Shruti and Sunil Agarwal filed a petition against the conversion of 80 hectares of Navi Mumbai’s rich wetlands into a golf course and residential complex. Illustration by Shraddha Mandale for Mongabay.

Navi Mumbai wetlands

“For every year we delay it (the golf course project), we prevent environmental destruction. We feel like we are owners (guardians) of 80 hectares of land. We are also happy that we have inspired people to save their local environment as well,” said Shruti.

Navi Mumbai’s changing land use has contributed to the current geography of its wetlands. Till the 1970s, it was covered with large expanses of salt pans and paddy fields, notes the BNHS report. Tide gates regulated tidal water for agriculture, salt farming and fishing, but these traditional practices declined by the 1980s. Once the region started to get developed into a metropolitan area, increasing land prices, changing hydrology and economy of this region due to construction activities, government policies and changing lifestyles could have made people abandon farming and fishing, notes BNHS in its report. “This might have brought transformation in this region — new wetlands were formed naturally in abandoned salt pans and paddy fields and artificially by soil excavation — existing wetlands became shallow or disappeared due to heavy siltation and landfilling and along with uncultivated and unmanaged lands, they were replaced by prolific growth of mangroves and scrubs,” it noted.

“People point out to us that where we are living right now also used to be a wetland before. I say to them, “Alright, but does that mean we let the last of wetlands also be destroyed?” Just because it happened once doesn’t mean we should let it happen again,” says Shruti.

About 100-200 citizens take part in the protests to save Navi Mumbai’s environment. They are mobilised on social media. On the importance of citizen activism, Shruti adds, “We had not been environmental activists before we got into this issue… When we were working against hoardings, we exposed a lot of people. There was a defamation case against Sunil also but we are undeterred. Environment became our focus when we shifted here… Our children also actively help us. We are also happy that we have inspired people to save their local environment as well.”

Citizens who joined the movement to protect Navi Mumbai's urban wetlands at Talawe. Photo from Sunil Agarwal.
Citizens who joined the movement to protect Navi Mumbai’s urban wetlands at Talawe. Photo from Sunil Agarwal.

Are these wetlands or not?

Navi Mumbai resident Vinod Punshi said, “When CIDCO came to London and approached the Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) living there, one of the selling points was an 18-hole international standard golf course. Later, the plan was amended to a nine-hole golf course but then that also did not seem feasible. That is why a golf course was built at Kharghar. They just want this land bank.”

The Agarwals who mobilised residents of the Seawoods area and have been opposing the golf course at the wetland site filed a PIL in the matter in 2018 that was clubbed with an existing PIL of 2013 filed by Navi Mumbai Environment Preservation Society and Punshi. A judgment was pronounced on November 1, 2018, which relied on a Supreme Court judgment that emphasises the doctrine of public trust. While referring to it, HC states, “…there is a total ban on reclamation of wetlands identified under NWIA. There is a ban on any permanent construction on such identified wetlands.”

In the order, HC further stated, “The agenda note (of 435th meeting of Board of Directors of CIDCO held on May 9, 2002, which proposed modification of Development Plan) will show that the decision of proposing change of DP was taken mainly for commercial reasons. There is no greater public interest reflected from the agenda note for converting the water bodies in NDZ into a golf course and residential complex.”

The court further noted, “Moreover there is nothing placed on record to show that the impact on the ecosystem and environment of filling in water bodies for making construction of residential complex and for making golf course was assessed or at least such assessments were made available to the Planning Authority or the State government… Therefore, we have no manner of doubt that the impugned notification is illegal and is liable to be struck down,” the court noted. The court passed an order quashing the notification, ordered reservations provided therein cannot be implemented, allowed the wetlands to continue to remain protected as per Apex Court order.

According to documents from CIDCO, VC and MD Bhushan Gagrani had written to the state Environment Department on September 9, 2016, stating that it is a matter of grave concern for the city of Navi Mumbai that large chunks of developable land have been included in the NWIA. “The wetland delineation has been carried out at 1:50000 scale and there are anomalies which are primarily due to errors in drafting maps, confusions in identification in case of smaller land pockets, apparent similarities in mangroves and terrestrial vegetation and lack of site verification. The Atlas has been prepared independent of any consultation of the legally incumbent Development Plan or the concerned Development Authority. Since the entire Navi Mumbai area is under development as per the planning approach already frozen as far back as in 1979 following Wetland Atlas in toto will not be possible due to mismatches/errors narrated above.” Therefore, the CIDCO MD stated that there is no important wetland around Navi Mumbai notified area.

A layer of pink dots Navi Mumbai's wetlands. These urban habitats are home to several species of birds, amphibians, and other wildlife. Photo from Sunil Agarwal.
A layer of pink dots Navi Mumbai’s wetlands. These urban habitats are home to several species of birds, amphibians, and other wildlife. Photo from Sunil Agarwal.

Where things stand now

After the HC order, the project contractor and CIDCO moved the Supreme Court and has secured a stay on the HC order.

Meanwhile, the Thane Creek Flamingo Sanctuary (TCFS) plan 2019-20 to 2029-30 has included a chapter titled Satellite Wetland Management and Conservation Plan. It refers to the aforementioned BNHS report and cites six satellite wetlands of the TCFS including TSC and NRI wetlands and even suggested an action plan for their conservation.

Therefore, in April 2020, the Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (APCCF)- Mangrove Cell Virendra Tiwari wrote to CIDCO and district administrations of Thane and Raigad asking for comments since the Cell intended to propose protection and conservation measures for these six wetlands as per Wildlife Act (for eg. declaration of conservation reserves, etc).

CIDCO wrote back to APCCF on July 21, 2020 stating, “..this is to inform you that CIDCO had carried out a scientific survey in Navi Mumbai area in 2016 with reference to the wetland atlas published by GoI. As per the report of this survey, these five locations are not wetlands.” While referring to the TSC and NRI wetlands, CIDCO has stated that the areas used to be salt pan lands and several ponds were created hereafter fishermen broke bunds to do fishing here. Besides, CIDCO cited another BNHS report contradicting the one mentioned above. The said report had stated that ‘Navi Mumbai International Airport site and adjoining areas should be made unattractive for birds.’ Apart from the fact the HC order was stayed by SC, CIDCO has also cited a letter by Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Nagpur to State Revenue and Forest Department on March 3, 2016 “to not propose the bird sanctuary at NRI complex and behind TSC Chanakya locations.”

Based on this CIDCO letter, APCCF has now written to BNHS on July 30, 2020, asking for comments.

When asked about the latest development, Tiwari said, “If the land is maintained as it is and birds can continue to visit the area, nobody would have an issue. Environment department has to take a call now. Declaring conservation reserve will require owner’s consent as land does not belong to us.”

CIDCO MD Sanjay Mukherjee did not comment on the matter.

Read more: A group of women protect Sindhudurg’s mangroves through ecotourism

Illustration by Shraddha Mandale, an illustrator and graphic designer based in Mumbai. She graduated from Sophia Polytechnic, Mumbai in 2019.

Article published by Aditi Tandon
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