadhyay, who represented KCBA, said, “It is a unique habitat that the NGT has sought to protect.”
“It will give a strong message that infrastructure development, especially ports, cannot be at the cost of mangroves. Very importantly, the salt works have been prohibited unless they follow a due process as it is one of the biggest triggers for the destruction of mangroves in these areas. We are hoping that a strong environmental compensation will be levied for the destruction also caused and free-flowing brackish water to proliferate mangroves should continue as ordered by the NGT,” Upadhyay, a senior environmental lawyer in the Supreme Court and managing partner of the Enviro Legal Defence Firm, told Mongabay-India.
Meanwhile, the NGT also directed that there shall be no salt manufacturing activity in CRZ –1 area without following the due procedures followed. “If such activity are found, the GCZMA will take action immediately to stop forthwith and initiate appropriate proceedings. The quantum of damage caused to the mangroves shall be assessed by the GCZMA in accordance with laid down procedures and the same shall be recovered from the persons responsible for the same within a period of one month from today,” the NGT said.
Banner image: Of the estimated 4,500 Kharai camels, about 40 percent are found in Kachchh. Photo courtesy Sahjeevan.