Inching in

A comprehensive study of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park points to government connivance in the destruction of Mumbai's invaluable heritage

Published: Wednesday 15 October 1997

Losing ground: the gate to San the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Borivli, a bustling industrial suburb of Mumbai, is under threat. An unholy nexus of builders, slum lords, bureaucrats, and their political patrons is responsible for organised destruction of the park. The deteriorating condition of the park -- an invaluable asset to a city buckling under urban pressures -- is outlined in a study released on August 29, 1997. Sponsored by the Maharashtra state division of the World Wide Fund for Nature, the study was conducted over a period of 5-6 months by Vijay Paranjapye, a well known environmental researcher, and his team at econet, a Pune-based non-governmental organisation.

The 103 sq km park lies within the municipal limits of the teeming metropolis. Because of its location, it is confronted with a unique set of problems, quite unlike those faced in other national parks and sanctuaries across the country. The park has become a free bounty for everyone to exploit. "To everybody's dismay, the powerful lobby of builders and quarry owners had established such a strong nexus with the political forces in the state that the efforts of the forest department were being thwarted and negated," says Paranjapye. Authorities and concerned citizens have been reduced to helpless spectators.

The release of the report comes soon after a landmark judgement of the Bombay High Court on May 7, 1997. The court ordered the government to stop all mining and quarrying activities in the park, remove all encroachments, and rescind all public facilities such as water and telephone lines given illegally to encroachers. The order, given by chief justice M B Shah and justice F I Rebello, came in response to a public interest petition filed by the Bombay Environment Action Group ( beag ) in February 1995.

The park is a repository of the country's biological and cultural heritage. Though almost 90-95 per cent of the vegetation in the park is secondary, small patches of natural forest continue to exist. This relatively small area of forest represents five different forest types found in the region, namely, tropical moist deciduous forests, south Indian moist deciduous forest, semi-evergreen forests, western tropical hill forests, and mangrove scrub forests.

In addition, there still exist some deorais , or sacred groves, within the national park. The park also has two lakes -- Tulsi and Vihar -- which supply at least 10 per cent of the city's water. The park serves as catchment area for these lakes. It is home to some 59 species of mammals, 299 species of birds, and several other animal species. The leopard is still found in these forests but is highly endangered. In the heart of the park lie the Kanheri caves -- a wonderful complex of 104 rock cut caves built in the 1st century as a refuge for Buddhist monks. This group of caves was connected by an intricate system of water cisterns and channels which diverted and stored monsoon runoff from the surrounding hills and forests.

The Paranjapye report points out that most of the peripheral areas of the park, especially on its southern and western border, have been encroached by slums. About seven per cent of the park's area has been encroached and some 400,000 people live in the 800 ha area approximately. According to the Ahmedabad-based Space Application Centre of the Indian Space Research Organisation ( isro ), some 772.82 ha of encroached land is completely irretrievable in terms of natural forest regeneration.

Though encroachments have been going on since the early 1970s, the rate of encroachment increased and peaked at the end of 1994, explains Paranjapye. During the campaign for Maharashtra assembly elections, candidates of political parties apparently assured slum dwellers that they would get the encroachments regularised if they came to power. In Yeur village on the eastern side of the park, tribals have been alienated from their land by "land sharks". Warli tribals have been duped into leasing their lands for long periods and construction of hotels, clubs, and buildings on the land is widespread. This is a massive fraud, says Paranjapye, which is only possible under political patronage and with bureaucratic connivance.

Northern areas of the park have some 18 illegal stone quarries. Illegal felling of valuable forest trees is rampant in the northern block of Nagla. This is a highly organised operation that, Paranjapye asserts, is carried out in the full knowledge of the forest department. "This could not have taken place without the connivance and acquiescence of the local politicians and the forest department officials," he says. He and his team report that between 5 to 10 trees are felled every day in this area and as many as 20 trees may be felled over the weekends. The favourite tree of the illegal loggers is khair , which is in greatly sought after by kaththha (catechu) manufacturers.

Almost 90 per cent of the population of Nagla and nearby villages are involved in these criminal activities. Some endangered mangroves on the southern bank of Kanheri caves have also been decimated. On the holy occasion of Mahashivratri , some 3 lakh pilgrims visit the Kanheri caves, resulting in large numbers of forest fires, destruction of forest tracts, and disruption of wildlife. In addition, the park also serves as a refuge for Mumbai's underworld.

Given the enormity of the problems confronting the park and the fact that its long term survival is at stake, Paranjapye and his team have made an impassioned plea to concerned citizen's groups and authorities to come together and discuss issues related to the park. In light of the organised and rapacious destruction of the forest, Paranjapye points out that there is no option but to resort to armed patrolling of the forest. Most nefarious activities such as logging and poaching, are carried out at night, making it imperative to have night patrols. Paranjapye has made several recommendations on how this should be done. He suggests that the boundaries of the park be extended to include almost three times the present area.

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