Mumbai’s favourite flamingo watching site to be closed for 7 years —

Flamingos migrate to Mumbai’s wetlands in winters (HT Photo)

Flamingos migrate to Mumbai’s wetlands in winters (HT Photo)

Bird lovers who flocked to the Sewri seashore to watch migratory flamingos feeding in the mudflats of the Thane Creek are disappointed to know that the area will be out of bounds for visitors as work begins at the Sewri-end of the 22-kilometre long Mumbai-Trans-Harbour Link (MTHL) which will connect Mumbai to Jawaharlal Nehru Port (Navi Mumbai).

The location where flamingo watchers used to gather to watch thousands of birds has been barricaded for construction. Large tracts of mangrove trees near the Sewri jetty had been hacked and a gate was being constructed in the area where the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) conducts the flamingo festival every year. “Since there will be large machines at work on this site, we will have to cordon off the area, and citizens will not be allowed to enter for their own safety. For this, a gate is being setup. Flamingos have already begun moving a few 100 metres away from this site, and for at least the next seven years, people cannot visit this spot to see them,” said a technical officer at the construction site, on the condition of anonymity.

For the last six years, the BNHS has been organising the flamingo festival at Sewri between November and May when the birds arrive in Mumbai.

“Sewri has been an excellent spot where large number of people, almost 15,000 at any given time, could get a view of the vast open wetland area and could see these birds from one location. Other places cannot offer such an experience and this is surely a loss,” said Deepak Apte, director, BNHS. “However, we have been promised by the government that once the bridge construction is completed, a flamingo festival area will come up at Sewri itself, and we are currently working on a blueprint for this with the state.”

Environmentalists and birders called the construct a tragedy. “The loss of the Sewri flamingo habitat is a clear indicator of how the government views biodiversity conservation today. The state government is bulldozing all wildlife habitats in the eyes of development,” said Stalin D, director of environment group Vanashakti.

Greater flamingo   (pix SShukla)

Greater flamingo (pix SShukla)

Debi Goenka, executive trustee of the environment group Conservation Action Trust, said that the project will cater to vehicles owners. “If they really cared about the public at large, they would build a railway line along the existing Navi Mumbai road route, and then there would have been no need for such a project.”

Sudhir Gaikwad Inamdar, wildlife photographer and city-based birder, said, “As the construction activity takes pace, noise pollution from the project will ensure these birds move to another habitat. It is a really big loss for bird enthusiasts as the arrival of flamingos has already declined this year, and with such projects, it is expected to be worse in the years to come.”

The Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (MMRDA) is building the MTHL, which is expected to be the country’s longest sea link.

The state mangrove cell said a 1,000 mangrove trees had been destroyed (across patches amounting to 1 ha) with all clearances from the central government. “The project proponents got all clearances from the government of India. For such linear projects, an environmental nod from the central government is enough to commence construction. MMRDA has completed all legal formalities, including submitting funds to the Mangrove Foundation under the state government for safeguarding flamingo habitat in other parts of the eastern suburbs, compensatory afforestation for the loss of mangrove cover and boosting resources for the mangrove and marine biodiversity centre in Airoli,” said N Vasudevan, additional principal chief conservator of forest, state mangrove cell.

After MTHL is completed flamingo watching area at Sewri docks may be allowed

BNHS officials said this year around 40,000-45,000 fewer flamingos came to wetlands, including at Sewri where 15,000-20,000 birds were spotted. However, their arrival was delayed by almost six months.

“There were a lot of reports in February this year that said flamingos had not arrived at Sewri because of the MTHL construction. However, this was incorrect as there was a delayed arrival due to better presence of food and nesting sites in Gujarat this year. While the Sewri area will be closed to the public now and flamingo festival will be shifted to Navi Mumbai or Thane creek, the government is concerned about the issue and we are already working on a blueprint with them to develop the Sewri port as a flamingo watching area where the festival will happen post construction of this project,” said Deepak Apte, director, BNHS.

The 10km-long and 3km-wide Mahul-Sewri mudflats is a protected area and was demarcated as an Important Biodiversity Area (IBA) since 2004. According to BNHS, the area is home to 149 species of migratory birds, 10 species of fish (of which only four remain, as per the study), 23 species of mangroves and mangrove-associated species and 53 other plants species.

