Cidco opposes bid to declare Navi Mumbai flamingo havens as conservation reserves

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The City Industrial Development Corporation Ltd (Cidco), Maharashtra’s planning agency, has rejected the idea of declaring areas in Navi Mumbai and Uran, where thousands of flamingos migrated to in April and May, as conservation reserves, saying they are “developable land parcels” and originally salt pans.

The flamingos coloured the Talawe wetlands near NRI Complex and Training Ship Chanakya (TSC) in Navi Mumbai pink during the Covid-19 lockdown thanks to lack of human activity. Flamingos are known to feed on algae, crustaceans, shrimp, and aquatic plants, which give them pink colour.

Cidco plans to develop a golf course and 17 buildings with 1,564 flats and 20 offices in the area. Environmentalists and residents have opposed the proposed constructions and the Bombay high has also stayed them. The matter is now pending before the Supreme Court.

The State Mangrove Cell in April proposed protection of five sites–NRI (21.9 ha), TSC (14 ha) in Navi Mumbai, and Panje (124 ha), Bhendkhal (8 ha) and Belpada (30 ha) in Uran–as conservation reserves based on a Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) report. It sought comments from the Raigad district administration and landowners–Cidco, Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT) and some private companies–under the Navi Mumbai Special Economic Zone (NMSEZ). JNPT and NMSEZ have also rejected the proposed protection.

Cidco called BNHS’s report incorrect and highlighted the latter’s another 2014 report that recommended making areas, including TSC and NRI, near the Navi Mumbai International Airport unattractive for birds to avoid the risk of bird hits. It added the BNHS’s 2019 report overlooked this aspect of flight safety while recommending conservation reserves.

Cidco’s nodal officer (environment), Pramod Patil said they have also accessed a March 2016 letter of the then principal chief conservator of forest (wildlife) citing recommendations from the previous Mangrove Cell head against proposing bird sanctuaries at NRI and TSC. “We have shared this letter with the Maharashtra government.”

Cidco said the proposed areas in Uran were either salt pans, agricultural areas or allocated to NMSEZ. “Thus, none of these five locations are wetlands and shall not be considered as wetlands,” the letter said.

In January, state environment minister Aaditya Thackeray asked Cidco to look at alternate options such as a flamingo sanctuary or mangrove park at the site for the proposed golf course.

The Mangrove Cell has asked BNHS to respond to Cidco’s submissions. “Our proposal was based on BNHS’ study, and we have also marked these sites as satellite wetlands in the Thane Creek Flamingo Sanctuary Management Plan. There can be further clarity on this only after BNHS responds to [Cidco] submissions…,” said additional principal chief conservator of forests (Mangrove Cell), Virendra Tiwari.

BNHS’s Deepak Apte said the suggestions made in the 2014 interim report were specific to a proposed mangrove park adjacent to NMIA’s runway. “It was not at all in the context of NRI, TSC, and the other three wetlands in Uran. Our view is consistent right from the beginning that all these five wetlands need to be protected.”

BNHS secretary Debi Goenka said it is common knowledge that a final report will subsume any interim report. “In any case, the National Wetland Atlas Maharashtra, prepared by the Indian Space Research Organisation, already shows these areas as wetlands.”

Navi Mumbai resident Sunil Agarwal said he will file a contempt plea in the Supreme Court against Cidco and the Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority for failing to implement its directions on conservation and protection of wetlands. “The false stand of these state bodies that there are no wetlands in Navi Mumbai and Uran needs to be called out. Rules have been manipulated to benefit private builders and the large flock of flamingos earlier this year is a testament that the area needs no construction, especially not a golf course.”

National Wetland Authority member Afroz Ahmad like the decision on proposing 600 hectares of Aarey in Mumbai as reserved forest, it is up to the state to take a final call on whether these sites are wetlands. “States have been given liberty. It is under their jurisdiction to declare relevant areas as wetlands if the environment is the foremost priority. All these state departments need to discuss and resolve the issue amicably. If these wetlands are coming under the framework and rules, they should be declared appropriately as massive biodiversity is involved.”