September 17, 2018, was a golden day for environmental activists who had been working relentlessly to save 15,087 hectares of mangroves, notified as reserved forests in Maharashtra. The Bombay High Court directed the State government to take over all mangroves on private lands across the state within 18 months. The court had been hearing a petition since 2005.
The new judgment says that the destruction of mangroves is a breach of fundamental rights guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution. It says, “Mangroves cannot be permitted to be destructed by the State for private, commercial or any other use unless the court finds it necessary for public good or interest.”
Justices AS Oka and Riyaz Chagla of the bench also said that the State was bound by duty to protect and preserve all mangrove-rich land and prohibited the dumping of construction debris or any other waste on the mangrove land.
“All development plans in the future will keep in consideration the above judgment, and the State will have to notify all private mangrove land as protected forest land within 18 months from now,” the bench said.
Happy with the judgment, one of the petitioners, Debi Goenka of BEAG (Bombay Environment Action Group, established in 1983) and CAT (Conservation Action Trust) said, “The final order issued by the Bombay High Court was a stronger and (a) more detailed version of the interim order passed on 6th October 2005 by the Bombay High Court. Both these orders are extremely crucial for the protection of mangroves. The only other comparable orders that I can think of are the orders of the Supreme Court protecting forests (in the Godavarman case) and wetlands (in the Balkrishna case).”
Goenka, who is known for his earnest work in protecting and sensitising people about the importance of the environment, took on the mission of saving mangroves, more than three decades ago.
So calling him the Mangrove Crusader or Mangrove Man sounded apt after the recent judgment, like we have had monikers like the Missile Man (APJ Abdul Kalam), Bird Man (Salim Ali), Milk Man (Vinod Kurien).
Smiling softly, Goenka said, “You can call me by any name, but the saving of mangroves and environment needs support from all quarters. What is missing is an active public concern and participation. Most people are not even willing to send emails to the Chief Minister and Prime Minister. Active support from the public would be a great help to make this judgment a success.”
Maharashtra has 720 kilometres of coastline. It is pointed out in the petition that there are 18 major estuaries along the coastline of the state, harbouring some biologically rich patches of mangroves. Further, there are 52 creeks along these coasts which are covered by mangroves.
Elaborating on this judgment, Goenka explains that the Bombay High Court order protects all mangroves in Maharashtra, with a buffer zone of 50 metres. It requires the State Government to notify them as Protected Forests or Reserved Forests and a biannual satellite mapping exercise to be carried out so that changes in the cover will be detected promptly.
He added that the Forest Department is required to construct a wall to protect the mangroves 50 metres away, on the landward side. The High Court has also said that both the mangroves and the buffer zone will be treated as CRZ-I, i.e. ecologically sensitive, and no constructions will be permitted in these areas. No dumping will be permitted either.
In case of destruction, offenders will be prosecuted, and the mangroves will have to be restored.
The State Government has been asked to publicise this order and create email ids and mobile numbers so that the public can send in their complaints on WhatsApp, SMS, etc.
If you drive down on any road parallel to the mangroves in the state, you will come across patches of mangrove land destroyed by heaps of malba (or building construction waste) dumped on it. Builders or contractors continue to use the mangrove land to dump their waste and junk material.
People are aware of the importance of mangroves in protecting vulnerable coastlines from sea wave actions, in holding the soil together and preventing coastal erosion, thus protecting human inhabitants from facing the wrath of tidal waves. Mangrove forests are also an abode for several species of plants and animals. They also sustain fisherfolk. But when it comes to exploitation, the exploiters don’t care for the silent and mute mangroves.
To stop this illegal destruction, the Court has also ordered for CCTVs to be installed, and barricades around the mangroves. The Court added, “It shall also create a grievance redressal mechanism for enabling members of the public to lodge complaints about the activity of destruction/removal of mangroves. No development permission shall be granted by any authority of the state government in an area under mangroves. All authorities, including the Planning Committee, shall note that all the mangrove land, irrespective of its area, will fall in Coastal Region Zone (CRZ) I as per the notifications of 1991 and 2001.”
One is bound to wonder about the feasibility of these orders though. The strength of the builders’ lobby is fact enough, wherein they leave no stone unturned to acquire a piece of land. Many times, even the locals help them. So in such a scenario how can Goenka and his ilk save the mangroves?
Goenka answers, “The latest court order is the most effective way to save our mangroves and other habitats. It may surprise you to know that the fishing communities, which are main inhabitants of the coastal zone are the strongest supporters of mangroves and the CRZ notification. They have always been conscious of the importance of mangroves, and are now feeling empowered to raise these issues with the Government.”
Goenka has spent most of his life protecting biodiversity.
He advocated for the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, the Melghat Tiger Reserve, the Zudpi jungles; the private forest lands, the wildlife corridors, the coastal areas, and the mangroves. He was also instrumental in getting Nandur Madhameshwar notified as a bird sanctuary and Tungareshwar as a Wild Life Sanctuary.
Through all this, he doesn’t recall any untoward incident with the locals or any other members of his organisations.
“At both CAT and BEAG, we have never had any problems with locals. The problem has always been with the builders, who have the power and the money to influence bureaucrats and politicians. I have been assaulted once during a site visit to the Dahisar mangroves in the presence of Government officers and their police guard. We were manhandled, and our cameras were stolen. The Senior Police Inspector of MHB police station was only too happy to file an FIR against me for trespassing, blackmail, etc. This case is pending in the High Court,” he recalls, with a sarcastic smile and a shrug.
This case dates back to 2010 when Justice A M Khanwilkar and P D Kode of Bombay High Court had stayed the criminal complaint against Goenka commenting, “Prima facie, it appears that the case has been lodged out of vengeance.”
Because of the rampant destruction of mangroves by the builder lobby, China was forced to opt for planting artificial mangrove forests. When asked about its feasibility in India, Goenka opines that India doesn’t need artificial mangrove forests, since they grow naturally along both the west and east coasts, and even in the Andamans.
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“But we do need to create facilities for visitors and tourists such as the Mangrove Wetland Centres that we have proposed at Bhandup in Mumbai and along Palm Beach Road in Navi Mumbai.”
Thanks to the new court order, we can now look forward to the protection of our mangroves, which in turn will help balance the ecology of our cities and slow climate change.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)