It will pass through a large area of mudflats, visited by migrant flamingos in winter and some other birds every year

The Rs. 8,800-crore Mumbai Trans Harbour Sea Link (MTHL) seems stuck till it gets a go-ahead from the National Green Tribunal (NGT), which has said that there are “substantial questions relating to environment” in the project to be built on the Sewri mudflats, where hundreds of birds including migratory flamingos flock every year.

After Dilip Nevatia, a Mumbai resident, filed an application, Justice A. S. Naidu, acting chairperson, and Prof. R. Nagendran, expert member of the NGT, on May 24 issued notice to the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), which is executing the project through Public-Private Partnership.

Counsel for appellant Ritwick Dutta told The Hindu on the phone that the main issue is that Environmental Clearance (EC) for the project was issued seven years ago and the MoEF said it hadn't been extended, according to a query under the Right to Information (RTI) Act.

Mr. Dutta said the public hearing for the project was held in 1999, and the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) prepared a few years later said there was nothing of ecological significance in the area. Many parameters have changed since then and a fresh EIA was necessary, he said.

While admitting the appeal, the NGT said: “We feel that there are substantial questions relating to environment involved in this case which need to be considered.”

The NGT felt that the ends of justice and equity would be met if the MMRDA was directed to complete the tender process but refrain from taking any final decision or issuing the work order, if it wasn't already issued, without getting prior permission from the Tribunal. The matter will be heard on July 4.

Earlier in May, an MMRDA expert panel shortlisted five eligible consortiums to develop the MTHL project. The MTHL will need fresh Environmental Clearance (EC), since the first one was issued on March 11, 2005, with 24 specific and 18 general conditions. As per the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification of 1994, the EC was valid for five years, and expired on March 10, 2010.

MTHL will pass through a large area of approximately 2.1 km of the Sewri and Nhava mudflats, visited by migrant flamingos in winter and some other birds every year. Restrictions could be imposed during construction. The Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History, Coimbatore, in its 2008 study of the migratory birds and the project, said construction work should be conducted during the period when the migratory birds aren't in residence. Already flamingos had moved away from the Sewri port area, probably because of ship repair activities nearby.

The 22-km MTHL, which will be the longest sea bridge in the country when completed, connects Sewri in the island city of Mumbai to Nhava in Navi Mumbai, and has a 16.5 km-long bridge across Mumbai harbour and 5.5-km-long viaduct approaches on the Sewri and Nhava sides. The proposal is for a six-lane freeway, and a broad-gauge double-line rail link from Sewri to Nhava on the north, with connections to the railway at Sewri and Uran Panvel rail link.

Debi Goenka of the Conservation Action Trust said the rail link may not be built at first. Since the project needs a fresh EC, then an Environmental Impact Assessment and public hearing would be mandatory, he pointed out.

According to the minutes of the 74th meeting of the Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority (MCZMA) which scrutinised the proposal submitted by the MMRDA in January 2012 for Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) clearance, the MCZMA discussed the proposal and felt that all environmental aspects should be studied and analysed carefully. It also noted that this link project would reduce the travel time of commuters, and decided to recommend the proposal to MoEF, subject to conditions which include no reclamation of land in the area, mangrove replantation and provision for noise barriers along the viaduct among the rest of the aspects.

The Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) had also met the MMRDA and demanded that the MTHL be shifted 500 metres south. However, this wasn't agreed to. Isaac Kehimkar of the BNHS, who was present, said the BNHS isn't opposing the bridge but its location could present a threat to the migratory flamingos. More than 10,000 birds come every year in winter and stay till July, and they feed in the shallow waters of the Mahul Creek. While the MMRDA said it would try to keep disturbance to a minimum while construction was going on, this would be difficult in practice.