Mumbai: In June, newspaper reports said that three old and mighty trees would not be cut down as originally planned to make way for the Metro 3 project currently under construction in Mumbai. One was a massive banyan tree, said to be over a century old, which was marked to be axed because it would hamper traffic movement.
This was heartening for tree lovers and activists who have been campaigning against the rampant chopping down of trees and other green areas, as part of a massive infrastructure push currently ongoing in the city and its environs. But this is little consolation, considering much damage is still being caused in the name of development in the rest of the city.
In the past four years, the state government has agreed to at least three major and several medium and small size projects which have a direct impact on the state’s ecology. Like the bullet train project, the ambitious Mumbai coastal road and the ongoing Metro 3 project are set to destroy mangroves, axe thousands of trees and displace several original habitats, especially from Adivasi communities.
On June 24, in a written reply in the Maharashtra Legislative Council, state transport minister Diwakar Raote admitted that around 54,000 mangroves spread over 13.36 hectares will be affected by the proposed Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project. This was the first time the state was admitting the extent of ecological destruction that the Rs 1 lakh crore project, spread across two districts of Maharashtra (270.65 hectares) and nine districts of Gujarat (724.13 hectares), would cause.
Environmental activists have pointed out that the bullet train route will pass through several hectares of agricultural land, hilly tracts, barren land, fruit orchards, tribal areas, forest land, hills, rivers and backwaters, along with other city habitation.
The heavy rainfall that Mumbai receives every monsoon causes extreme havoc and with the destruction of mangroves, the flooding and water-logging problems in the city is only going to worsen, researchers have said. The Mangrove Society of India (MSI), a research body working on mangrove conservation across the country’s coastline for over three decades, has raised concern over projects such as the bullet train, coastal road, Navi Mumbai International Airport (NMIA) and activities by the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust.
After the incessant rains that Mumbai saw between June 27 and July 1, Arvind Untawale, MSI’s executive secretary and former director of the National Institute of Oceanography, Goa, in an interview to the Hindustan Times said, “If we try to play with nature through human interventions, the response from nature will be disastrous as witnessed on July 26, 2005 (floods that killed over 1,000 people), and between Monday night and Tuesday morning (July 1-2, 2019) in Mumbai with over 200mm rain.”
Coastal road and the extent of destruction
To make way for the coastal road, a total of 164 hectares of land is expected to be reclaimed. Several crucial Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) norms will also have to be relaxed, environmentalists point out. As soon as the Rs 1,400 crore coastal road project was proposed in 2018, as many as five different petitions were moved before the Bombay high court pointing at the severe ecological harm that the project could cause.
In late 2018, Shweta Wagh, member of the Collective for Spatial Alternatives and a city-based architect, moved the high court seeking a stay on the work. In her petition, Wagh stated that the ongoing reclamation is not only illegal, but will also irreversibly alter the coastal morphology, biodiversity and traditional ecological practices. The petition further states that the coastal road and ongoing reclamation are a patent breach of the law on environmental clearances, traditional rights and jurisdiction.
Another petition filed by two fishing communities, Koliwada Nakhawa Fisheries and Worli Machhimar Sarvoday Co-operative Society, has sought a ban on the project fearing a loss of their livelihood. In the petition, those from the fishing communities state that the maximum damage is expected to be on the oyster beds along the coast.
Sarita Fernandes, public policy researcher associated with city-based NGO Vanashakti, says the fear is not baseless. “Most of the fishing villages across the coastal road project are to be negatively impacted in terms of their livelihoods. In the case of the Worli fishermen, who are petitioners in the Bombay high court currently litigating and fighting for their coast, the coastal community is an artisanal-traditional fishing community. Per se, their fishing methods and practices are indigenous which requires a huge dependence on the inter-tidal rocky shores of Mumbai; specifically for the Worli Koliwada, the South Mumbai: Bandra-Worli rocky inter-tidal shore area.”
The state government, like it does for any developmental project, has offered to compensate the fisher community monetarily. But the fisher folk have rejected this. “It was rejected on the basis of inter-generational sustainability of their shore, which they have depended on for decades, maybe centuries. What happens to their children once their livelihood is taken away?” explains Fernandes.
In the case of the coastal road too, the government has aggressively advocated replantation of lost mangroves in lieu of those destroyed in the course of building this project. Fernandes asks where the space is for such replantation. “The first issue that arises is, where is the space to replant five times the lost mangroves? Replantation or plantation drives of mangroves have had low success rates in the past because of several biophysical and ecological reasons. The loss of indigenous species of mangroves that existed in the particular area is a whole other concern for the wildlife dependent on those mangrove species. Replantation has never been a plausible solution,” Fernandes claims.
The proposed bullet train route is also expected to severely affect fruit orchards along the Mumbai-Ahmedabad line. This has been one of the major bones of contention of the protesting farmers in both states. The joint feasibility study that the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the primary funder of the project, compiled in 2015 identified that 26,980 fruit-bearing trees and 53,457 timber trees will be affected by the project.
