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Inauguration of the first World Wetland Day. The late Sohrab P. Godrej and Dr. Chaphekar, Chairman of the workshop, light the inaugural lamp.


Wetlands In Danger!

he Godrej parivar celebrates three prominent occasions to show its gratitude to the environment ?World Wetland Day on 2 February, Earth Day on 22 April and World Environment Day on 5 June. These three days play a crucial role in creating public awareness about the continuing degradation of the environment. However, apart from the Udayachal Schools and a few senior managers of Godrej, most of us are unable to join these celebrations, primarily because of work pressures and the fast pace of life. World Wetland Day is an extremely important day for the Godrej parivar as our organisation is involved in saving one of the most important wetlands ?the mangroves.

The celebration of World Wetland Day (WWD) is not an old tradition. Realisation of the importance of wetlands dawned only recently. The first WWD was celebrated in 1997. But the idea of an international convention on wetlands was born way back in November 1962 during a conference held at Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer in the French Camargue. The conference delegates were concerned about the speed with which large stretches of marshland and wetlands in Europe were being ďreclaimed?or otherwise destroyed, with a resulting decline in the number of waterfowl. The conference was organised by Luc Hoffmann, with the participation of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (now IUCN ?the World Conservation Union), the International Waterfowl and Wetlands Research Bureau (IWRB ?now Wetlands International) and the International Council for Bird Preservation (ICBP ? now Bird Life International).

After several years of deliberations, finally, at an international meeting organised by Eskander Firouz, Director of Iranís Game and Fish Department, at the Caspian seaside resort of Ramsar in Iran, the text of the convention was agreed upon on 2 February, 1971 and signed by delegates of 18 nations the next day. The convention, which came into force in December 1975, is called the Ramsar Convention. It has engaged 138 nations as contracting parties for the protection of wetlands.


The abuse of mangroves is a common feature in the rest of Mumbai.

The Ramsar Convention has proved increasingly beneficial for the wetland scenario all over the world. Today, in 33 years of wetland conservation, 138 nations have designated 1,308 sites covering a surface area of 110,108,570 hectares of wetland as internationally important areas, declared as Ramsar sites. Conservation programmes can only be successful if they are people- and community-friendly. The convention adopted the principle of wise use. The wise use principle advocates commercial, community-friendly exploitation of wetlands without harming their general ecology. Through several participatory community and educational programmes, each wetland site is managed so as to use the wetland in the wisest manner possible. The convention, in this case, acts as a platform and provides international support through funding, expertise and technology.

Although the convention has helped wetland conservation in many ways, the general scenario is still grim. The European, Australian and U.S. wetlands have shown general improvement. But the under-developed countries and many of the developing countries have not paid much attention to wetland development programmes despite being contracting parties to the Ramsar Convention. India is one such example where the general wetland condition has deteriorated in spite of its National Wetland Policy (which is unavailable to the public for some unknown reason) and strong legal provisions like the Coastal Regulatory Zone notification and the Environment Protection Act. Local and regional politics have been largely responsible for this degradation.

Efforts by Godrej in Wetland Conservation:
Much has been said about Godrejís efforts in the protection of mangroves. At the local level it is significant that 700 hectares (1,750 acres) of mangrove area have been protected by the Company. However, at the national level, 700 hectares is insignificant compared to the 4,90,000 hectares of total mangrove cover. So, can we really claim that Godrej has contributed in protecting the environment at the national level? Or, are we engaging in self-praise, making tall claims for an insignificant contribution?

Well, Godrej has played a significant role. Our Mangrove Conservation Project at Pirojshanagar is a success story. An industrial garden township has proved that nature and industry can coexist without putting pressure on each other. The hundred-acre mangrove plantation on saline-blank areas taken up by Godrej in 1997-98 is one of the first successful major mangrove restoration projects on the west coast of India. The plantation project was funded by the World Bank and the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai. In fact the World Bank has praised this successful restoration in their project report. After 18 years of mangrove conservation, the Vikhroli mangroves are recognised at national and international fora. These include reputed organisations such as Wetlands International, Wildfowl Wetlands Trust and Murdoch University (Australia). We receive letters of praise from different corners of the world. Also, several people send e-mails seeking help.

