The battle for the Sanjay Gandhi National Park is a battle for the city and its poor
At 107 sq kms, it is 34 times the size of Manhattan’s Central Park. There is nothing ornamental here. This is an old-growth forest, the home of 274 bird species, 150 species of butterflies and 42 mammals — including the leopard. This is Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) and it is probably the only biosphere reserve within local municipal limits anywhere on the planet.
A few minutes off the rumble of the Western Express Highway, it’s another world. It’s several degrees cooler here, and very quiet. At the government log hut by one of the lakes, there is no electricity. Late at night, over the ridge of the hills across, you can just see the glow of Mulund and Goregaon. Beneath, in the forest, it is very dark and without human sound.
Over 30 years, the size of the area grew. Its name changed. Today, it straddles the Mumbai Suburban and Thane Districts and within its area includes the 2000-year-old Kanheri caves and the catchment areas of the Tulsi and Vihar Lakes which supply water to the city.
For many years, it was neglected. Politicians and slum lords grabbed the opportunity. Slum lords took over large areas, and, tied with local politicians, “sold” pitches to poor migrants with assurances of permanency through that wonderful alchemy of governance called ‘regularisation’, legalizing illegalities. There was massive deforestation, wildlife loss and the lakes were under severe threat. Commercial enterprises, including equally commercial ‘shrines’, mushroomed. Khair tree wood was illegally felled to feed the gutka industry. By 1995, there were 4 lakh illegal squatters in the SGNP. The encroachments, including quarries, covered an area of 1750 acres.
Another view of the park, visible even today: Climbing up the steep slope of a defunct quarry, and stepping around an abandoned two floor structure, there is a view of the park: a stream flowing quietly through a bowl of green hills. A second, closer look makes you stop: pouring down one entire side of the hill is a river — of garbage.
Perhaps no other designated National Park or biosphere reserve in the country is so clearly a divide between the environmentalists and human rights and affordable housing activists. The principal environmental defender of the park is my friend of many years, Debi Goenka, a man with a sometimes exasperating but always unyielding commitment to the environment. In 1995, as an activist for the Bombay Environmental Action Group (he is now the managing trustee of the Conservation Action Trust) he filed a PIL in the Bombay High Court seeking, among other things, the removal of SGNP’s encroachments.
In a stunning leap of judicial imagination, looking well into the future, the High Court put in motion a rational and humane program for relocating encroachers. This was opposed. Human rights activists canvassed that the poor had a right to permanent shelter, right there in the park. In 2003, the High Court passed a final order requiring the removal of all encroachments in six months. A majority of the over 70,000 illegal structures in the park have been removed, thanks in no small measure to the work of two of a highly endangered species, committed and honest government servants: Mr A.R. Bharati and his successor as the Director of the Park, Dr P.N. Munde.
The forest, the leopard, and the poor — all are victims of encroachment. Each is denied justice, for if there is one thing that is unarguably true, it is this: environmental degradation hurts the poor most. When those forests become high-rises, when the lakes shrivel, it is the poor who will still be without houses or water. Here’s a familiar pattern: land sharks encourage encroachment. A Slum Rehabilitation Scheme kicks in. Portions of the park are lost. And the very poorest — those who cannot meet the government’s entirely arbitrary “cut-off” eligibility dates of 1995 or whatever is the flavour of the month — get evicted anyway.
There is a fourth victim, too, and that is the city itself. The SGNP slums are unlike those anywhere else. These threaten life — animal, plant, the forest, the lakes, the city’s water supply and, given the size of the SGNP, its climate.
Seven years ago, the court ordered a wall to be built around the park. It is still only partly done. We need that wall. Not to keep the leopards in, but to keep humans out; for on the survival of the park depends the survival of the city.
SGNP: View from a quarry
SGNP: Rivers of garbage
SGNP: Rivers of garbage
(The author is among the many lawyers who have appeared for the BEAG in the SGNP case, and is a trustee of the Conservation Action Trust)
At 107 sq kms, it is 34 times the size of Manhattan's Central Park. There is nothing ornamental here. This is an old-growth forest, the home of 274 bird species, 150 species of butterflies and 42 mammals -- including the leopard. This is Mumbai's Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) and it is probably the only biosphere reserve within local municipal limits anywhere on the planet.