National High-Speed Rail Corporation Limited (NHSRCL) officials have claimed that the cut trees will be “translocated”. But environment activists have questioned these claims. “By translocation, they mean uprooting trees from their original location to a new spot. We have seen it in the past, where the full-grown trees were trimmed down to their bark and haphazardly relocated. In the process, the trees die,” points out environment activist Amrita Bhattacharjee.
She further says that the NHSRCL has not even identified a place to carry out the translocation process. “In a land-strapped district like Mumbai and Thane, transporting trees and ensuring they are replanted can never be an easy process. And unless planned well, it only will lead to we losing out on over 50,000 trees,” Bhattacharjee adds.
In addition to the environmental impact is the social dislocation. Two districts – Thane and Palghar, on the outskirts of Mumbai — will face maximum impact, with several villagers facing the chance of displacement to make space for the multi- crore project. While several Adivasi padas (hamlets) of Palghar stand to lose their original habitat, a seven-kilometre undersea tunnel envisioned in Thane creek will also impact several farming communities, mostly belonging to OBC communities like Kunbi and Aagri, in Thane district.
Bharadwaj Choudhary, a lawyer in Mumbai who owned ancestral land in one of the affected villages in Thane district, told The Wire that despite severe opposition, villagers have been compelled to part ways with their land. “This is not the first time that the villagers here are losing their land. In the past too, we have had to give up on our ancestral land for infrastructure projects. And these acquisitions did not even end up in fair compensation, as promised under the projects.”
The authorities claim that the train, along with providing quicker connectivity between two mega-cities, will also help in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. This claim, however, is not backed by any scientific reasoning. Going by the extent of ecological destruction expected, it appears that the project will only end up stressing existing resources.
Contrary to the villagers’ claims, NHSRCL spokesperson Sushma Gaur says that her officer is in constant touch with the project affected persons along the corridor. “As of today, more that 40% of land has been acquired through consent. More than 2,200 consent agreements have been signed and money transferred in land owners accounts. You will be happy to know that all the land acquired from private land owners is through consent only.” She further told The Wire that NHSRCL is hopeful of acquiring most of the land by the end of 2019.
There are reasons behind the apprehension expressed by Bhattacharjee and Fernandes. Between 2017 and now, over 1,200 trees were “translocated” from South Mumbai to Aarey colony in the northern Mumbai region, making way for the Metro 3 project. “Of these trees, over 50% wilted as soon as they were moved to a new location. The uprooting, transportation and replantation was handled so shoddily that the trees could not survive even for a few days,” Bhattacharjee says.
Wilting of replanted trees is one of the many challenges faced in the Metro 3 project. In Aarey, a large number of Adivasi communities have lost their ancestral lands and also their source of income yielded by farming in the protected areas of Aarey forest.
For the past four years, ever since the proposal to build a car shed for the Metro-3 line (Colaba-Bandra-SEEPZ) was proposed, the communities here along with environmentalists have been fighting a legal battle at the National Green Tribunal, the Bombay high court and now the Supreme Court, calling the area a ‘forest’ that is home to rich biodiversity that faces threats from construction.
Besides the car shed, the Bombay Municipal Corporation also came up with a proposal to acquire 190 acres of land for a zoo that would offer jungle safari as an attraction and have a captive breeding programme for conservation of endangered species.
As soon as the proposal was passed, the BMC promptly began the land survey in the seven padas in the region. Municipal commissioner Praveen Pardeshi has roped in the forest department to set up the zoo in partnership.
While this ambitious project focuses on the conservation of endangered species, its direct impact will be faced by the Warli community living in the seven padas around Aarey forest.
Manisha Dhinde’s Morashi pada is one of the seven hamlets to be affected. A 20-year-old mass media student, Dhinde says the planned zoo is to protect the captive animals in the region – “but at the cost of the tribal communities living here for over a century”. The Dhindes own around 2.5 acres of land, and eight persons are dependent on the agricultural produce that the family produces by tilling it.
“We do not have any other source of income. Even if the state gives us compensation in lieu of our land, we don’t have any alternative occupation. There can’t be any development if the state compels its Adivasis to make way for state projects,” she points out.
People’s movements, even if slowly, have pushed officials to reconsider their decisions. In the case of the bullet train, a week after the transport minister claimed that 54,000 mangroves would be destroyed, Achal Khare, managing director, NHSRCL told The Wire that on the environment ministry’s intervention, the design at Thane station was modified and some of the structures have been moved out of the mangrove region.
“So, this way, we have reduced around 21,000 mangroves and now only 32,044 mangroves will get affected by the entire project. Earlier there were around 54000 and now only 32044 mangroves are getting affected,” Khare claims.
He further adds, “NHSRCL will get the affected mangroves from the bullet train project compensated at the rate of 1:5, by depositing money into ‘Mangroves cell’, which will do the compensatory afforestation of the mangroves. So, around 1,60,000 mangroves will be planted instead of 32,044.”
Even the reduced figure is, however, alarming. Going by the failed attempts at replanting trees in the past and the long years that are required for a newly planted tree to grow, these projects will leave a lasting impact on the already fragile ecosystem.
Note: This article was updated with NHSRCL’s response at 11:17 am on July 4.