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Wildlife

Thane creek soon to be Maharashtra’s first urban Ramsar site

Print edition : Mar 25, 2022 T+T-
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A mangrove forest in the Thane creek.

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Mudflats serve as feeding grounds for flamingos.

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Among the more flamboyant visitors to the Thane creek are the flamingos which come here for their winter breeding.

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The Maharashtra government declared 1,690.5 hectares of Thane Creek as a flamingo sanctuary in 2015.

The government of Maharashtra recently cleared the decks to declare the Thane creek the State’s first urban Ramsar site, which, if approved by the Ministry of Environment, will signal a major watershed in wetland conservation.

As Maharashtra inches towards getting its first urban Ramsar site at the Thane creek, north of Mumbai, not many know that the process to achieve this was initiated about 15 years ago. Along with a few other non-governmental organisations, the Bombay Environment Action Group (BEAG) and Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) had been trying to encourage ecotourism in the Thane creek at the time. Debi Goenka, who was then with BEAG and is currently with the Conservation Action Trust, says they had hoped that local fishermen could add to their income by taking birdwatchers out in their boats during the migration season. It was thought that this would get the Thane creek on the international birdwatching network and therefore a Ramsar status could be applied for.

The idea found favour with the State Environment and Forest Departments, and a proposal was sent to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC). They, too, reacted favourably, and sent it on to the Ramsar Secretariat, who were agreeable but asked for a map showing the borders of the site. This reasonable request threw a spanner in the works since only the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) could prepare it. The MMRDA demanded an official request from the Centre. This never came and the plan languished until it was revived recently by the government of Maharashtra.

Ramsar site

A Ramsar site is a wetland area that is designated as internationally important under the Ramsar Convention, which is an intergovernmental environment treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands. It is also known as the Convention on Wetlands. The Convention was held in 1971 in the city of Ramsar in Iran. By definition, a wetland is any landscape that is continually fed by water, or is under water such as swamps, marshes and peat bogs. India signed the Ramsar Agreement in 1982 and took steps for the conservation of its wetlands. There are 2,424 Ramsar sites across the world and 49 in India.

The Thane creek, which has 12 true mangrove species and 39 associate mangrove species, is an ideal candidate for a Ramsar site. It is considered one of the area’s important bird habitats, drawing around 167 species of birds. It also supports 45 species of fishes, 59 species of butterflies and 67 insect species. Among the more flamboyant visitors to the area are the flamingos, which come here for their winter breeding. The winter avian visitors, which number over a lakh, include the greater and the lesser flamingo, the golden plover, the great spotted eagle, the pied avocet and the ruddy turnstone.

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The Thane creek had a thriving ecosystem until the early 1980s, but reckless urbanisation and human pressures such as the reclamation of the sea, the filling up of swampy areas, the cutting of mangroves, the blocking of the natural flow of seawater, the dumping of waste and debris on the creek’s shores, and garbage landfills have posed threats to the fine ecological balance of the wetlands.

Flamingo sanctuary

The State government declared 1,690.5 hectares of the creek the Thane Creek Flamingo Sanctuary in 2015, thereby officially recognising it as an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area. Of the 1,690.5 ha, 896 ha were mangrove forests and 794 ha were water. It is Maharashtra’s second marine sanctuary after Malvan on the Konkan coast.

Declaring the area a sanctuary was the first step towards holistic conservation of the area’s wetlands. The second step came in July 2021, when the State government announced its intention of declaring the Thane Creek a Ramsar site. This will be Maharashtra’s third Ramsar site, after Nandur Madhameshwar in Nasik and Lonar lake in Buldhana district. The Thane creek will be the first Ramsar wetland in the Mumbai Metropolitan region, and the first urban Ramsar site in the State.

Clearance for the declaration moved at an encouraging pace. On December 9, 2021, State Environment Minister Aaditya Thackeray cleared the proposal for final approval from Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray. On February 17, 2022, Chief Minister Thackeray cleared the proposal, which in turn has been sent to the MoEFCC, to designate the flamingo sanctuary as a Ramsar site.

