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Mumbai can choke. BJP wants to kill off national park for political gain

Ashwin Aghor | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:46 IST

It seems the Bharatiya Janata Party in Mumbai will go to any lengths for political gain. It now wants to kill off the lungs of Mumbai - the Sanjay Gandhi National Park - in order to gain political mileage ahead of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) elections.

The BJP-led state government, which has taken many populist decisions at the cost of the environment in the past, maintains a studied silence. But if the state party leadership has its way, the illegal slums and other structures built on forest land surrounding the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) will soon be regularised.

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BJP MPs and MLAs are lobbying to get the Central government to reduce the buffer zone of the SGNP to 100 metres from from 10 kilometre, and regularise illegal structures on land owned by Bombay Port Trust.

The forest, an area of rich biodiversity, has always been threatened by encroachment and illegal tree felling. And now, the politicians seem eager to drive the final nail into its coffin.

What SGNP means for Mumbai

It is difficult for people living outside Mumbai to imagine just what the SGNP, formerly known as the Borivali National Park, means for the densely-populated peninsular city. It covers an area of 104 square kilometres, and brings tremendous benefits to Mumbai.

A prime example of this came during the Mumbai floods in 2005. The torrential rains of July 2005 are still fresh in memory, since they killed hundreds of people and caused huge losses to property.

When the water receded and the administration started taking stock of the situation and the losses, it was realised that things could have been much worse, When the experts brainstormed on this, it emerged that the SGNP was the saviour, as a majority of the rainfall was absorbed by the forest, letting very little water flow out. However, once the situation returned to normal, the administration forgot about the importance of the forest.

Then, in 2011, the UPA-led central government decided on a 10-km wide buffer zones around all national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. However, given the population density around SGNP, the decision was never properly implemented.

Meeting with Union environment minister

For long, nearly 10 million people who live in 2.5 million illegal structures around the SGNP have demanded a reduction to the buffer zone. The BJP is now throwing its weight behind this demand, so that these structures can be regularised and new construction can take place.

A delegation of BJP leaders, led by MLA Ashish Shelar, met the Union environment minister, railway minister, road transport minister and urban development minister, demanding the relaxation of norms to regularise three million illegal structures. The delegation also consisted of MP Kirit Somaiya, Gopal Shetty, former MLA Atul Shah, corporator Manoj Kotak and Sunil Rane.

A senior party leader, who did not wish to be named, confessed that though the state government had not made any formal proposal for the reduction of the buffer zone, the visit by the delegation was the first step in the direction.

"The outcome of the meetings was favourable. The state government hopes to get the buffer zone reduced soon. At present, the delegation is making case that the state government wants made. Though it seems to be an initiative by some party leaders, it is in fact prompted by the government, so that once there is momentum, it can be used to get the favourable decisions from the Central government."

During its meeting with the Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Anil Dave, the delegation demanded that the buffer zone be reduced to 100 metres from 10 km.

"The minister was positive about our demands, and the final decision to this effect will be taken soon. This will benefit around seven million people living in illegal structures around SGNP," said Shelar.

He said that the 10 km buffer zone for the SGNP covered densely populated suburbs such as Dahisar, Borivali, Andheri, Kandivali, Bhandup and Mulund. The Supreme Court, too, had directed the government to rethink the buffer zone. "But the previous government did nothing. Now we have taken up the issue and will bring relief to distressed people soon, by reducing the buffer zone," Shelar said.

Environmentalists raise alarm

However, environmentalists are up in arms about the BJP leaders' proposal.

Stalin D, director (projects) of Mumbai-based NGO Vanashakti, said: "This will be the last nail in the coffin of the SGNP. Already, it has been encroached upon by people and self-proclaimed godmen supported by politicians. There are several illegal religious structures within the national park - the illegal ashram in Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary, the northern division of the SGNP, has been untouched despite SC orders to demolish it.

"I do not see any future of the last remaining green cover and also the city, if the government gives in to such populist decisions."

Edited by Shreyas Sharma

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First published: 12 October 2016, 2:06 IST
Ashwin Aghor @CatchNews

Journalist based in Mumbai.