As an animal rights advocate and a Mumbaikar, I am extremely saddened by the state forest department’s decision to lift the reserve status of 58 hectares of Mumbai’s forest land for Prime Minister Modi’s Delhi-Mumbai freight corridor project. Clearing precious green space for freight trains will undoubtedly make Mumbai’s air more hazardous to breathe and disturb or displace the animals who inhabit these beloved natural areas, resulting in more human-wildlife conflict.
One attraction that sets Mumbai apart from other sprawling metropolises is our national park within the city limits. Not only is the park our city’s “green lung”, improving air quality, it also provides a welcome break from urban living and is home to more than 1,000 species of plants and animals. In fact, the Sanjay Gandhi National Park has the highest density of panthers in India, with 21 per 100 square kilometres. According to park officials, there are currently 35 panthers living in the park, but because of the government’s deforestation plans, their future is now in question.
In addition to wiping out 10 hectares of the park’s invaluable green space, the freight corridor project will gobble up more than 16 hectares from the Thane forest division and a whopping 31.11 hectares from the Dahanu forest division. And it’s not just panthers who will be negatively affected by this plan: leopards, deer, monkeys, nilgai, wild boars, hyenas, civet cats, barking deer and wildcats will also have their habitat and normal travel routes disrupted, and their food sources may be compromised as well.
National park officials have objected to the plans and warned the forest department that leopards are already being run over by cars on Ghodbunder Road, which passes directly through the park. Between 2013 and 2015, at least five leopards were killed by cars in the Mumbai area. After land is cleared for the freight corridor project, leopards and other animals will face the added peril of dodging speeding trains. Human encroachment and slum settlements also already pose a threat.
The Bombay Natural History Society recommended that a set of basic safety measures be included in the plan to reduce the project’s negative impact on animals – such as building underpasses, over-bridges and a fence separating the train tracks from forest areas. But the order issued by the government does not include any such provisions.
Besides stealing valuable green space from Mumbai and clearing land from the city’s national park and forest divisions, the project will likely drive wildlife into human-inhabited areas in search of food and water. In our country, we frequently hear news stories about leopards wandering into villages and panicked elephants trampling cars. Animals are often killed as a knee-jerk reaction when such incidents occur. Destroying more of what little habitat is left to wildlife will only make matters worse.
We all have a fundamental responsibility to protect animals and the environment. It’s even in our constitution, which states, “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife and to have compassion for living creatures”. That’s why I devote myself to advocating for animal rights. Whether I’m promoting animal adoption to curb overpopulation, raising awareness about the barbaric exotic skins industry or rescuing abused animals, I strive to make India a kinder, safer place. Now it’s Prime Minister Modi’s turn, and he can start by ensuring the Delhi-Mumbai freight corridor does not come at the cost of forests and wildlife.