Besides displacing thousands of people, the proposed Navi Mumbai international airport is expected to destroy local mangrove and wetland ecosystems that strengthen climate resilience of India’s financial capital

The development of the Navi Mumbai airport will lead to destruction of the local wetland ecosystem (Photo by Hiren Kumar Bose)

Anjali Dhamale of Chinchpada village is a worried woman. Her household of 11 people that makes a living by growing rice and rearing fish and poultry is one of the many hundreds of families who will be uprooted because of the proposed Navi Mumbai International Airport (NMIA).

The people of Chinchpada village would be resettled in a proposed township named Pushpak Nagar at Dapoli, some 0.5km from the boundary of the upcoming airport. “For generations, we have been farmers,” says Dhamale. “But now we will have to learn new skills and live in an alien environment.” Similar worries are echoed by residents of project-affected villages of Kombadbhuj, Targhar, Ganeshpuri and Ulwe.

Located 40 km to the east of Mumbai on India’s west coast in the Kovar-Panvel area in Navi Mumbai, the airport will displace some 3,500 families living in 10 villages. The affected people have long resisted land acquisition and demanded improved rehabilitation assistance. The project, first conceived more than 20 years ago, has been repeatedly delayed also because of environmental concerns.

Beside dislocation of human habitations leading to loss of livelihoods, the site that encompasses 121 hectares of forest, 162 ha of mangroves and 404 ha of mudflats will be concretised, destroying a unique wildlife habitat. The Bombay High Court in 2005 stopped the government of Maharashtra from any further deforestation of mangroves forest and in 2012 banned the conversion of wetlands in the western province.

The wetlands ecosystem attracts a large number of migratory birds and houses a number of species of crabs, fish and molluscs. Acting as a barrier to waves from eroding land in the interior, these are now in danger of destruction and under extreme threat from coastal developmental activities.

Ecosystem services

Coastal ecosystems are important ecologically as well as economically for they provide various services that mitigate the impacts of climate change. A report by Bombay Natural History Society on the importance of Maharashtra’s coastal ecosystem states that “the locals are dependent on these habitats for their daily needs such as fishing (artisanal as well as commercial), medicines etc.”

Although cities rely on the countryside for their survival, the rural areas are often ignored and neglected. Faced with expanding its infrastructure, urban planners set their sights on swathes of forest, mangroves and wetlands. There has been no attempt to understand the extent to which new investment in infrastructure is resilient to the changing climate requirements.

Emerging economies like India is investing billions in durable infrastructure every year. However, it has often failed to take into account future climate change in their planning. This leads to high risks of loss and damage. The NMAI project, planned to ease traffic of the burdened Mumbai international airport, is one such endeavour where climate-related issues have not been taken into account in the planning specifications.

A much-delayed project, the NMIA site was first proposed in 1997 as a secondary airport to support the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, which in 2017 handled 969 flights in a day, a world record for an airport operating only one runway at any given point of time.

Though the airport has two runways, it can operate only one at a time. In 2017-18, the airport handled 48.49 million passengers. As passenger capacity at the airport reaches saturation this year, a second airport is seen as a critical alternative to the existing airport in India’s financial capital, which is already bursting at its seams.

Estimated to cost INR 30 billion (USD 413 million), the Navi Mumbai international airport received the government’s approval in 2007, delayed as it was due to issues over acquiring land, and securing government approvals, including environmental clearances.  The NMIA is being developed under a public-private partnership model between conglomerate GVK Group’s subsidiary Mumbai International Airport (MIAL) and City and Industrial Development Corporation of Maharashtra Ltd (CIDCO) as the project implementation agency.

Environmental common sense

Major airports in India have been often laid in disregard of environmental common sense and continue to be done so, according to Teja Malladi of Geospatial Lab and Risk Lab at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements. For instance, the Mumbai airport obstructs the flow of the Mithi River and had to be closed during flooding in 2005. The Chennai airport’s second runway, which covers a culvert on the Adyar River had to be closed following heavy rains in December 2015. The Kochi airport, built after diverting a tributary of the Periyar River, remained closed for a fortnight this August due to unprecedented flooding.

Elsewhere in the world, similar wetlands are being taken over by infrastructure projects. Last month, a new airport opened north of Istanbul, Turkey, on a former Black Sea marshland. In the Maldives archipelago, a sprawling expansion to its capital city airport is rising from the Indian Ocean. Work is on for a runway being laid in an estuary of the Brisbane River in Australia. Built on an artificial island in the middle of Osaka Bay in Japan that serves the Kansai area is sinking at a much faster rate than engineers expected.

As climate change and variability become more pronounced, the frequency, intensity and/or duration of extreme weather events is set to increase but the authorities are unwilling to take lessons from their erroneous interventions in the past.

In fact, the Environment Impact Assessment study of the NMIA site conducted by the Indian Institute of Technology Mumbai mentioning the terrain states: “More than 50% of the airport area falls in the shallow mud abutting the creek and the entire land is required to be developed to a safe level. The northern side of the airport will be abutting the Panvel Creek which is calm and shelter area.”

Additionally, it says that the course of Ulwe River, which runs in the north-south direction through the site, will be re-routed and the Ghadi River, running alongside the northern boundary, will have to be re-channelled. Incidentally, the report does not acknowledge the existence of the Ulwe hillock, which is being levelled from a height of 90m to 10m. The work on it is proceeding at a frenetic speed, affecting the houses of those families yet to be relocated.

Since wetlands regulate the temperature of its surroundings, protects flood channels, and transmits water into underground water reservoirs, preserving such ecosystems is central to building resilience to climate change. “We are not a land-starved nation and the airport could be easily located elsewhere,” says Dayanand Stalin of Vanshakti, a non-profit engaged in conservation and preservation of wetlands. Stalin is also a member of a grievance redressal body that monitors and protects Maharashtra’s wetlands. “Though India is a signatory to the Ramsar Convention, which binds it to protect wetlands, we are doing the opposite, exploiting them for commercial reasons.”

Maharashtra’s Forest department in 2017 identified 507 wetlands (369 in forest areas and 118 in non-forest areas) for taking up conservation and management in a holistic manner. However, it has failed to notify even a single wetland site so far.

Alternate site

Environmental groups have criticized the NMIA site selection, terming it as a land grab in disguise, and urged the government to reconsider developing the Kalyan Airstripan abandoned Second World War airstrip at Nevali, 6 km south of Kalyan railway station and 55 km north of Mumbai airport, which would be more climate-resilient and incur minimal environment damage. The authorities have declined to consider the proposal.

The site was ostensibly changed to safeguard the interest of the real estate lobby that has set their eyes on the urbanisation of this hinterland with investment running into billions. Mumbai and it’s suburbs have barely 1.1 sq. m of open space per person. CIDCO had considered abandoning the Navi Mumbai site as late as in 2014 though it had acquired huge parcels of land some two decades back.

Meanwhile, environmentalists fighting for the conservation of wetlands in Navi Mumbai are seeking solace in the Bombay High Court judgment that scrapped CIDCO’s plans for an 18-hole golf course and a residential colony with 17 tower blocks in a large wetland body surrounded by mangroves in Nerul, 7.3km from the NMAI site.

“The court has agreed with our view that the wetlands destruction has to be stopped. This is a positive development and will help preserve the ecology of the area in the future,” says Vinod Kumar Punshi of Navi Mumbai Environment Preservation Society. “However, a lot of restoration works needs to be undertaken to get the wetlands back to their original form.”

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