These lines immortalized by India’s best known ornithologist, late Salim Ali, could apply to Noida today like a glove. For UP politicians hell bent on graft, the sanctity of the Okhla bird sanctuary is not paramount. What is important is to oblige the all powerful builders’ lobby and make fast easy cash – considering that the general elections are a few months away.
The Okhla sanctuary, on the edge of Delhi, is home to some of the rarest species of birds. Situated on the banks of Yamuna in UP’s Gautam Buddha district, it was declared a bird sanctuary on May 8, 1990.
The sprawling 400 acre sanctuary is a spectacular abode of birds, flower and fauna. There are an estimated 324 species of birds and 200 types of plants, some of them placed in the ‘very rare’ category.
What now threatens their very existence are a series of multi-storeyed constructions that the UP government is hell bent on pursuing, irrespective of the consequences and the extreme damage it may cause to environment and in total contravention of directives laid down by Supreme Court and the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF).
On August 14 this year, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) summoned the UP government and Noida Authority and declared that no construction will be allowed within a 10 kilometre radius of the Okhla bird sanctuary, deeming the area to be an eco-sensitive zone. This put paid to the state government’s plan to construct 49 lavish building projects in the area. Not surprising, none of the builders thought it fit to obtain an environmental clearance, now considered vital for any construction, particularly those in the vicinity of any natural habitat. The tribunal’s order has come after a public interest litigation was filed by Noida resident Amit Kumar and his lawyer Gaurav Kumar Bansal. Says Bansal: ‘‘Construction work has to be stopped within a 10 kilometre radius and buildings that have come up have to be pulled down, in addition to stiff fines that need to be imposed.’’
The UP government’s ‘development’ plans in the area adjoining the sanctuary included constructing multi-storeyed housing projects, five-star hotels and gigantic shopping malls. Now the state government is not just in damage control mode but incredibly, is trying its level best to upturn the green tribunal verdict.
Recently, the divisional forest officer Noida, Ashok Kumar, in an affidavit placed before the tribunal has said that the 10 kilometre eco-zone radius be reduced to 1 kilometre! The proposal has been sent to the state government which will in turn is certain to approve and send its findings to the MoEF. In 2006 the Supreme Court had ruled in a similar case related to Goa, that no construction within 10 kilometres should be allowed of any sanctuary or national park and that a clearance from the National Wildlife Board would be mandatory for such activity.
Following the apex court directive, the MoEF too has declared that no construction would be allowed within the 10 kilometre radius sensitive eco-zone. The orders were issued on March 15, 2011. It clarified that no construction, mining or related activity would be allowed in this sacrosanct radius. Despite it, the UP government has decided to ignore it all and go ahead with its plan to bleed the econ-sensitive area that is bound to cause serious damages and threaten the area's rich bio-diversity. Similar fears were expressed before the court when Mayawati decided to steamroll her Ambedkar Park, also adjacent to the Okhla bird sanctuary.
Says one official on conditions of anonymity: ‘‘Senior officers of the Noida Authority are aware of all court directives, yet they have decided to pursue the case, knowing well that they would be going against court orders and the near impossibility of receiving a clearance from the National Wildlife Board. If this petition had not have been filed, rest assured, most of the constructions would have been complete by now.’’ The reasons for the UP government’s insistence is not far to seek. Among the projects which will suffer include some by well known builders; between 35 to 70 percent work on these projects are already complete and what is at stake now are billions of rupees if the structures are pulled down. Naturally, the influential builders lobby is willing to go to any length to keep their projects going.
A survey by this correspondent revealed that despite the explicit tribunal orders, construction work is going on in full swing on these projects right under the noses of the district magistrate and senior superintendent of police. Well placed sources said that the builders lobby is actively campaigning with SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, whose idea it was to reduce to the radius from 10 to one kilometer.
Ecologists believe that should these construction projects not be stopped, huge environmental damages can be caused to the Okhla bird sanctuary. It attracts rare species of birds from all over the world. According to wildlife photographer Anand Arya, a resident of Sector 15 Noida, and one of the petitioners in the case filed against the Ambedkar Park in Noida, thanks to construction which has taken place, the number of birds visiting the Okhla bird sanctuary has already dropped sizeably in the last two decades or so. Birds have a geographical view of their habitats and if there are hindrances like unfettered constructions, they tend to forget their way or not just show up at all.
Asserts Arya: ‘‘If the Okhla bird sanctuary is to be saved, the 10 kilometre norm has to be respected. Particularly, there can be no multi-storeyed buildings in the region.’’ There are others who believe the same. Manoj Mishra, convenor of the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan (Save Yamuna Campaign) too says come what may, the eco-sensitive zone is above discussion. ‘‘The state government will not be able to justify a one-kilometre radius for construction that it seeks,’’ he says.
For experts, high buildings and the dazzle of light constitute twin dangers. ‘‘Birds like to live in the dark and quiet surroundings. They find their food early in the morning and late at night. Shining lights place a huge burden on their movements and affects their biological make up. High rises makes them claustrophobic and hinders movement. Their natural habitat will be seriously affected,’’ says well known wild life biologist Faiyaz Khudsar.
They estimate that high rise buildings can only be constructed after digging deep, which in turn takes its toll on the natural channels of water, also known as aquifers. This is certain to affect natural wetlands so close to the sanctuary and so important for habitat conservation.
Warns Khudsar: ‘‘There is good chance that it will increase pollution in the Yamuna and Noida could be hit by severe water shortage. Noida’s water management is managed in a big way by the reservoir which runs parallel to the Okhla bird sanctuary. Where there is no water, there can be no life.’’
Noida is the favourite hub of real estate magnates. Land prices have spiraled with the advent of the Metro Rail and rapacious builders want more, finding the bird sanctuary land available for full scale exploitation. Not long ago, in 2009, there were 19 wetlands notified by Noida’s forest departments; today there are only six left: what happened to the 13 wetlands? No one knows.
Two wetlands, Bhil Akbarpur and Kaimrala, have a prominent builders group going ahead full steam with their project but thanks to some lion-hearted activism, the green tribunal has stopped work there. Environmental activists, bitterly disappointed by the state administration, are looking towards the tribunal for succor. They are its last hope.