In recent years there has been a lot of mangrove awareness in Mumbai. One of the major contributing factors behind this awareness is the success of the Godrej Mangrove Project. This project has made people realise that there is still hope for the future of mangroves. It is thanks to the groundwork done by our Mangrove Project that the State Government agreed to the proposal of declaring Thane Creek as a Ramsar site and has forwarded the proposal to the Central Government. It is the scientific and technical work done by our Mangrove Project which has helped in identifying Thane Creek as an important Bird Area at various international levels. Several surveys undertaken in the past decade show increasing biological diversity. The studies show and confirm that the structural, functional and spatial health of the Vikhroli mangroves has increased in recent years.


Channels from Mars? No! Channels from Vikhroli. The restoration of mangroves in saline- blanks.

This change was brought about using a systematic approach. The mangroves were always part of Godrej land. But we could make a difference only when they were brought under a system. The first system was created in 1985 when the Soonabai Pirojsha Godrej Foundation established an Environment Cell and declared the mangrove area as protected forest. Soon, mangroves started enjoying protection. Research and awareness programmes were conducted. A major change was experienced after 1993 when full-time employees were appointed to handle the project. The inclusion of the Mangrove Project under ISO 14001, Environment Management System (EMS), further strengthened the project. The EMS was able to give backbone and teeth to the project which was then able to stand alone and make a difference. In reality, it has grown beyond being a mere project and has become a function of Godrej. Now, there is a full-time Education Officer, who is dedicatedly spreading awareness by conducting several programmes. Many students are taking up small-scale research projects and successfully completing them.

Godrej celebrated the first World Wetland Day (WWD) in 1998. A workshop was organised with the United States Asia Environment Partnership and Panto-Ulema Inc., USA. The workshop was attended by leading scientists, environmentalists and government officials. Though the workshop was successful and a task force for saving the Mumbai mangroves was suggested, there was very little follow-up. Sadly, this happens with most workshops and seminars. Very few people actually follow up on the outcome of such brainstorming. Nevertheless, the workshop did manage to keep the ball of mangrove conservation rolling.

Since 1998, every year there have been regular programmes to celebrate WWD. One of the memorable WWDs for me was in 2001, when Godrej had arranged to raid nearby areas with the help of the Forest Department, the Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation, the City Industrial Development Corporation and the police. The idea was to stop people from cutting mangrove wood and to curb illegal activities in the mangrove area. Since then there has been a decline in the number of people trespassing in the Vikhroli mangrove area or cutting mangroves for fuel.

This year, too, Godrej is all set to celebrate World Wetland Day along with other environmental Non-Government Organisations such as the World Wide Fund for Nature ?India and the Bombay Natural History Society.

Vivek S. Kulkarni
Garden Department

 

Vivek Kulkarni, Manager, Garden
Department and Mangrove Project
Interviewed by Rashna Ardesher

Ch. What led you to become the caretaker of Godrej mangroves?

V.K. In 1992 I was working on the Sardar Sarovar Dam Project through the University of Pune. A senior scientist at the university, who was working on this controversial dam project, introduced me to the Godrej Mangrove Project. In the government set-up (university), I was feeling frustrated at every step and was looking for a change. I saw the challenge of setting up the Godrej Mangrove Project as a lifetime opportunity and joined the project in June 1993.

 

Ch. How big is the stretch of land and what is the expense our Company incurs in maintaining these mangroves?

V.K. The total land under the project is approximately 1,750 acres. Of this, about 300 acres belong to Godrej & Boyce Mfg. Co. Ltd. and the remaining 1,450 acres belong to the Soonabai Pirojsha Godrej Foundation, a public charitable organisation.

This particular land adjoins the Thane Creek and is separated from the rest of the Thane Creek mangroves by the Ghatkopar Creek in the south, the Kanjur Creek in the north and the Thane Creek main channel in the east. The entire area is an inter-tidal swamp getting inundated by the daily tides or at least the spring tides.

The conservation value of any monument cannot be determined by its material cost, but by the dedication of the people who are running it and the ecological value of that monument. I really donít know how to calculate the amount spent on the protection of these mangroves. There are several components which are hidden or overlapping. For example, when the Secured Landfill (SLF) was constructed, one of the major reasons was to safeguard the mangroves from toxic waste. The Rs. 1 crore spent on the SLF could either be calculated as the amount spent for the mangroves or as an independent entity. As far as the book entries go, we may be spending a few lakhs a year on the Mangrove Project, but for all practical purposes, it could be 10 times more.

 

Ch. What are the different species of birds, animals and plants in the area?

V.K. When we look at any area from the ecological perspective, we just donít look at it structurally, the functional utility of the area is also important. What I mean by structural composition is the plants and animals, the micro-organisms and even the inanimate forms such as air, water, soil, etc. Structurally, Vikhroli mangroves and the adjoining area of the Thane Creek are biologically rich. It is truly a miracle to have 205 species of birds, 15 species of mangrove plants, 33 species of reptiles, seven species of prawns, 15 species of crabs, 22 species of fish, numerous other organisms, including mammals like mongoose, jackals and jungle cats, all within the municipal limits of a metropolis like Mumbai.

The area is undoubtedly a bird paradise, especially in the winters. It is estimated that over a million birds fly this way during their winter migration, many of them roosting here for a long time. During low tides, I have seen entire mudflats covered with birds and you just cannot see an inch of land through these gigantic flocks. I remember the glowing face of the late Soonuben Godrej when she had come to see the flamingos gathered at our mangroves.

Some spectacular birds of the area are the white-bellied sea eagle, greater spotted eagle (a globally threatened species), imperial eagle, lesser spotted eagle, harriers, flamingos, avocets ?The list is long.


Taking wing: mangroves are a paradise for birds of various species.

Apart from all this wildlife, what one should look at is the functional value of these mangroves. Mangroves are basically buffers between the land and the sea. Land is a comparatively static system against the dynamic oceanic systems. There is always friction at the interface of these two systems. As a result, the dynamic water system erodes the land. Shorelines throughout the world are under constant pressure from the oceanic systems. To stop the constant assault of the seas, one requires a more dynamic system than water that can effectively stop the ingress of the sea. Tropical lands throughout the world are blessed with such a dynamic living system, which not only protects the land from the ingressing sea, but also pushes the sea back by creating more land. This important biological system is known as ďmangrove?or ďmangle? throughout the world.

As far as Mumbai is concerned, the mangroves are like a lifeline. One can imagine the state of a tiny island mostly created by filling garbage between rocks fighting against the mighty waves of the sea dashing against it from all sides. Had mangroves not been protecting our shores, Mumbai would have been history.

Mangroves also act as flood controllers during the monsoon. Especially during the torrential rains when the high tide water hits the shoreline, the low-lying areas are flooded for several hours. I am discounting our honourable Municipality and their drainage systems in this case. We experience this situation every year. Had mangroves not existed, the situation would have been much worse!

In short, functionally, mangroves help to bring stability to the fragile coastlines and it is this function of the mangroves that Sohrabji recognised, when he took the daring but apt decision of reserving such a large portion of precious land for a social cause.

 

Ch. Have our mangroves helped revive any endangered / locally extinct species?

V.K. Ecologically, the Vikhroli mangroves are very important for the entire Thane Creek Mangrove System. It is not just the only protected mangrove forest in Mumbai, but also acts as a gene bank for the entire Creek.

About 300 years ago, Mumbai mangroves were very rich in diversity. All the diversity vanished in the spree to reclaim the islands and the adjoining areas. Especially in the last few years, many trees succumbed to the pressures and, ultimately, two or three species remained dominant. However, apart from protecting the existing mangrove species, we have also done a lot of afforestation with different species. This has especially helped in reviving species such as Rhizophora mucronata, Rhizophora apiculata, Kandelia candel, Bruguiera gymnorhiza and Achrostachium aurium. Unfortunately, the common names for these plants are also quite uncommon.

 

Ch. Are there any medicinal properties in our mangrove plants?

V.K. Nature has so many secrets that we havenít been able to fathom them all. According to me, every plant has special properties, either medicinal or commercial, all we need to do is discover them. As far as my knowledge goes, there are quite a few interesting mangrove plants growing at Vikhroli. Salavadora persica (toothbrush plant) is a mangrove associate and is known to the world as Meswak. The television advertisements claim that it has 70 medicinal properties. I donít know whether that is an understatement or overstatement, but the plant certainly has a lot of medicinal and commercial values.

The Milky Mangrove (Excoecaria agallocha) is another common mangrove species having properties to cure leprosy and some other skin ailments. The juice of the leaves is also used to give symptomatic relief in joint pains. However, the same plant is poisonous and, if the leaf juice (latex) enters the eye, it causes blindness. There are many other medicinal properties of other mangrove species found at Vikhroli. However, they have not been tapped commercially because of inaccessibility of mangroves and their strategic position.


The wonderful expanse of Vikhroli mangroves.

 

Ch. What role does the Godrej Mangrove Interpretation Centre play?

V.K. The Mangrove Project was started with three basic ideas: conservation, research and education. Of these three, education and awareness are the basic tools to further research and, ultimately, conservation of the area. We are losing our wildlife at such a phenomenal rate that we really donít have time to educate children and wait for a better tomorrow. Based on this ideology, the Mangrove Interpretation Centre was started in 1995 to educate the masses about the importance of mangroves for mankind. Awareness is being spread through various media and methods. The well-illustrated Interpretation Centre situated in the Udayachal Primary School and the Mangrove Project area give a first-hand experience of the mangrove wilderness. When people go through such an experience, they donít need to be convinced any further about the importance of mangroves. Now that we have also employed a full-time education officer, our educational activities are likely to have a farther outreach.

 

Ch. Has Godrej undertaken any new projects to save the environment?

V.K. We are constantly working to better the environment at all levels. Among the many projects undertaken last year, Tree Transplantation at Bhuj and the CII-Sohrabji Godrej Green Business Centre are the most important.

After the earthquake, Bhuj is being resettled. As part of the rehabilitation programme, the Bhuj Municipality is strengthening the road network of the city. But this programme would have destroyed 500 trees, many of them indigenous and old. Many Bhuj locals objected to this tree-cutting since Bhuj is a desert area and receives scanty rainfall. To solve this problem, Pravin Sing Pardesi, IAS, Officer on Special Duty, UNESCO, called on Godrej for help. After discussing the matter with Mrs. Pheroza Godrej and Maneck Engineer, Vice President, Construction Department, we agreed to help them by providing technical assistance. I carried out the whole operation along with our ex-employee Y.R. Kodari, who stayed there throughout the transplantation and not only supervised the work, but also trained the people of Bhuj so that they could carry out further transplantations, if required, in future by themselves. We have received a lot of positive feedback on this project and the people of Bhuj will definitely remember us for many years because of those trees.


A rescued tawny eagle is released into the wild.

 

Ch. A couple of years ago a panther was spotted in the Godrej residential colony. Also, we have heard of snakes shedding their skins in residences. Although it is important for humans and animals to live in harmony, how safe are our employees from any mishaps? Equally important, how safe are animals from being killed by humans in self-defence?

V.K. In the web of life, man is merely one of the strands of the web and does not hold the central position. To survive and continue our existence, we need to live in this web and not isolate ourselves from it. We often forget that wildlife exists even in the urban environment. We love to see a bulbul chirping in the tree next to our building, but we conveniently forget that the predator, which would be naturally preying on that same lovely bulbul or its egg, would be around. If we accept the bulbul, we must accept the predator too because they are part of the same web of life. The presence of a panther was just a coincidence and happens once in many years.

What we really need to do is to educate our minds and learn to live with nature. So long as we alienate ourselves from the rest of nature, incidents such as snakes in the vicinity or a panther in a nearby locality will scare us. The problem is not the existence of a particular animal, but our pre-conditioned minds, which are unable to accept their presence around us. More people die of mosquito bites than tiger attacks, but we label the tiger as a dangerous animal and accept the existence of mosquitoes as part of life. More people die in attacks by other human beings than wild animals. If we still accept each other, then why not animals?

Animals have always been unsafe in human hands because we often kill in ignorance or out of fear, whereas animals kill only for their defence or for food. I say this because we kill a snake going its own way, kill lizards because they are ugly, kill crocodiles for fancy wallets and belts and shoes, tie grasshoppers on small twigs and watch their agony for fun! We kill because we perceive ourselves under unsafe conditions. Why? The answer is blowing in the wind.