News reports about the recent visit of the minister of environment to Mumbai fill one with despair. Even as the devastation in Uttarakhand was making headlines, our chief minister was asking Jayanthi Natarajan to relax environmental rules for projects which are either unnecessary, or designed to wreak havoc on their surroundings. Did he forget that Uttarakhand’s destruction is a direct outcome of the relaxation of environmental rules in that ecologically sensitive state?
Uttarakhand is far away. Our rulers refuse to learn the lessons of Mumbai.
Prithviraj Chavan wasn’t in Mumbai when the 2005 deluge took place, but he must be aware that his predecessors and the BMC were responsible for it, by allowing the choking of the Mithi river, the destruction of mangroves and unchecked construction, and refusing to upgrade the sewerage system. Almost 1,000 persons died then, 2.5 lakh homes were drowned, and the financial loss came to Rs450 crore. Yet, eight years later, all that’s in place to prevent another such disaster are the warnings sent out by the BMC not to venture out whenever heavy rains are set to coincide with high tide. As if homes are safe!
Unlike our previous chief ministers, Prithviraj Chavan is a man of science, a BITS Pilani graduate in mechanical engineering from an era when that degree meant much more than it does today, and an MSc from the prestigious California University, Berkeley. He was also minister of state for earth sciences, a portfolio not unconnected to the environment. Yet, this man is hell bent on flouting CRZ rules and getting a coastal ring road built in Mumbai, to cater to the 6 per cent Mumbaikars who use cars.
Another project which the environment ministry is being asked to wink at is the widening of the Mumbai-Goa national highway which would cut through the Karnala bird sanctuary. Birds be damned, so also trees. Within the city, 902 trees, most of them old and tall, are to be cut to add four lanes to the Sion-Panvel expressway, so that cars can zip to the proposed Navi Mumbai airport. For that airport and also for a Metro car-shed at Charkop, Natarajan is being asked to allow further destruction of life-saving mangroves.
These requests may or may not be granted, depending on the electoral stakes.
But the one project Natarajan agreed to will benefit no one. The government obviously thinks voters are so brainless that they will interpret the setting up of a gigantic statue of Shivaji in the sea, where no construction is normally allowed, as love for the Marathi manoos, and, therefore, vote for the Congress-NCP instead of the Shiv Sena and MNS. The statue will cost Rs350 crore. The same government says it doesn’t have Rs15 crore to implement road safety infrastructure on the killer Mumbai-Goa highway.
Natarajan had already gladdened the hearts of the men who really control this city — the builders — by relaxing her ministry’s new rules on the height of buildings being proportionate to the width of roads. But our rulers are never content. They now want her to allow mining in Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg, two of the greenest, most ecologically sensitive regions of the state.
The samadhi of Adi Shankaracharya survived the elements for 1200 years but couldn’t withstand the onslaught on Nature wrought by Uttarakhand’s rulers over the last 20 years. My generation didn’t even know a river called Mithi flowed through Mumbai. Will our children know that there were beaches and even hills in Mumbai?
The author is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist.