The Bombay high court (HC)-appointed committee, which is looking after the protection of mangroves and wetlands in Maharashtra, on Monday, directed all district collectors (DCs) along the Konkan coast and municipal commissioners to undertake a fresh survey to re-verify the status of all wetlands and submit their reports within 15 days to the panel.
Also read: MTDC to hand over 500-acre mangrove area in Manori-Gorai to Maharashtra forest department
The committee, which met for the first time after six months, has directed state authorities not to differentiate between human-made and natural wetlands during its latest assessment and consider all wetland areas identified in the National Wetland Inventory Atlas (NWIA), Maharashtra, while undertaking the exercise.
“There is a need for correct interpretation of what constitutes a wetland. This is not happening at the moment,” said Annasaheb Misal, commissioner, Konkan, and also chairman of the HC-appointed panel.
“All DCs and other departments have been asked to re-examine the exercise to come up with a fresh list for notification and an overall protection of sites,” he added.
In 2014, the HC had banned reclamation and construction on wetlands in Maharashtra after Vanashakti, a Mumbai based environmental non-governmental organisation (NGO), had filed a petition to protect them.
The plea had led to the formation of the HC-appointed panel.
In September 2017, the Union Ministry of Environment Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) notified new Wetland (Conservation and Management) Rules 2017, replacing its 2010 version.
The new rules left out wetlands protected under forest and wildlife laws and under the coastal regulation zone (CRZ) and also the human-made water bodies and all salt pans.
The MoEFCC directed all states to prepare a fresh wetland inventory.
Maharashtra environment department submitted a list of wetlands to each district in the Konkan region in early 2019 to verify and submit their status.
Misal said based on the submissions by the districts in the Konkan region, it was observed that the number of wetlands proposed versus those verified for the final notification were too few and far between.
For example, though initially, the number of wetlands identified as per the NWIA, Mahrashtra, for Mumbai was 475, later it was watered down to 59, and only a single declared area in Powai, measuring up to 181.9 hectares (ha), was submitted for the final notification.
In Thane, the NWIA, Maharashtra, had identified 1,895 wetlands, which was whittled down to 132 potential sites. Later, eight wetlands were sent for the final notification.
“A similar situation was observed in Palghar district, where out of 86 potential sites, six have been proposed for the final notification,” said Misal.
“We need to ensure that not a single area is left out that may have the slightest features of what constitutes a wetland, or has already been identified under the NWIA, Maharashtra,” he added.
Neenu Somraj, member secretary of the HC-appointed panel, said the committee has received 77 and 11 complaints regarding destruction of mangroves and wetlands, respectively.
“The Konkan commissioner has directed collectors, civic chiefs, police personnel and other state agencies to follow up on all pending complaints and submit status reports within the next 15 days before the next meeting of the panel,” said Somraj.
“DCs need to follow the recent decision by the MoEFCC to handover all mangrove areas to the state forest department within the next two months,” he added.
Nidhi Chaudhari, DC, Raigad, has told the committee that first information reports (FIRs) were filed against the Navi Mumbai Special Economic Zone (NMSEZ) for damaging Pagote and Bhendkhal wetlands in Uran.
Misal said state bodies were directed to take strict action against any form of debris dumping or encroachments at wetlands and mangroves.
Maharashtra Police authorities were told to file charge sheets in cases, where FIRs were filed.
“A status report has been asked from them. Complaints need to be monitored closely at the level of DC and municipal commissioner. In many cases, complaints have not been attended to properly. This should not happen,” he said.
Other members of the HC-appointed panel said all wetlands in the Atlas must be documented and protected. “The new commissioner has taken the issue of wetland conservation seriously. He has directed DCs to give a report on wetlands in their jurisdiction. He has upheld the mandate of the committee as instructed by the HC. It is high time the importance of all wetlands in the NWIA is recognised and a comprehensive inventory is prepared,” said Stalin D, a member of the HC-appointed panel.
Shift dumping ground out of mangroves in Uran: HC panel
The HC-appointed panel on Monday also directed that a dumping ground in Uran be shifted out at the earliest. The committee directed the City Industrial Development Corporation Ltd. (Cidco) to issue a no-objection certificate (NoC) to shift the dumping ground to the new location identified by the Raigad district administration and the local civic body. “Land has been identified, but the civic body needs the NoC from Cidco since it is a notified area under the planning agency. Cidco should not have any problem in issuing the NoC since dumping garbage on mangroves is a violation of the law and needs to be stopped at the earliest,” said Misal.
The dumping ground, measuring two ha, is located between Bori Pakhadi and Hanuman Koliwada villages in Uran. it has been receiving three tonnes of mostly dry waste daily since 2007. A residential colony is located less than 100 metres (m) from the landfill site on the one end, while dense mangrove vegetation is situated on the other side.
Environmentalists have cited a growing health hazard and submitted a list of grievances to the HC-appointed panel that sewage was entering the wetland while the stench and insect menace was leading to several infectious diseases among local residents. “Latest decisions indicate that our complaints have been noted and this ecologically-sensitive site can be protected,” said BN Kumar, director, NatConnect Foundation, one of the complainants.
However, Cidco authorities said the new landfill site, which is located at Mulekhand, around 15 kilometres (km) south-east from the existing one, also had a residential area close to it. “Residents have objected to the proposed landfill site. Our planning department is trying to resolve the impasse. However, obtaining an NOC will take time,” said a Cidco official.