Maharashtra forests

Vanishing forests

Print edition : February 01, 2019

All that is left of the forest after a fire broke out at the Sanjay Gandhi National Park near Aarey Colony in Mumbai on December 3, 2018. The cause of the fire is unknown. Photo: Prashant Waydande

A tiger taking away a lunch box of a worker at the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve, near Nagpur in Maharashtra, in December 2017. Development projects have contributed to an increase in the number of man-animal conflicts. Photo: K.R. DEEPAK

Flamingos in the Thane Creek Flamingo Sanctuary in New Mumbai. It is facing a threat as the city recorded extensive mangrove destruction in 2018. Photo: Paul Noronha

Protected forests and ecologically sensitive areas are being lost to development projects in Maharashtra, resulting in the fragmentation of forests and severing of wildlife corridors.

SEVEN years ago, at a function in New Delhi, Jairam Ramesh, the then Minister for Environment and Forests, said that the greatest threat to forests in India was the “developmental threat”.

That statement is valid even more now, especially in Maharashtra, where forests are lost at a steady rate to infrastructure projects. According to official figures of the State Forest Department, Maharashtra has a forest cover of 56.6 lakh hectares (ha). Data from the Union Environment Ministry show that over the last three years, Maharashtra has lost about 6,346 ha of forests to non-forestry purposes. Out of this, 1,060 ha was destroyed for purposes of mining. The remainder fell victim to railways, highways, transmission lines, irrigation projects, and rehabilitation of villages that were project-affected or were being moved from core forest areas.

At the heart of the problem is the State administration’s belief that forests are a resource and that society’s growth is directly proportional to the growth of industry and infrastructure. Everything else panders to this guiding belief.

As Stalin Dayanand, director of the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Vanashakti, says: “What is a forest? Is a forest a place to do business? Forests are not a resource. It’s a no-go zone necessary for life on this planet.” This understanding is lacking in the government. It is worth noting that the National Democratic Alliance government cleared 519 projects throughout India within protected areas and eco-sensitive zones. The United Progressive Alliance government cleared 260 during its term. Forests are being lost to various development projects. The Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP), better known as the Borivali National Park, and the Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary (TWS) are both eco-sensitive zones. They are home not only to large mammals, including the leopard, but also provide Mumbai with water. Both the SGNP and the TWS will be affected by the massive Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project, which is projected to cost Rs.1.08 lakh crore and is a pet project of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

There is the 126-km-long transport corridor linking Virar and Alibaug, which will require 38 ha in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region. This is being planned as a single corridor with multiple transport modes such as an eight-lane highway, a metro rail and a bus rapid transit system. Some of the sections will also incorporate pipelines of public utilities. At first, it was estimated that the project would require 110 ha and 14 ha would come from the SGNP. The Maharashtra State Wildlife Board objected to the project, and it was shifted further north. It will still need forest land but a lesser area. At a projected cost of Rs. 39,541 crore, the corridor will have 51 flyovers, 41 bridges, 39 vehicle underpasses, nine interchanges at major highway junctions, and 32 metro stations.

Also of concern is a proposal to build a petroleum pipeline and a bridge on the Sion-Panvel highway through Mumbai and Thane district. This will encroach on the Thane Creek Flamingo Sanctuary, which was notified by a government gazette in 2015 and is the State’s second marine sanctuary.

Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis set up a committee headed by Praveen Pardeshi, Additional Chief Secretary, to see how development projects would affect the SGNP, the TWS and the flamingo sanctuaries and to make suggestions to minimise the impact. It remains to be seen whether this is about making the right noises or is a serious effort to save forests, but the mandate of the committee seems to be skewed in favour of letting the projects go ahead.

There has not even been any pretence at setting up committees as far as other projects are concerned. Forest land has been handed over to projects and they have forged ahead, steamrolling objections and laws. In January 2018, Maharashtra cleared the way for allocating 467.5 ha of reserved forest land in Zari Jamni tehsil of Yavatmal district for a cement plant of the Anil Dhirubhai Ambani group. The company, Reliance Cementation Pvt. Ltd, has been pushing for the clearance of the project for at least nine years. In 2009, it even had support from the then Chief Minister Ashok Chavan of the Congress. The proposed plant is just 50 km away from the two forested areas of Pandharkawada and Mukutban, where tigers reportedly breed.

