The state had decided to keep out around 4,000 hectares of coastal mangroves from the protective arms of the Forest Act. A division bench of Chief Justice Swatanter Kumar and Justice Dhananjay Chandrachud on Wednesday directed the state to explain why the areas had not been notified as "protected forests". This is in response to a petition was filed by the Bombay Environmental Action Group (BEAG) against the government.
In January 2007, the state had issued a notification declaring mangroves spread around 2,157 hectares (20 sq km) as "protected forests''. In the process, however, around 4,000 hectares were left out and the state had asked its various departments and civic bodies for suggestions whether the remaining areas should be retained for development projects.
Assistant government pleader Niranjan Pandit informed the court that it was in the process of declaring the areas as 'protected forests' but had held back due to the demands by various government departments that they needed the plots for implementing various infrastructure projects.
The court clearly unhappy with the move, has asked the state counsel to file an affidavit on three aspects—the exact mangrove areas that have not been declared as protected forests, how much of the remaining area is required for public infrastructure projects and what percentage of the mangrove plots were being earmarked for private projects (apartments and golf courses). Earlier, advocate Navroz Seervai launched a blistering attack on the state's tardy implementation of the high court orders to declare mangrove areas as protected forests.
Says Seervai: "It is a classic case of who will watch the watchmen". He alleges that the various government bodies have become the single largest destroyer of mangroves.
Seervai pointed out to records gleaned from Cidco, which had asked the state to retain over 250 hectares of mangrove areas (out of the total 1,741 hectares in its jurisdiction) for development projects.
"Many of the plots have been marked as saleable plots, and some for a golf course," claimed the advocate. BEAG also contended that the state government's action of inviting suggestions from local bodies on whether to declare the mangroves as forests or not were in violation of the high court order.
Mangroves are generally referred to as trees or shrubs that grow in saline coastal habitats i.e. between sea and land inundated by tides, in the tropics and subtropics. Mangroves can mean a species as well as a community of plants. It has the ability to live in salt water.
Some people don't like mangroves, regarding them as muddy, mosquito and crocodile infested swamps. In the past their removal was seen as a sign of progress.
So what is the point of preserving them?
For a start, an estimated 75 percent of fish caught commercially spend some time in the mangroves or are dependent on food chains, which can be traced back to these coastal forests.
Mangroves also protect the coast by absorbing the energy of storm driven waves and wind. While providing a buffer for the land on one side, mangroves also interact with the sea on the other. Sediments trapped by roots prevent silting of adjacent marine habitats where cloudy water might cause corals to die. In addition, mangrove plants and sediments have been shown to absorb pollution, including heavy metals. This is precisely why environmentalists like those of the BEAG are trying to protect mangrove forests.