If the Mumbai mangroves had tongues, they could narrate how they have protected the town’s centuries old natural ecosystem. But as the breeze blows the mangrove leaves can only scratch invisible scripts, as if they are protesting against the plan to decimate them.

Amchi Mumbai, the metropolis where dreams are sold every day by the hundred, is fast heading towards an ecological crisis as tens of thousands of ancient mangroves protecting the coastal region are going to be mercilessly hacked down, to pave the way for the Mumbai-Ahmedabad Bullet Train Project (MABTP).

A recent assurance that the luxury train’s Thane station stop will be redesigned to save thousands of trees, only begs the question, Why wasn’t it designed this way in the first place?

On June 24 the Maharashtra Legislative Council was told by Transport Minister Diwakar Raote, in response to a question by Shiv Sena legislator Manisha Kayande, that mangroves spread over 13.36 hectares would be chopped off to make way for this pricey bullet train.

Raote promised legislators that the state government would plant sapling trees five times the number of ancient mangroves cut down for the project.

What would Mumbai be without its mangroves that have been growing there since before the city even existed? How many of those saplings will survive to become fullgrown trees, and how long will that take?

Already facing terrible ecological crises, Mumbai is likely to face a cascade of further problems when these mangroves are executed.

Apparently, the Maharashtra government has no answers except to say the show must go on. But answers are needed, howsoever bitter they may be to the government and its contractors.

The MABTP will run on raised pillars to ensure that most of the mangroves are not destroyed. What about the unfortunate rest, still numbering around 30,000? Mumbai is prone to floods. And cutting down such a vast number of mangroves means that parts of the city and almost the whole of Navi Mumbai will no longer be protected from the entry of floodwaters.

One really wonders at the efficacy of certain rules and laws. Take the examples of the Category I of the Coastal Zone Regulation of 1991, the Maharashtra Private Forest Act of 1975, the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 and the Maharashtra Felling of Trees (Regulation) Act of 1964.

These laws emphatically protect the mangroves. To no avail. Are laws framed only to be broken by the government?

Mangroves are Mumbai’s natural sentinels against natural calamities. The city belongs to the trees. Yet they themselves have been struck by manmade calamities from time to time. From 1972 to 1975 about 200 kilometres of the Maharashtra coastline was covered with mangroves. By 1997 this had declined by half, to 108 kilometres. By 2001 it marginally increased to 118 kilometres.

Marshy Mumbai grew out of the reclamation of the sea. The city belongs to the sea. The reclamation has resulted in massive destruction of the mangroves.

Can you believe that over 70% of mangroves with 1960 as the base year, have been destroyed due to urbanisation, reclamation and other anti-developmental projects?

Whatever remains is poised for thinning in the immediate future due to the MABTP, a massive project involving an investment of Rs.1 lakh crore. Despite farmers’ struggles in court against allegedly forcible or duplicitous land acquisition, and people’s protests against the ecological cost, part of the project is still going to be funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency.

A Number of Crises

Mumbai just cannot be imagined without the mangroves, these families of small trees and shrubs that grow in brackish coastal water. These shrubs, known as Halophytes, are salt-tolerant and grow in abundance in the harsh coastal environment.

With the cutting down of mangroves, Mumbai metropolis will be deprived of Earth’s best carbon scrubber: bushes growing in marshy swamps of sea shores.

Scientifically, mangroves are known as the best carbon scrubber as they transfer carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into long-term storage in greater quantities than other trees. A NASA-study based on satellite data proved this.

Mangroves, a wonder-shrub, act as a blessing to any coastal town. The more so for an overcrowded metropolis like Mumbai, where a flood or inundation of salt water means massive disaster.

As they famously did during the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 along India’s eastern coast, mangroves act as a natural barrier to tidal waves thus saving urban land from getting flooded.

As the root-system of mangroves is extremely strong, they stop the soil erosion caused by hurricanes and tidal waves. They slow down these massive waves thus saving urban areas from getting flooded.

Besides, the mangroves are home to hundreds of aquatic beings including sponges, shrimps, lobsters, snails, barnacles and oysters.

Since governments at the Centre and in Maharashtra and Gujarat are going gaga over the shiny new bullet train, let it be a point of caution for them as to what might happen to Mumbai if its mangroves are killed.

We all know how in 2008, Cyclone Nargis wrought havoc in Myanmar. A later study proved that the destruction of mangroves in Myanmar for purposes of commerce left the country’s coastal areas base, exposed with no bush guards.

A History of When There Was No City Here

Mangroves grew around the 7 islands of what is Mumbai today. In 1670, the British East India Company realised the commercial importance of the islands: Isle of Bombay, Colaba, Old Woman’s Island or Little Colaba, Mahim, Mazagaon, Parel and Worli.

In addition to the seven islands, there also were six others that lay near mainland Bombay in those days: Elephanta Island, Butcher Island, Middle Ground, Oyster Rock, East Ground and Cross Island.

All these islands were surrounded by mangroves forming the overall ecological system of what is Greater Mumbai today. Besides Navi Mumbai, the main mangrove-regions of Mumbai are: Vasai Creek, Thane Creek, Manori and Malad, Mahim, Bandra, Versova, Sweree and Mumbra-Diva.

Around 1690, the British destroyed nearly 38% of mangroves and forest cover of Greater Mumbai for commercial purposes: to create ports, docks, jetties, urban townships, ship-making facilities and bazaars.

That was the first major assault on Bombay’s overall ecosystem.

What happened after that is known to everybody. What is not known is whether we will be able to go on living in Amchi Mumbai after an ecological imbalance is created by this merciless hacking, as the seas rise.

“Ai dil hai mushkil jeena yahan, Zara hat ke zara bach ke Yeh hai Bombay meri jaan…” (It’s hard my heart to live here, Step aside, be careful, this is Bombay my love…)

Will Johnny Walker’s warning keep coming true?