In September 2018, the State government allocated 141.99 ha of forest land in Gondia district to Adani Power Maharashtra Limited to build a 3,300 MW power plant, India’s third largest. The project site is just 10 km from the Nawegaon-Nagzira Tiger Reserve. Of the 141.99 ha, 24 ha is protected forest and 117 ha is zudpi jungle (scrub forest). Zudpi is a forest classification typical to Vidarbha. It cannot be used for development work and any change in its status is a lengthy process that involves the Union government.

In the same month, 56 ha of protected forest in Palghar was released to the Power Grid Corporation of India for laying power lines for the industrial hubs of Boisar and Navsari. In October, 51 ha of forest was given for erection of transmission lines in the Gadarwara-Warora stretch in Chandrapur district, an area consisting of prime forest. In December, the corporation got an additional 147 ha of forest land in Thane district for laying transmission lines. Twenty-six ha of reserved forest was released without much ado in November for an irrigation project in Nandurbar.

When forest land is handed over for non-forestry use, the administration invariably tries to justify it by saying that trees are being planted elsewhere, calling it compensatory afforestation. There are many reasons to debunk the notion of compensatory afforestation. First, it may just be an eyewash, with no tree planted anywhere to compensate for the ones cut. Second, the point is not just about planting trees. It is to do with the biodiversity of a region. Cutting down a forest is not just about cutting trees—it is home to many other forms of life that cannot be replicated by planting new trees elsewhere. Third, and possibly the most crucial at this juncture in wildlife conservation, giving away chunks of forest land constricts the space that animals have and restricts their movement from one zone to another, leading to the so-called man-animal conflict. Forest land is sacrosanct and should not be touched. In fact, additional land should be allocated for forestation.

The Dodamarg-Sawantwadi forest belt is in Sindhudurg district in southern Maharashtra. This falls in the Western Ghats. In a draft notification released on October 3, 2018, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change declared 56,825 sq km of the Western Ghats as an Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA). While it is encouraging that the Ministry saw it fit to declare 37 per cent of the Western Ghats as an ESA, it omitted to include a crucial strip of 38 km by 10 km in the ESA, which is the Dodamarg-Sawantwadi belt. This is a vital elephant and tiger corridor between Maharashtra and Goa. It also has some of the most dense forest cover in the State. It is home to tigers, leopards, elephants, civets, pangolins, sloth bears and Indian giant squirrels. The corridor is a vital connection between the Radhanagari Wildlife Sanctuary in Kolhapur in Maharashtra and the Bhimgad Wildlife Sanctuary in Karnataka. About 25 tigers have been sighted in the area.

Restrictions in ESA

When an area is declared an ESA, mining, quarrying and construction of thermal power plants or indeed any large building are restricted. The declaration of the Western Ghats as an ESA has its origins in a report prepared by the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, or the Gadgil Commission, written by the ecologist Professor Madhav Gadgil in 2010. Gadgil is also the founder of the Centre for Ecological Sciences, a research forum under the Indian Institute of Science. In his report, he had recommended that 75 per cent of the Western Ghats be declared eco-sensitive.

Unsurprisingly, Gadgil’s report was criticised for being too environment-friendly. So, a working group to reassess the report was formed. This was headed by the scientist K. Kasturirangan. In his report, he said that only 37 per cent of the Western Ghats should be declared eco-sensitive. Another difference between the two reports concerned the freedom that should be given to local bodies of elected citizens to have a say in development projects in an eco-sensitive area. Gadgil felt that villages should be consulted, whereas Kasturirangan felt that they need not have a say in decisions that concerned the larger economy.

Western Ghats as an ESA

The first draft notification to declare the Western Ghats an ESA came in 2015. But it did not notify the Dodamarg-Sawantwadi belt as an ESA. In 2011, another NGO, the Awaaz Foundation, petitioned the Bombay High Court asking for the Dodamarg-Sawantwadi corridor to be declared an ESA. In 2013, the court ordered the State to do so. In 2016, the NGO Vanashakti petitioned the court asking for its 2013 order to be implemented and asking for the whole of Sawantwadi district to be declared an ESA. Responding to the petition, the court banned all tree-felling in the area, but NGOs and certain forest officials say it has not stopped.

