The beginning of the disaster
In 2008, Uran had huge expanses of waterbodies teaming with birdlife-flamingoes, ducks, plovers and so much more. The air reverberated with the sound of these birds and it was sheer bliss.
A year later, Navi Mumbai Special Economic Zone (NMSEZ) was sanctioned by CIDCO at Uran-Dronagiri node and developmental work began. Land-filling activities started and over the course of a decade nearly 2000 hectares of mangroves and wetlands were destroyed across Uran. The coastal town of Uran transformed drastically from being a birder's paradise into a concrete nightmare.
The Present Scenario
Today only one wetland remains at Uran-the Panje-Dongri wetlands. Every year, over 1.4 lakh migratory birds visit this wetland. Spread across 213 hectares, between the fishing villages of Panje and Dongri, the wetland offers livelihood to over 2500 fishermen.
But the greedy developers want Panje too, as its prime real estate. In September 2018, 71 sluice gates were discovered to be made functional blocking the inflow of tidal waters into Panje and the nearby mangroves. These sluice gates were in complete violation of the Bombay High Court Order dated 17th Sept'18 on Public Interest Litigation 87 of 2006. These gates operated only one way. They restricted the ingress of water during high tide but allowed the water to drain back to the sea, thereby leaving the entire wetland completely dry. This was a sure shot way of destroying the mangroves so that the area could easily be taken up by CIDCO for so-called "development". Initially after denying knowledge of the sluice gates, CIDCO relented and claimed that the gates were installed to protect the nearby villages from floods. In the last 10 years, Uran has never seen flooding.
Photographs that I clicked with GPS data were submitted along with complaint letters to Mangrove Cell authorities, Konkan Divisional Commissioner, CM Office and the media. Leading environmentalists like Debi Goenka, Sunjoy Monga, Bittu Sahgal lent their support. After a 10-day struggle, CIDCO opened 68 of the 71 gates due to the collective efforts of a lot of people involved in raising awareness of the situation and taking up the cause seriously and Panje was restored.
The corporations are too powerful
But the battle's far from over. Despite the Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority (MCZMA) committing in Bombay High Court that Panje comes under CRZ-1, NMSEZ continues to block tidal inflow channels regularly drying the wetland.
NatConnect, a non-governmental organization has filed multiple complaints with concerned authorities reporting encroachment and garbage dumping at Panje. The organization has also been working towards according Panje and Mangrove Zones and wetlands with 'Heritage property' status.
''Panje which has all the properties of a wetland has to be protected. The Environment Minister, acting on our complaints, has stalled all construction there. Successive Chief Ministers have sent our proposals for declaring Panje as a Bird Sanctuary to the Environment Department. In fact in a meeting with BNHS, the government did agree in principle to declare the Bird Sanctuary. But no action has been taken. The High Court appointed Mangrove Protection and Conservation Committee and the Wetlands Grievance Redressal Committee have asked CIDCO and Raigad district collector to protect Panje as wetland.
It is sad that CIDCO ignoring all these aspects has not only leased away Panje to Navi Mumbai SEZ but included it under the Dronagiri Development Plan.'' says Mr. B N Kumar, Award winning environmentalist and director of NatConnect Foundation.
Plans to declare the wetland a bird sanctuary has been proposed time and again starting 2015. But formal announcement remains absent. If the wetland is destroyed, it would not only impact birdlife but also humans. Panje wetlands act as a carbon sink and help mitigate climate change. The mangroves act as flood barriers. However, CIDCO and NMSEZ view them, as simply wastelands.
Mr. BN Kumar further adds, ''MNSEZ in its response to various authorities denies that it has been allotted wetlands. It goes to the extent of declaring that Panje is not a wetland. We don't have to dismiss this untenable argument. The official declarations are there for all to see.''
Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) has recommended the protection of Panje wetlands keeping in mind the safety for Navi Mumbai International Airport. The wetland is an important stopover for birds coming from Arctic and Europe and its absence could lead to bird hits, taking away innocent human lives.
The poor left to die a slow death
Panje also has been a fishing zone for years. If reclaimed, then the fishing community would be denied their constitutional right to practice their own trade for survival.
Environment and citizens' group, Shri Ekvira Aai Pratishtan (SEAP) has been fighting to protect the wetlands and the livelihood of the local fishing community.
''Article 21 of Indian Constitution states that the fishing communities have exclusive right overfishing areas in the vicinity. To protect these wetlands for future generations and livelihood perspective, I have approached Hon'ble Bombay high court and filed a legal petition for justice for my community and innocent bird population who have no voice'' said Mr. Nandkumar Pawar, head of SEAP.
Shiv Sena promises to save the wetland
Chief Minister Mr. Uddhav Thackeray has supported the environmental activists and has asked the environment department to protect these wetlands. Under the Thane Flamingo Sanctuary Management Plan, Panje and five other wetlands are proposed to be covered as satellite wetlands. This will protect them as a conservation/community reserve.
Modi promised the world to save wetlands
The Panje wetlands are a crucial part of the Central Asian Flyway. The flyway comprises of several important migration routes of water birds, across 30 countries linking their northernmost breeding grounds in Russia to the southernmost non-breeding ground in West and South Asia, Maldives and British Indian Ocean territory. The Indian Prime Minister, Mr. Narendra Modi has pledged to protect all the habitats along the flyway at the COP13 summit this year. Destroying the Panje wetlands would mean a direct violation of the Hon'ble PM's orders.
At a time when the world is reeling under a pandemic caused by our relentless destruction of Nature, we need to fast track our efforts in protecting whatever fractions are left of Nature around us. It's time we remember that wetlands are not wastelands and acknowledge their value in our life. As we stand on the brink of a climate crisis, that could tilt our planet's ecological balance, the need to protect these natural carbon sinks is even more vital.
If we wish to survive Nature is our only hope.