Encroaching on a lifeline

Print edition : February 28, 2003

Mumbai's Borivali National Park, which is India's only park within a metropolis, is threatened by encroachments despite a May 1997 ruling of the Bombay High Court that the encroachers be evicted and resettled elsewhere.

in Mumbai

A part of the Borivali National Park, devastated by illegal quarrying.-PICTURES:SANJOY MONGA/PORPOISE/PHOTOSTOCK

SLUM shanties, stone quarries, encroachments by housing colonies, a flourishing timber mafia, and bootlegging - all these characterised the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai until 1997, when the Bombay High Court ordered a clean-up. The Forest Department and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that work for wildlife protection set about implementing the court ruling. However, their attempts at evicting the encroachers met with resistance from human rights activists. Now, more than five years after the order was passed, about one-fourth of the original number of encroachers still live within the park.

The Sanjay Gandhi National Park, better known as the Borivali National Park, lies partly within the metropolitan region of Mumbai (in the northern-most suburb of Borivali) and partly in the adjoining district of Thane.

Devotees at the Kanheri Caves, believed to be 2,000 years old, on Mahashivaratri day.-

There are just a handful of national parks within city limits in the world. Even within this exclusive club, the Borivali National Park is unique as it holds the dual responsibility of conserving wildlife and being a lifeline to Mumbai. The city's two main sources of drinking water - the Vihar and Tulsi lakes - are within the park. Nowhere else in the urban sprawl is the tenuous link between nature and man so crucially demonstrated as in the dependence of Mumbai's 13 million people on water from these lakes. The park's hilly, forested terrain encourages heavy precipitation, of approximately 2,600 mm a year. The forest absorbs this and regenerates the groundwater sources for months. The thick deciduous forest also acts as a filter for the city's polluted air, though this is as yet an unquantified asset.

Initially notified in 1927, the park was given `national park' status in 1982. The final notification, as a nature park and forest reserve spread over 103 square kilometres, came in January 1996. When first conceived of, the park lay far away from the city. Over the years it was gradually hemmed in by the urban expansion of Mumbai and Thane. The park has been inundated by residential and commercial encroachment over the last 20 years. About 90 per cent of it is now surrounded by dense urban settlements.

The Borivali National Park is home to a rich diversity of wildlife and flora. Apart from a large population of animals such as monkeys, antelopes, the nilgai, deer and the wild boar, the 1996 census of the park shows the existence of about 43 leopards, 46 species of reptiles and 272 varieties of birds, of which 146 are resident. The park also boasts of a small population of one of the rarest cats found in India - the rusty-spotted cat. Tigers were once resident here but the last one was shot in the late 1920s. A diversity of flora, ranging from deciduous trees to dense mangroves, prove the area's capability to support a rich ecological diversity. The park also contains the 2,000-year-old Kanheri caves, a complex of 104 Buddhist caves carved out of a hillside.

By the early 1990s encroachments had begun to threaten the park. About 750 acres (300 hectares) had been encroached upon by bootleggers, stone quarry operators, slum-dwellers and builders. After colonising the park's periphery, they began advancing at an alarming pace. The outcome was inevitable. Reports of incidents involving people and the wildlife, some with human or animal fatalities, became frequent.

In an effort to save the park, a public interest petition was filed by the Bombay Environmental Action Group (BEAG) in 1995. The focus of the petition was the need to halt the commercial activities within the park and to remove the illegal encroachments.

Apart from quarry and small-scale industries, a full-fledged, government-owned bacon factory was functioning within the park.

On the unfettered expansion of slums within the park, Debi Goenka of the BEAG says that the encroachments were aided and abetted by local politicians and corrupt officials. "In an area where the entry of a bona fide visitor requires a permit issued by the Chief Wildlife Warden, the construction of over 60,000 illegal structures has been permitted over the past 15 years."

