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A Brief History: Navi Mumbai’s Wetlands

Updated: Jun 14, 2023

Navi Mumbai's indigenous habitats are under imminent threat. Oh wait - they don't exist, according to some.

Navi Mumbai flamingo illustration
Pink Paradise by Nivedita Bansal

Have you ever wondered why the 2005 floods wreaked such havoc in Mumbai?

It’s because hundreds of acres of swamps along the Mithi River and in the Mahim Creek had been destroyed for urban construction projects, and its wetlands, which served as natural flood absorbents and sinks, had been replaced by large, unsustainable concrete jungles. If urgent action is not taken to stop the degradation of wetlands, roughly 21 bird species (including four near-threatened species and one vulnerable species) and about two-thirds of marine animals, such as fish, shrimps, crabs, molluscs, and turtles, may become extinct.



Between January and September 2018, the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) recorded waterbirds on the T.S. Chanakya wetlands, including near-threatened species (listed in the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species) such as painted stork, lesser flamingo, Eurasian curlew, and curlew sandpiper, according to a report titled 'Coastal Wetlands and Waterbirds of Navi Mumbai: Current Status' published in 2019. And, because most of these birds, such as the lesser flamingo, are migratory, their extinction might have far-reaching consequences for ecosystems across countries.



The report also states that until the 1970s, Navi Mumbai was surrounded by vast swaths of salt pans and paddy fields. Tidal water was controlled by tide gates for agriculture, salt farming, and fishing, but by the 1980s, these traditional practices had all but disappeared. This occurred at the same time as when the Maharashtra City and Industrial Development Corporation (CIDCO) was established to develop this territory into a new metropolitan district, today known as Navi Mumbai, to move the city's increasing population.

The report further says that 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 they were replaced by prolific growth of mangroves and scrubs, along with uncultivated and unmanaged lands. Currently, unsustainable development activities, particularly landfilling for residential, recreational, and commercial purposes, pose a serious danger to these wetlands.

According to an article from India Mongabay, three plots in Seawoods, Navi Mumbai, are in question: pockets A, C, and D. Zone adjustments were made in Pockets A (20 hectares) and D (0.85 hectares) – and are being suggested in Pocket C (47 hectares) – to allow for the development of a golf course and residential area while also making the lands economically feasible. The proposed golf course, which would have been about 20 hectares in size, was to be built on NRI wetlands, while the residential complex was to be built on a 13-hectare tract of TSC wetlands.

As per reports, CIDCO issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) in October 2002 for the creation of an 18-hole international golf course and country club on 35 hectares of land that, according to the petition, falls under the CRZ 2011 Notification.

The companies that participated in the RFP were Mistry Construction Co. Pvt. Ltd. (a subsidiary of Adani Advisory LLP.), Makhija Developers Pvt. Ltd., and BSEL Infrastructure Realty Limited, all of which are based in Navi Mumbai and none of which had any expertise or experience in the construction of a golf course, let alone an international standard golf course. Tenders were sought without any public notice, and bids were sought from a small group of people who, according to the petition, were organised solely to take public properties, including mangroves, water bodies, and wetlands.

Bhushan Gagrani, former Managing Director of CIDCO, stated in a letter dated January 19, 2017, that the pockets 'A' and 'E' at Sector 60, Nerul, Navi Mumbai, which is required to be developed by CIDCO for the development of Navi Mumbai, are not wetlands, but had no official authority to make this decision. According to the law, no one has the right or authority to do so once the land is declared as a part of the National Wetlands Atlas. Even the MoEFCC accepted that more than 2 lakh wetlands are protected in a meeting with the National Wetlands Committee in April 2022.

Meanwhile, the SLP filed by CIDCO and Mistry Construction Co. Pvt. Ltd. in the Hon'ble Supreme Court of India to overturn the Bombay High Court's decision in a suit filed by Sunil Agarwal and Navi Mumbai Environmental Preservation Society in 2018 is still pending. The petition claims that CIDCO secretly granted Mistry Building Co. Pvt. Ltd. permission to proceed with construction on pockets D and E despite the fact that it was an integrated project and hence no piecemeal approval could have been provided by CIDCO.

Mistry Construction Co. Pvt. Ltd. started construction on various areas that are part of the CRZ 2011 Notification, such as mangroves, a 50-meter buffer from mangroves (CRZ-1A), intertidal zone (CRZ-1B), and CRZ-II (Urban). JCB, drilling machines, trucks, dumpers, cranes, and other heavy equipment have been rallied and construction has begun at Pockets D and E without permission from Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC) and in flagrant violation of CRZ Regulation/CRZ 2011 Notification, among other things.

