Free Press Journal

Staying alive in polluted Mumbai


RADHIKA JHAVERI gives an overall perspective of the state of environment in and around Mumbai and what can be done about it.

Delhi has been fighting a battle against pollution for almost three decades now. Mass scale migration due to increased job opportunities, rise in small scale industries and a massive increase in the number of private vehicles on the road are some of the factors responsible for the poor air quality in the city. With no long term solution in sight, Delhiites have settled for a short term odd-even formula to tackle its dangerously high air pollution levels. The fifteen day experiment has been largely successful in solving the traffic congestion in the city but debate about how effective the scheme has been in reducing air pollution is still on going.

Dr Mahesh Shindikar, member of the Maharashtra coastal zone management authority (MCZMA) and an assistant professor in Biology at the applied science department, college of engineering in Pune, raises some very important concerns about formulas such as the odd even scheme. He says, “I think that the odd-even formula is successful when it comes to traffic but 15 days is a very short time to judge its impact on air pollution. Since it is winter and the temperatures are really low, the experiment will not give actual readings. It needs to be conducted for two to three months at least.”

Consulate General of the United States, Mumbai, India; 12th January, 2016

Delhi’s air pollution predicament has led to a similar debate about the declining quality of air in Mumbai. It has prompted the Maharashtra government to dig up a 15 year old report that had suggested similar schemes for easing traffic congestion in Mumbai. Although the local railway and bus networks carry the maximum load of daily2nd lead 2 transportation needs and keep the air quality in check, the number of cars on the road are still increasing exponentially.  “However,” Dr Shindikar adds, “the problem with cities like Mumbai is that they witness very dynamic changes in population levels due to massive migrations into the city limits making it very difficult to implement systemic changes. The geographical location of Mumbai makes it difficult for governmental authorities to satisfy the demands for land for the city’s developmental needs.”

One such instance where this dilemma is the most pronounced is the proposed site for the construction of a Metro Depot at Aarey which invited wide spread protests from citizen groups and environmental NGOs. The depot, if built, would have resulted in felling of more than 2000 trees. The state government headed by CM Devendra Fadnavis has since accepted a six member expert committee report and decided to move the depot to Kanjurmarg instead. However, if the Kanjurmarg option deems to be unfeasible then the next alternative would be building a double decker depot at Aarey which will involve felling of 500 trees.

Aarey is one of the last remaining green lungs in the city that is supporting a complex ecosystem consisting of a wide variety of wild life some of whom have been listed under the Schedule II of the Wildlife Protection Act. “Aarey provides a habitat for a very large variety of birds, amphibians, butterflies, reptiles and mammals including the leopard. Species that were believed to be extinct were rediscovered in Aarey,” says Tiasa Adhya, a wildlife conservationist and an environmental reporter.

According to the Maharashtra Forest Department, Maharashtra accounts for 9.36% of the country’s total area and has approximately 20% of geographical area under forest cover, as against the target of 33% under the National Forest Policy, 1988. The belief that the forests that are cut down, often for ‘developmental’ needs, can always be transplanted elsewhere is faulty. “A simplistic way of looking at things can be dangerous. Trees are merely a unit of complex ecosystems. Transplanting trees elsewhere will not save the layers of complexity that exist in an ecosystem such as Aarey’s,” remarks Ms Adhya.

A thought that is echoed by Isaac Kehimkar, General Manager at the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS). “These green patches are very precious. No amount of money can bring them back. The concept of cutting down forests and planting trees elsewhere is wrong. You cannot plant a forest, it takes several hundred years for a forest to grow,” he says. The Maharashtra government’s pet coastal freeway project that proposes to connect Nariman Point with Kandivali is problematic as well. This project caters almost exclusively to car owners which constitute less than 10% of the total commuters and is estimated to cost a whooping 10,000 crores. “We have been telling the government since the past 15 years but MMRDA does not seem to be listening. There are scores of migratory birds like flamingos and waders that come from Central Asia to feed here. The government did a lot of surveys, they thought about BARC and Elephanta but they did not think about the flamingoes, they did consider that important,” says Mr Kehimkar. “Government has declared other places as sanctuaries but the flamingoes are coming there for a purpose so this compensatory package will not help. We have tried to convince them but they don’t seem to budge,” he adds.

The upcoming Coastal Freeway is sure to destroy Mumbai’s coastline that has been its pride since time immemorial. Not just the pristine coastline but the mangrove vegetation that is protecting the city from natural disasters like tsunami will surely be destroyed. There has been some good news on the mangrove front especially in Navi Mumbai where conservationists say that the area under mangrove has been growing. Mangrove plantation projects like the ones BNHS has been carrying out along with the help of local communities along the Maharashtra and Gujarat coastlines have helped conserve them. “However, there is a huge demand for land and mangroves provide that supply and hence are under a constant threat,” says Mr Kehimkar.

The solution to Mumbai’s ever increasing demand for land and resources is being fulfilled by sacrificing its few remaining green lungs. The city has become so overwhelmed that there are no open spaces left. “The problem is that there is no place in the city to plant trees,” says Mr Pradeep Tripathi, Executive Director of Green Yatra, an environmental NGO whose primary focus is on tree plantation. “We have planted over 5000 trees but they are all outside city limits in places like Dahanu and Karjat,” he adds. With housing societies going in only for decorative plants that are merely ornamental and have no environmental value and no availability of open lands within the city, the existing green lungs and open spaces must be protected at all costs. Mr Tripathi sums it up very succinctly when he exclaims, “Development must not be at the cost of the environment. Alternate methods should always be sought.”