Mumbai: The Union environment ministry’s Regional Empowered Committee (REC) in Nagpur has sought a comprehensive study of development projects on the ecology of Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) before giving permission to divert 19.4 hectares of forest land — nearly twice the area of Azad Maidan — for the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s (BMC) Goregaon-Mulund Link Road’s (GMLR).
A sub-committee has been constituted for this purpose, comprising geologist Suresh Chopane, environmentalist Rajendra Nannware, the assistant inspector general of forests (central) and a technical officer. The committee has been given the discretionary power to obtain expert opinions on the project before compiling a preliminary report.
The GMLR project, which will involve tunneling below the park for about 4.7 km, is expected to kick off in February 2023, pursuant to forest clearance (FC) from the REC, and be completed by December 2026. However, the REC has for the time being deferred the BMC’s FC proposal on account of inadequate information regarding the project’s environmental impact.
In 2019, the REC had sought detailed reports on the project’s impact on local ecology and the aquifers of Tulsi and Vihar lake. Accordingly, two studies were submitted by the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay (IIT-B) and the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), dealing with groundwater and biodiversity respectively. These studies, not in the public domain, were considered by the REC on September 28, per the minutes of the meeting which have been reviewed by Hindustan Times.
The IIT-Bombay study concluded that the project would not have any significant impact on groundwater, as the size of the tunnel compared to the rest of SGNP was “insignificant”. However, the REC opined that the study was based on secondary data provided by the BMC and “does not include other existing and proposed activities in SGNP above the location of the tunnels”. The BNHS study, too, said that since tunneling activity would be done at a depth of at least 20 metres, there would not be much impact on the biodiversity on the surface.
A forest department official privy to the development was, however, of the opinion that the possibility of the tunneling affecting the presence of surface water bodies which animals could be using, should also have been evaluated. The REC’s minutes also reflect this sentiment. “There are a number of perennial and non-perennial streams and surface water bodies above the location of the tunnels, which are used by animals and could be adversely impacted. This needs to be studied further,” read the minutes. “Since the SGNP is the only green patch available in Mumbai, a detailed cumulative study considering all existing and proposed activities in and around SGNP on parameters like ecology, geology, hydrology and seismology needs to be carried out.”
The REC has opined that the study should aim to address the carrying capacity of SGNP “for tunneling and possible cumulative impacts of developmental activities”. Such an exercise would have otherwise been mandatory but both the GMLR and Thane-Borivali tunnels under SGNP have been classified as Category-B projects under the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, and thus do not need an EIA study.
“By allowing this project to be positioned as a Category B road, the ministry has allowed the BMC to bypass essential safeguards. The tunnels are still within the boundary of a protected area and so should mandatorily be treated as Category-A. This is not just a revenue road but a fairly sophisticated infrastructure project that will pollute and disturb one of the city’s last remaining silent zones. No other city has disturbed protected areas for the sake of private car owners,” said Stalin D, director of non-governmental organization (NGO) Vanashakti.