A May 1977 ruling of the Bombay High Court on the BEAG's petition said that the encroachers would have to be resettled outside the park at a designated site once the necessary infrastructure was developed on it. A deadline of 18 months was set. Of the approximately 62,000 structures, the occupants of about 33,000 were considered eligible for resettlement. These structures had existed prior to 1995, the cut-off date set by the government. The rest were deemed illegal. The Forest Department started demolishing the illegal slums in 1998, and cleared about 22,000 structures. About 13,000 families still live in the park even though the resettlement site is ready for occupation. About 7,000 families have obtained a stay order on their eviction. Debi Goenka of the BEAG says that his organisation has reactivated the old petition. "There is no legal issue that remains to be cleared. It is just a matter of implementing the earlier order," he says.

As per government policy, encroachers who opted for alternative accommodation had to pay Rs.7,000 in instalments to the Thane district authorities for their new homes. Many families defaulted on payments, thereby bringing down the number of those to be resettled to 12,000. Out of these the Grievance Redressal Authority set up by the government declared about 2,500 families ineligible for resettlement. Finally, only about 9,000 families were considered eligible. Around 7,500 of these have received their allotment letters for the new house sites.

The plight of the evicted people is a sad fact, but it has to be said that human presence within the park is a threat to its existence. Anand Bharati, Deputy Conservator of Forests at the park, said: "Till you ensure protection of the natural environment you cannot consider any sort of development as sustainable. There is no industry that can produce water, air or food. Calculate the value of the oxygen produced by the national park. Can you put a value on it?"

A raging forest fire.-

Arguing for the park, Goenka says, "Before the landmark decision of the Bombay High Court, every waterhole, stream and tree in the vicinity of the encroachments had its share of humans, thus depriving wildlife of habitat and water. Trees and bamboo were cut to provide housing materials, and forest fires were a daily affair. Bootlegging was rampant and it was even unsafe for small groups of birdwatchers to enter the park."

In the clash between people's interests and the need to protect animals the balance of public and official sympathy would naturally shift in favour of the former. The Forest Department was put in an extremely difficult and delicate situation and was forced to tread lightly. Slumlords took advantage of the situation and the issued false documents on stamped paper, thus giving a false sense of security to the slum-dwellers that they owned the plots of land that they occupied.

It was only when a firm stand on the legal status of the park as a notified national park and reserve forest was taken that matters fell into perspective. "The protected area network constitutes just about 4 per cent of the entire country," says Goenka, asserting that wildlife should unhesitatingly be given priority over all else within national parks and reserve forests.

Bootleggers busy at work within the park.-

AT odds with this argument are a group of NGOs who say that the tribal people have an inalienable right to live in the park because they lived in that place prior to the park's creation. There are three arguments to challenge them. One is that when a national park or forest reserve is created, all rights except those related to the preservation of nature are extinguished. The second is that people who are being evicted have been offered secure tenure complete with infrastructure. The third argument is that the word `tribal' needs to be redefined in the context of the Borivali National Park. Goenka, who puts forth the third argument, says, "Very few of them are original tribal residents. About 300 to 400 people were resettled in the 1970s. Some of them have returned to the park. Others who have been displaced by the Thakur housing colony and the Royal Palms golf course, have encroached on the park. None of these people still leads a tribal existence, and they are therefore not eligible for preferential treatment. They do not live off the land or the forest. They hold regular jobs like any of us."

The Ministry of Environment and Forest has sanctioned money for the building of a wall around the park. Work on this is yet to start because the evictions are not yet complete. There have been 50 new posts created for guards and new staff have been appointed. New vehicles have been purchased and two companies of State Reserve Police have been permanently deployed to assist the Forest Department. However, the facilities are still inadequate, considering that there are 103 sq km to be patrolled and guarded.

Future plans to use the park purely for nature-related activities would require the employment of more personnel, but before those objectives can be achieved the encroachers have to be resettled. Only then can the area truly lay claim to its status as a nature park and forest reserve.