While the proposed Navi Mumbai international airport did get environmental clearance in November 2010, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has now asked two members of the Standing Committee of National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) to visit the area and prepare a site inspection report.

Kishore Rithe, president of Satpuda Foundation, and member of the standing committee of the NBWL is one of the two nominees. However, the other nominee - Dr Asad Rahmani is director of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) which is conducting avian fauna studies for the City and Industrial Development Corporation(CIDCO), the nodal agency for the airport project. Dr Rahmani told The Hindu that he was not present for the NBWL meeting when his name was proposed. He has written to the MoEF that there would be a conflict of interest if he was asked to take up the site inspection. Mr. Rithe says the MoEF sent a letter on April 4 appointing the two-member site inspection committee. The proposal for wildlife clearance for the airport came from the Maharashtra State Wildlife Board as the site falls within ten km of the Karnala bird sanctuary. A Supreme Court ruling has made it mandatory for projects located within ten km of a protected wildlife area to get NBWL approval.

The issue goes beyond the appointment of Dr.Rahmani to carry out a site inspection. Though sources said that MoEF was informed about the conflict of interest situation, it is not known what action is being taken. No one from MoEF was available for comment. Last year, Debi Goenka of Conservation Action Trust wrote to the MoEF and the Maharashtra forest department pointing out that the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report for the airport had erred in saying that the proposed airport was 12.5 km away from Karnala bird sanctuary. Mr.Goenka said he had conducted a site visit in 2011 with CIDCO officials and used GPS to measure the exact distance which was at least nine km between the proposed airport and Karnala bird sanctuary. The forest department then took up the matter and escalated it.

The EIA report for the Navi Mumbai airport by the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, stated that the location of the airport was 12.5 km away from the Karnala bird sanctuary. The report said, “The Karnala bird sanctuary is situated along the Mumbai-Goa-Konkan National Highway No.17 and is 12.5 km south of the proposed project site and falls outside of core area. The sanctuary is very rich in avifauna and harbors 147 species of resident and 37 species of migratory birds who visit the sanctuary during winter. Two rare birds i.e. Ashy Minivet and Spotted heart woodpeckers have been sighted here. The sanctuary is away from landing and take-off funnel of Navi Mumbai International Airport. Moreover, the position of aircraft during missed approach and circling will be more than 750 metres.”

In a meeting in March, the NBWL discussed the Navi Mumbai airport issue after the matter was raised in the Maharashtra state wildlife board in January, sources said.

Mr. Goenka alleged that both CIDCO and the Maharashtra forest department had deliberately concealed the fact that the sanctuary was less than ten km away from the airport site. Also other than mangroves there was additional forest area which would be affected by the project. He said there was a special provision in the EIA Notification, 2006 which says that deliberate concealment and/or submission of false and misleading data which is material to screening and scoping, shall make the application liable for rejection. He said this is a fit case for cancelling the environmental clearance of this project. Mr Goenka said he was shown a photo of a toposheet by the government depicting the sanctuary as beyond ten km of the airport site. But the site visit and actual measurement of the boundary points revealed the truth. He also pointed out that Matheran hill station which is designated as an eco sensitive zone and Elephanta Island fall in the vicinity of the proposed airport.

The sanctuary attracts many birds as also migratory duck and geese and bird- aircraft interactions cannot be ruled out, he added. Besides Mr.Goenka said the two tri- monthly reports so far of the avian fauna studies by the BNHS did not indicate the impact of the airport on the sanctuary or the fact that it is less than ten km away from Karnala. However, the study is ongoing and a final report is awaited. More than 20 years ago, the BNHS had authored a comprehensive report on bird hits funded by the Ministry of Defence and had suggested several measures which were accepted. But in this case, Mr.Goenka said it was not raising enough questions about locating an airport in the vicinity of a bird sanctuary.

The proposed new airport at a cost of Rs 14,573 crore, spread over 2000 hectares, is aimed at reducing the load of air traffic in Mumbai. It is already mired in delays with cost escalations and problems over land acquisition and rehabilitation but chief minister Prithviraj Chavan recently said that attempts were being made to speed up matters and get it going by October this year.