We spoke to Sunil Agarwal, co-founder of Save Navi Mumbai Environment, who has been actively fighting to save Navi Mumbai's wetlands, about his thoughts on CIDCO. Below are snippets from our interview with him.


Sunil says,

Cidco has the worst past record of all. In September 2018, the Bombay High Court issued an order mandating the transfer of all mangroves held by public authorities to the forest department's mangroves cell. Cidco, on the other hand, still has them. Vanashakti, a non-profit organisation, was forced to file a contempt of court petition, and the Bombay high court has ordered them to provide an affidavit.

He further adds that they also refuse to acknowledge any wetlands protected by Bombay High Court and Supreme Court judgments. CIDCO's MD's letter from January 2017, is an example of their gall.

Sunil had filed a suit in the Bombay High Court in March 2018 to conserve 35 hectares of wetlands on Palm Beach Road that were turned over by CIDCO to a private developer for the construction of residential towers under the guise of a golf course. On November 1, 2018, the Bombay High Court issued an order halting the project.

On February 1, 2022, Sunil submitted a new petition to the court, requesting that it take action against such officials. He filed the said petition protesting against CIDCO giving over natural resources to a private builder for a pittance. A windfall of over 10,000 crores for a private developer.

This petition from February 2022, Sunil says, got a hearing in May 2022 in the Bombay High Court. But the Mistry Construction Company took objections to the petition, stating that the matter is already being taken up in the Supreme Court. Eventually, the Mistry Construction Company’s efforts led to the petition being disposed of and the petitioners being told to explore alternative remedies.

Sunil had also filed a writ petition under Article 32 of the Constitution of India earlier at the Supreme Court to highlight the frauds done by the Makhija Developers and CIDCO. This writ petition was an attempt to underscore how Navi Mumbai’s environment was being destroyed. When this case finally got a hearing in front of Chief Justice N. V. Ramana in April 2022, Justice Ramana recused himself; although, the reasons behind his action remain unknown.

With the resumption of normal hearings at the Supreme Court again, Sunil and other activists await their turn for receiving justice. Sunil believes that justice will be delivered to them in due time just as had been done in the recent Maradu Demolition Case.

In the meantime, CIDCO and the builder groups’ malpractices seem to continue. Despite declaring that the plans for building the golf course were cancelled in light of the new Mumbai International Airport undertaken by the Adani Group themselves, their activities at the CRZ area have not stopped. CIDCO was found selling parts of the CRZ-restricted property and offering 1.5 FSI to the bidders (FSI or Floor a Space Index refers to the maximum permissible floor area that a builder can build on a particular plot). This action, too, faced the wrath of citizens and advocates in the form of protests in July 2022.

Sunil also added that the builders are now planning to build 9 towers in the disputed area and seeking RERA approval separately for each tower to escape further flak. They have already secured the approval for 3 of these, which shows the nexus between the officials and the builders. They have also been found building third-party or buyers’ interest in the area aggressively in spite of the conflict. While CIDCO and the builders continue with these practices, Sunil and other advocates and activists stand in the long line for their hearing.

There seems to be no alternative path other than the Indian judiciary as of now for them. This is because their other attempts at talking to the relevant environmental bodies and appealing to the collector’s office saw no luck.

The fight to save the Navi Mumbai wetlands from CIDCO and the builders has been a long struggle ongoing since 2017. But Sunil stands firm in his belief that justice will be served to them soon.

Coastal wetland loss has already resulted in serious repercussions such as coastal flooding, erosion, and biodiversity loss. It is crucial that efforts be taken to prevent further loss of this valuable ecosystem with many important functions and to restore it where possible. A coastal marine spatial planning effort focusing on the shared goal of detecting future competitive uses and impacts is an effective technique for safeguarding coastal wetlands. Shippers, port authorities, recreational and commercial fishing interests, the Coast Guard, pipeline corporations, utilities, and state and municipal resource agencies are all important stakeholders.



References

For Love Of Water. (2020, January 21). Wetlands Destruction. FLOW. https://forloveofwater.org/issues/wetlands-destruction/


Tandon, A. (2020, November 23). Saving Navi Mumbai wetlands from turning into a golf course. Mongabay-India.


Deshpande, S. (2021, November 16). Declare Panje wetland as ‘bird sanctuary’: Bombay HC issues notice. The Times of India.


Bajaru, S. D. D. A., Prabhu, M., Khot, R., & Apte, D. D. (2019). COASTAL WETLANDS AND WATERBIRDS OF NAVI MUMBAI: CURRENT STATUS. Bombay Natural History Society.


Singh, V. (2022, July 24). Navi Mumbai: Greens form human chain to save CRZ plot from sale by Cidco. The Times of India.



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