As the Maharashtra government undertakes a campaign to increase the green cover in the state via a tree plantation drive, the threat to the urban forest in Pune, spread across an area of 2,000 hectare, remains clear and present.
While the forest department in the city started constructing a boundary wall almost a decade ago, it has only been able to construct the wall for a area of 44 km till now. Paucity of funds, as well as opposition by local residents and environmentalists, has often plagued the project.
The forest area in the city is divided into three ranges — Bhamburda, Pune and Paud. The forest area in Parvati, Kothrud, Bhamburda, Bawdhan Khurd, Mhalunge, Khadaki, Hingne Budhruk and Warje comes under Bhamburda range, while the forest cover in Wanowrie, Hadapsar, Pisoli, Kharadi, Vadgaonsheri, Undri, Kondhwa, Mohammadwadi, Dhayari, Kondhwa Budhruk, Mandewadi and Katraj fall under the Pune range. The forest cover in Mahalunge comes in Paud range.
Why a wall?
The forest department has been struggling to protect its land in the city, as rapid urbanisation has led to encroachments, with slum colonies coming up in the restricted area. The forest is also a source of wood for slumdwellers, who use it as cooking fuel.
The forest area is also used by many for open defecation. It often ends up being a hub for criminal activities, and is even a favourite spot for couples. The forest department has been helpless in protecting the vast area due to lack of manpower. “Each forest guard is given an area of around five sq km to guard, and it is difficult for a single person to keep a check on encroachment or illegal activities going on in such a sprawling area, which is surrounded by a large human population,” said a forest officer.
Efforts to protect the reserved area
The forest department had signed an agreement with the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) in 2006 to protect its areas in the city. The civic body had agreed to fund the majority of the boundary wall to prevent any encroachments in the reserved area. In order to ensure that no constructions are allowed there, the PMC, in its development plan, has declared the forest land and its adjoining areas as land reserved for the biodiversity park. A joint forest management committee — comprising members of the forest department, PMC and local residents — has been set up to work towards the protection of urban forests in the city.
Where is the money coming from?
A large amount of funds is needed to construct the 126.4-km boundary wall, and while the state and Union governments have contributed towards the project, the largest chunk has been from the PMC.
In accordance with an agreement with the forest department, the civic body started allocating funds for the wall in 2007-08. The PMC sanctioned Rs one crore every year for five years in the beginning, but as it took the forest department seven years to utilise the money, no funds were allocated in 2012-13 and 2013-14. In the years after that, the PMC started providing a much higher amount — Rs 3 crore — every year. It disbursed Rs 2.4 crore each for two years but then withheld the rest of the installments as the forest department failed to provide details of utilisation of funds.
“The PMC has made budgetary provisions for the purpose, but it needs to know how the funds are being utilised as the work has been going on for the last 10 years. The civic body wants an update on the amount of work done and what needs to be undertaken to complete the construction of the boundary wall to cover all forest areas in the city,” said Ashok Ghorpade, garden superintendent of PMC.
According to the forest department, the work has been going on despite PMC not disbursing the funds, as the amount sanctioned by the Union and state governments is being utilised. “We will soon provide the requisite information to PMC so that the civic funds are released for the completion of the project,” said the forest officer.
Hurdles in the way
The work also faces hurdles due to disputes with owners of adjoining pieces of land. “It takes time to sort out land disputes as many private land owners have infringed into forest land…,” said the forest officer.
The construction of the boundary wall has also been opposed by a few citizens’ groups, which have said the wall will block the way for local residents. Environmentalists, meanwhile, said the wall will damage the ecology of the area, due to the movement of vehicles involved in the project.
Expanding the project
As the initiative to protect urban forests in areas under the PMC has yielded results, the forest department wants to extend its efforts to the areas under the PCMC and PMRDA.
The PMRDA, meanwhile, is soon going to take up construction of the Ring Road project. “Once the alignment of Ring Road is complete, there will be clarity about which forest area will be affected. A lot of forest area is going to be affected by the Ring Road. The sensitive areas will be identified and work towards protecting them will be undertaken with both PMRDA and PMC,” said the forest officer.