On February 17, the Secretariat issued a note that read: “Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray has approved the proposal submitted by the State’s Mangrove Cell for granting ‘Ramsar’ status to Thane creek area and the proposal is being sent to the Central Government for further approval. Achieving Ramsar status will attract tourists from home and abroad for birdwatching and will also provide employment to the locals by boosting the environment and tourism. Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray has said that as the importance of wetlands reaches the people and their conservation gets more momentum, it will also be recorded on the world tourism map. It was approved at the fourth meeting of the State Watershed Authority held on December 9, 2021, under the chairmanship of Environment Minister Aditya Thackeray. The proposal was then submitted to the Chief Minister for approval.”

It further noted: “Thane Creek Flamingo Sanctuary is spread over an area of 16.905 sq. km. Areas of international importance are known as Ramsar area. The Thane Bay area is home to some other bird species, including flamingos, which migrate to India from abroad. Therefore, this wetland is of special international importance. An area of approximately 65 sq. km of Thane creek is proposed as Ramsar site, with an area of sanctuary covering 17 sq. km. The remaining 48 sq. km was notified in October 2021 as an environmentally sensitive area. Therefore, conservation of biodiversity in this area will be easier.”

Ironically, although the State Mangrove Cell proposed the Thane creek as a Ramsar site, the Cell itself has been pushing to cut mangroves in the Thane creek. Their argument is that the mudflats are expanding and mangroves are spreading owing to siltation, and that waders have no place to feed as a result. On the one hand, the Mangrove Cell is involved in compensatory afforestation of mangroves, a difficult thing to do, and on the other, it wants to decimate mangroves that are growing naturally in abundance.

The CIDCO angle

Although the proposal to designate the Thane creek as a Ramsar site has the backing of the State government, there is a sticky point in the form of the City and Industrial Development Corporation (CIDCO), which has been largely responsible for the urbanisation of Thane and Navi Mumbai. Along with the declaration of the creek a Ramsar site, the neighbouring wetlands in Uran and Navi Mumbai also need an umbrella of security so that ecological balance is maintained. When the flamingo sanctuary was notified, a 10-year management plan had been tabled by the Forest Department. There are six critical satellite wetlands which need to be declared as conservation reserves. They total about 205 ha, and will serve as feeding grounds as well as roosting grounds for birds during high tides. There are ecological linkages between wetlands that are not obvious on the surface but extend to a radius of about 50 km.

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In July last year, the Forest Department had written to CIDCO, which owns most of this land, asking for its comments on turning the land into conservation reserves. CIDCO’s response was a categorical no. It claimed the area was developable and therefore did not qualify as wetlands. In short, this means CIDCO is looking to dump debris and destroy the wetlands and create land for construction.

CIDCO is already in the Bombay High Court, fighting to get another wetland in the Navi Mumbai area which it wants to convert into a golf course. Local residents say that despite the matter being in court, earth movers and other heavy machinery are already operating at the site.

Protection for other wetland areas has also been pending. In December 2015, four months after the declaration of the flamingo sanctuary, 1,600 acres of wetland in Mumbai, Thane and Raigad districts had been declared wetlands that needed protection. This included Navi Mumbai’s Panje wetlands and the Sewri-Mahul wetlands on Mumbai’s eastern shore, where flamingos gather every year. But while gigantic projects such as the Trans-Harbour Link have proceeded at a rapid pace, the protection of wetlands has stagnated. In early February, Panje was formally recognised as a wetland by ISRO’s Space Application Centre that lists all wetlands in the National Wetland Inventory and Assessment Atlas. Debi Goenka tweeted: “Happy to inform you that Panje has been identified as a wetland with mangroves, salt pans and mudflats in the latest atlas prepared by the Space Application Centre for the MoEF&CC.”

It is now hoped that a recent order of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) will get things moving. On February 22, Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel, who heads the Western Zonal Bench of the NGT, said the Panje wetlands need protection. This, taken along with the Supreme Court’s position on wetlands, which is to say that all wetlands listed in the Wetland Atlas (and not only those that are notified) should be protected, means that there is some hope for the six satellite wetland sites around the proposed Ramsar site and, hence, for the proposed site itself.

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