ACTING ON a petition moved by the Kutch Camel Breeders Association (KCBA) alleging blatant violation of the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification (2011) and the Forest (Conservation) Act (1980), resulting in the destruction of mangroves in Bhachau taluka of Kutch district by Deendayal Port Trust (DPT) authorities, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has recently ordered the Forest Department, the Revenue Department and the Gujarat Coastal Zone Management Authority (GCZMA) to find out the persons responsible for the destruction and take action against them as per law, while recovering the cost of environmental damage from them. The NGT has also ordered the Forest Department to restore the damaged mangroves within six months.
The destruction of mangroves was discovered in Nani Chirai and Moti Chirai areas of Bhachau taluka. These areas which fall under the CRZ-I category of coastal areas and are considered to be ecologically sensitive are stated to be the habitats of rare and indigenous Kharai camel species, which live among the mangroves and are the source of livelihood for several hundred camel breeders of the region.
In its petition before NGT, KCBA alleged that the authorities of DPT formerly Kandla Port Trust allotted areas falling under the CRZ-I which are under their control for the extraction of salt etc., resulting in the destruction of mangroves due to obstructions raised in the creeks, without any permission of the competent authorities under the CRZ Notification.
The applicant organisation also alleged that they had sent multiple communications to the DPT and other state authorities like the District Collector, district level Coastal Zone Management Committee and the Forest Department in this regard to no avail.
Even a senior IFS officer Ashok Kumar Saxena in February 2018, they added, had written to the Kutch Collector, the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and GCZMA s Secretary, informing them of the large scale destruction of mangroves in Bhachau taluka.
In its defence, DPT authorities had stated that they had done none of the activities which led to the destruction of mangroves, while adding that it had given some plots on lease to two salt manufacturing entities.
It further stated that Kandla Port Water Front land, from village Jungi to village Veera, extends to a length of about 110 kms and due to the acute shortage of staff and more particularly, due to the inaccessibility by vehicles to some of these areas, it is not practically possible for the DPT staff to monitor these lands on a regular basis.
The DPT authorities also stated that the peripheral boundary length of about 100 kms in the region is disputed, as it is not clear whether the land belongs to DPT or to the Gujarat government. As a result, DPT authorities stated, there exist many cases wherein the state government has slotted lands to the salt manufacturers, which even extends to the lands belonging to the DPT. They also defended themselves saying that there have been many cases of illegal encroachments over DPT lands by miscreants.
…if at all any destruction of mangroves has taken place as complained in the application, the same has been done by the encroachers who have illegally entered upon the lands belonging to DPT, said the DPT authorities before NGT.
In March 2018, a team of experts appointed by NGT had carried out an inspection of the site and found that the creation of earthern bunds for making salt pans had resulted in the obstruction of the flow of sea water, and the subsequent destruction of mangroves in the area spanning 750 acres.
In its order dated September 11, the principal bench of NGT has recorded, …obstructions caused in the creeks have resulted in depletion of the water in the areas where mangroves were growing and if this position continues, destruction will be complete. Besides, if the water is not allowed to pass through the creeks, it will destroy all the mangroves and the area will be exposed to reclamation which may be the intention of the vested interests.
The Gujarat government had told the NGT that they have lodged several FIRs for encroachment in the area.
In its order, NGT has also directed Forest and Revenue Departments of the state government and the GCZMA to jointly inspect the area and find out the persons responsible for the obstruction of the creeks and take legal action against them, including recovering cost of environmental damage within one month.
It further ordered that no salt manufacturing activity can be allowed in the CRZ -1 area, without following due procedures provided under law. The Forest Department has also been ordered to restore the damaged mangroves within six months.
The need for mangroves
In its order, NGT has noted the importance of mangroves in coastal ecology.
Mangroves are a special class of trees which grow in estuaries and inter-tidal regions along creeks and coasts. Mangrove forests are among the most productive ecosystems on earth and serve many important functions, including water filtration, prevention of coastal erosion, carbon storage, and timber and biopersity protection. They play an extremely important role as windbreaks at coasts, which protect the coasts during cyclones and tsunamis. Because of dense root systems, the mangroves trap sediments which help in stabilizing coastlines and prevent erosion from waves and storms, read the order.
Mangroves are also the nursery grounds for several fish species and other marine fauna. Therefore, mangroves work as a system that keep coastal zones healthy and vibrant. It is because of these extremely important roles that mangroves play, that it is incumbent upon everyone concerned to conserve and protect them. Other than Sunderbans and Andaman & Nicobar Islands, there are a few locations in our country where mangroves thrive, and Kachchh Coastline is one such location…, the order further read.