Debating India


Bye Bye, Tiger Wood


Tuesday 19 August 2003, by KAKODKAR*Priyanka

Article paru dans Outlook India, ?dition du 18 ao?t 2003.

A lush forest turns a giant golf course overnight? Well, on paper, it’s already happened. The Ajit Warty committee appointed by the Maharashtra government to chart out the development of Mumbai’s northern suburbs has conveniently ignored the very existence of the Vasai forest in its report. Instead, it’s laid the ground for the clearing of 20,000 acres of forest land (valued at Rs 17,000 crore), located just around 50 km from the city centre.

If the state gives the go-ahead to the draft, the Vasai forest will make way for a green "tourism" zone. And the kind of construction spelt out in the plan: "golf clubs and links (sic), regional parks, amusement parks, holiday homes and hostels, swimming pools, gliding facilities...temporary camps for recreation of all types". The plan to merge forest land into a green zone and throw it open to tourism has come as a surprise to forest officials. More so as the Vasai forest is protected by the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. Points out Shirish Asthana, deputy forest conservator, Vasai region: "Forest land is owned by the Centre and the state has no jurisdiction over it." Adds Marcus Dabre of the local Harit Vasai Saurakshan Samiti, which vociferously opposes the plan: "It’s a scandal. The government is subverting the law in favour of developers."

The Vasai forest is counted among the last green lungs of the city and serves as a crucial "rain-catcher" for Mumbai. The thickly wooded area contains a variety of plants, trees and wildlife. (A tiger was recently spotted here.) It is also home to thousands of Adivasis who could soon have nowhere to go.

In its detailed listing of "proposed land use analysis", the draft development plan for Vasai Virar 2001-2021 makes no mention of a forest zone. An official note comparing the draft to an earlier planning effort by the City and Industrial Development Corporation (CIDCO) shows that 8,476 hectares (roughly 20,000 acres) of "forest zone" has now been merged with the "green zone". "There is no need to provide a separate tourism zone as green zone regulations provide for the grant of permission to tourist complexes anywhere in that zone," it points out.

Significantly, the earlier CIDCO plan had recognised the forest lands as a "restricted development area", to be used only for "activities approved by the forest department". But the Warty panel, ostensibly set up to improve on the earlier plan, drops this crucial qualifier. Instead, the zone has been made part of a "low intensity development area".

Critics like housing activist Chandrashekhar Prabhu warn that these ’alterations’ have set the stage for "indiscriminate commercialisation of the forest via the backdoor". Planners, though, protest their innocence. "Even if it isn’t spelt out, it’s understood that forest land can’t be touched," says a defensive committee member. Environmental activist Debi Goenka views such exclusions with suspicion. "There’s absolutely no room for ambiguity in a planning blueprint. It just creates loopholes to be exploited. If things are to be understood and assumed, what is the need for a plan? " he argues.

The history of land planning in the Vasai-Virar region, controlled by underworld don Bhai Thakur and his mla brother Hitendra, also doesn’t encourage such assumptions. The area is home to the city’s original inhabitants, who’ve long been fighting the land mafia and state coercion to release land for construction. In 1990, town planners arbitrarily transferred nearly 5,000 acres of protected land into an "urbanisable zone". The move was revoked only after a court order. No wonder that the new blueprint evokes mistrust. Many like Dabre allege that parts of the forest have already been traded in, in anticipation of clearances to the draft.

The locals have till October to file objections. But few are even aware of it. "We want the forest, not hotels. Or there will be no rain," says Ramchandra Pandurang Patil, a farmer from the nearby Girij village when told about the proposal. But his voice is too faint and far away. Whether by oversight or sinister design, the paperwork is clear: the Vasai forest has been readied for the bulldozers.


Pic.:A blueprint plans golf etc on 20,000 acres of the Vasai forest.

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