With regard to the loss of 1,000 mangrove trees, the state mangrove cell said they were yet to decide the location for compensatory afforestation. “One hectare spread across different patches with a total of 1000 mangrove trees has been lost for the project. Now, the Thane creek flamingo sanctuary stands as the best alternative for citizens from Sewri to spot flamingos, that too in large numbers,” said Makarand Ghodke, assistant conservator of forest, state mangrove cell.

The Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (MMRDA) that is constructing MTHL said the flamingo population would not be affected by the project and mangroves would rejuvenate soon.

American flamingo (Author - Charlesjsharp) (CC BY-SA 4.0)

American flamingo (Author – Charlesjsharp) (CC BY-SA 4.0)

“Post soil-testing and geo technical survey, basic construction has begun at the site. During construction, these birds (flamingos and other wetland birds) keep a safe distance from the project site. However, the project construction will not stop citizens from viewing these birds, only they will be further into the wetland. As far as mangroves are concerned, after getting all permissions in place there is only a temporary loss. Once construction is over, we will ensure these mangroves regrow at the site,” said Sanjay Khandare, additional metropolitan commissioner, MMRDA.

Shifting alignment by 400 metres recommended

In September 2015, the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) had submitted a list of recommendations to Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (MMRDA) to protect the half a million migratory birds that visit the area. One of the recommendations was to shift the starting point of the MTHL by around 300-400 metres south of its current position at Sewri jetty. “Our recommendation had indicated that the link should curve southwards to join the existing span away from the habitats of flamingos and other waterbirds. However, apart from this recommendation all the others have been accepted by MMRDA,” said Deepak Apte, director, BNHS adding that if realignment was done the population would not have been squeezed when construction began.

Flamingos’ arrival offers new hope against golf course project

Residents of Navi Mumbai were pleasantly surprised when a group of flamingos made their landing at the Talawe wetlands opposite the NRI complex in Nerul, over the weekend.

Residents estimated that close to 100 flamingos were spotted at one of the wetland patches, identified as pocket A, which is one of the five plots (A to D) acquired by City and Industrial Development Corporation (CIDCO) to construct residential buildings and a golf course.

“This wetland patch is threatened by debris dumping, which has led to the delay for not only flamingos but all wetland birds to arrive here,” said Pavan Sahu, Nerul resident and bird photographer, who first spotted the birds on Friday. “Earlier, large flocks had made this their home from November onward till June, but a lot has changed since construction began — locals dumping alcohol bottles and the fishing community encroaching in these areas. Now, they have arrived after a delay of almost six months.”

He added that other birds such as terns, waders, herons, and seagulls, have all been spotted at the site. “However, their numbers are falling drastically,” said Sahu.

Mumbai-based birders also confirmed the development after they spotted the birds on Sunday. “I spotted over 100 flamingos around 9.40am at the Talawe wetlands. Previously, there were isolated birds that would fly by but not settle at this wetland. It is absolutely wrong to construct at this site because it is clearly a wetland and has similar features of the Bhandup pumping station,” said Mrinal Ghosh, birder and Chembur resident.

Albeit delayed, the arrival holds significance in the wake of an affidavit submitted by Mistry Constructions Pvt Ltd. to the Bombay HC in response to another petition by the Navi Mumbai Environmental Preservation Society regarding the proposed airport at Navi Mumbai. The private company claims that the site is not a wetland and said that an earlier report submitted by Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) had inaccuracies and contradictions regarding proposed declaration of the site as an important bird area (IBA). “I say that the project has been seemingly singled out for such observations, which runs contrary to previous reports by BNHS. In any event, the site for the said project (golf course proposed by CIDCO) is not a wetland..,” reads the affidavit.

The petitioners now plan to submit the arrival of flamingos as evidence in court during the next hearing on June 13. “Spotting the near-threatened flamingos clarifies and confirms BNHS’ report and makes it a strong case for us to oppose this construction. The area needs to be declared a wetland bird sanctuary before it is too late,” said Agarwal.

Officials from CIDCO and Ministry Constructions refused to comment, stating that it was a sub judice matter. (Hindustan Times)

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