Mangroves vs airport: Mumbai's development battle

The proposed site of the new international airport in Mumbai
The proposed site of the new international airport in Mumbai
Plans for a new international airport in the coastal city of Mumbai will destroy yet more of its mangrove ecosystems, and there are fears the deal has already been closed

Often when people think of mangroves — trees and shrubs found in subtropical intertidal zones — they imagine marshy swamps, dumps, and generally uninhabitable environments.

But mangroves are a vital part of coastal ecosystems, protecting against floods and erosion as well as acting as a habitat for fish and other marine species.

Scientists have also highlighted their role in sequestering carbon from the atmosphere and serving as both a source of, and repository for, nutrients and sediments for other inshore marine habitats, such as seagrass beds and coral reefs.

A recent assessment put their economic value to coastal communities in terms of fishing, tourism and flood and erosion protection at $1.6 billion a year.

Mumbai's mangroves

However, according to a recent study, one in six mangrove species are in danger of extinction driven by unbridled coastal development, pollution and a general lack of awareness about their importance.

The rapidly expanding coastal city of Mumbai is an ongoing example of such loss with more than 10,000 hectares - 40 per cent - of its mangrove ecosystems lost in the past decade.

The city of almost 20 million people is a non-stop conveyor belt of new developments, says Soonabai Godrej of the Marine Ecology Centre, with many of its mangroves lost to reclamation for housing, slums, sewage treatment and rubbish dumps.

Now, new plans for a second airport in the city, currently awaiting clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests, threaten even further destruction.

Aviation dilemma

Mumbai’s current Chattrapathi Shivaji International Airport caters to 20 million passengers and will, even after expansion, only accommodate 40 million passengers a year. In contrast, the city expects more than 91 million travellers by the year 2031.

Once built, the proposed Navi Mumbai International Airport (NMIA), is expected to absorb a minimum of 10 million passengers within its first year, doubling to 20 million in 2020.

Industry groups say the new airport is long overdue and essential for attracting foreign investment and long overdue.

However, 90 per cent of the site earmarked for the airport is wetland, of which 170 hectares are covered with dense and lush mangroves. The Minister for Civil Aviation, Praful Patel, says the wetlands offer 'the only possible site' for the airport, but conservationists say there are alternatives that the government refuses to consider.

‘When one drives along the National Highway, there are more than 2,000 hectares of barren land between Kasara (a town almost equidistant to the commercial hub of Mumbai from the NMIA site) and Nasik,' says Stalin Dayanand, an environmental activist with the Mumbai-based NGO, Conservation Action Trust.

'Here the terrain is rocky - no farm lands are involved - minimum displacement and injustice would be done to the agriculture-dependent poor,’ he adds.

Big business

Another environmentalist, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal, says the real reason for the failure to consider alternative sites is that a number of powerful people have vested interest in the land adjoining the proposed site of the airport, ‘It suits them to have an airport here and nowhere else,’ they said.

Stalin Dayanand, from Conservation Action Trust, says conservation and protecting mangroves is low on the list of government priorities.

‘The Government’s present policy is to give away all available land to builders and then kill the wetlands, mangroves, green areas and forests under the pretext of providing the vital services for a city,’ he said.

The proposed site of the new international airport in Mumbai

The proposed site is also close to the 680 hectare Economic Development Zone promoted by the Gulf Finance House. At its inauguration, the Chief Minister of the state of Maharashtra [which includes Mumbai], Ashok Chavan, reassured his audience that: ‘issues relating to mandatory permission required for construction of the airport will soon be sorted out.’

Officially, the environment minister Jairam Ramesh is not due to decide upon the airport until the end of September but conservationists fear that such comments show approval for the project has already been settled.

One of Ramesh's advisors, Dr Nalini Bhatt, said recently that, 'all development comes with a price'.

Impact on mangroves

A recent environmental assessment prepared on behalf of the body in charge of the new airport project, the City and Industrial Development Corporation of Maharashtra (CIDCO), said the airport expansion would not adversely affect the environment.

But Rishi Agarwal from the Mangrove Society of India said the report's authors, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), were far from independent.

'Almost all their reports have a similar format— giving green signals to projects and demanding strict implementation of environment norms, which are never followed,' he told the Times of India.

Aside from recommendations on controlling air, water and noise pollution from the airport, the report suggests planting mangroves on an alternative site to compensate.

But Dr. Nudrat Sayed from the Conservation Action Trust, remains sceptical the government will follow through with such plans and says mangrove reforestation has a 'very low success rate'.

'Even if they are able to re-afforest the mangroves, how will they recreate the rich biodiversity of these wetlands?'

Legal action

Although the environmental assessment gives tacit approval to the project there are still legal obstacles that could yet block the new airport.

According to the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification 1991, no development is permitted on mangroves and other ecologically sensitive areas. However, in May 2009, this Notification was amended to make an exception for Mumbai's new airport.

In addition, a Public Interest Litigation was filed by the Bombay Environmental Action Group in the Bombay High Court. The Court passed a monumental order in October 2005 stating that 'there shall be a total freeze on the destruction and cutting of mangroves in the entire State of Maharashtra'.

However, even this is unlikely to be enough to stop the airport. The body in charge of the new airport project, the City, and Industrial Development Corporation of Maharashtra (CIDCO) says it is already planing to apply to the High Court for permission to start the project.

Biodiversity loses out again

Harish Pande, who represents residents from homes overlooking the mangrove site where the airport is planned, says the ease with which laws and judgements were being overturned set a dangerous precedent.

'In my opinion, this will lead to a disastrous trend. Large corporations will approach the authorities seeking clearance for ecologically unsound projects and clearances will be granted,' he said.

Agarwal, from the Mangrove Society of India, said the public authorities did not understand the importance of mangrove ecosystems.

'People associate nature with forests and not wetlands. Projects like the new Mumbai airport are symbolic of the continuing neglect towards wetlands.

'When such projects are promoted, a message is sent out to the people that the government and society as whole doesn’t really care about these ecosystems. It just perpetuates the cycle of neglect,' he said

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