In the draft notification dated October 3, 2018, the proposed Western Ghats ESA in Maharashtra is spread across 17,340 sq km. But the Dodamarg-Sawantwadi belt has been left out again. This, says Stalin, is because the corridor allows the Goa mining lobby access to land in Maharashtra. Ignoring the court’s order is, in effect, a subtle green signal to proceed with destruction. Destruction of forest is rampant in the region, and the effects of this will soon be seen when water sources start to dry up. Interestingly, the latest draft notification followed the Kerala floods, as the result of a directive from the National Green Tribunal to finalise the order. That the NGT has taken so long to step in makes the NGT suspect too. It almost seems like a case of appearing to do things rather than actually doing them.

A major problem caused by building linear infrastructure such as roads, railway lines and even irrigation canals is the fragmentation of habitat and the severing of wildlife corridors. The chances of man-animal conflict (a phrase that should be replaced by something that lays the blame squarely on man) thus increase dramatically.

The Wildlife Conservation Trust recently came out with a report that said 399 of the 1,697 proposals for linear infrastructure submitted to the Union Environment Ministry from July 2014 onwards would destroy tiger corridors. Of this, Maharashtra’s road projects are worth Rs.19,393 crore, rail projects Rs.4,323 crore and irrigation projects Rs.2,420 crore.

All the projects are located in areas having the largest tiger population. Some of the big projects are the expansion of National Highway 6 into a four-lane highway, which will dissect the Kanha-Nawegaon-Tadoba-Indravati corridor, and the expansion of the Nagpur-Chhindwara rail line, which will pass through the Pench-Satpura corridor. There is also a proposal to change the Akola-Khandwa metre-gauge railway line to broad gauge; 39 km of the line passes through the Melghat Tiger Reserve, including its core area. Access to a core area is usually reserved for forest officials and researchers. How a rail line can pass through a core area is inexplicable. Even more intriguing, it is not profitable for the Railways since there is very little passenger traffic in the route. There is already another rail route that does not go through the reserve, but the green signal for the new route has been given.

Furthermore, it negates all the work that went into relocating the villages that were along the old metre-gauge line. After the relocation of the villages, the area had slowly reverted to the wild and the number of tigers has reportedly risen to more than 10 from 3 in 2013.

Importance of corridors

Wildlife corridors are the remnants of the gigantic forests which were solely territories of animals once. Corridors give wildlife, especially the larger animals, the chance to roam and breed between fragmented forests and multiply, especially in the case of fiercely territorial ones such as tigers which do not tolerate solitary young males in already established territories. Now, if corridors are also fragmented or blocked (as a result of infrastructure projects) and the animals’ access to them is further restricted, then it will in effect be the beginning of the extinction of those species.

Stalin says: “Tigers can never survive in isolated forests; they require huge habitats and that’s only possible if we have safe passages or corridors connecting these protected areas. It’s important to create tiger conservation landscapes.” Currently, the central-eastern part of Maharashtra, where there are protected forests and sanctuaries, is reasonably well connected by wildlife corridors (see map), but the numerous permissions being granted for projects could fragment the landscape and destroy the corridors. Stalin points out that of the 50 tiger reserves in the country, six are in Maharashtra and they have a total population of around 200 tigers.

With reports of growing human encroachment upon sanctuaries, there is bound to be increased human-animal conflict. The government has decided to frame a policy to reduce this. Its specific contents are not yet known but a framework has been laid down. It talks of fixing the role of stakeholders including government officials, of joint forest management committees, of measures to reduce conflict, and a look at the natural habitat of animals.

Vanashakti looked at the statistics of people killed by wild animals in Brahmapuri division in Chandrapur district between 2007 and 2018. All the 155 who died in this 10-year period were killed within the forest. None was killed in the villages. All the deaths happened when the victims had gone to the forest to collect firewood or answer a call of nature call or graze cattle. In essence, they had entered the animals’ zone.

To avoid such deaths, Vanashakti suggests, among other things, that people living in villages bordering forests be given cooking gas, fodder for cattle and toilet facilities.

The simplest policy would be to apply existing laws that clearly state the dos and don’ts for the well-being of both wildlife and humans. The only problem seems to be a lack of will on the part of the government to apply its own laws, and a willingness to be led by the nose by industry. Neither of these is something that a new policy can rectify.

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