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How Mumbai’s residents fought, and won, a battle on behalf of flamingos

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Talawe wetlands in Navi Mumbai is one of at least six in the Maximum City where flamingos converge in thousands

Every winter, a familiar cloud of pink descends on the muddy creek that Sunil Agarwal’s apartment overlooks. The chartered accountant in Navi Mumbai’s NRI colony has seen this phenomenon ever since he moved here.

The Talawe wetlands near Agarwal’s colony is one of at least six in maximum city where flamingos converge in thousands to feed on shrimp, larvae, algae and plankton.

But two years ago, Agarwal began to notice some disquieting changes in the wetland and surrounding mangrove. “The place was being beautified. Palm trees were being planted, mangroves being chopped. There was digging and debris dumped into the wetland. A road was being built.”

It transpired that the City and Industrial Development Corporation of Maharashtra had flagged off a proposal to create an 18-hole golf course and a 17-tower apartment complex in the area. One-fourth of the 80 hectare ecosystem had been converted from a ‘no development zone’ to a ‘special development zone’.

“This was unacceptable,” says Agarwal. “Many of us in the colony decided to do something to stop this from happening.” The mangrove and wetland, he says, have played an important role in preventing flooding over the years in these parts. And they support a rich diversity of plants and insects and birds. “They have even brought flamingos to our backyard.”

Flamingos — lesser and greater — are found across the country, and migrate from as far as Iran. Many of those that flock to Mumbai come from sites closer home, such as Gujarat’s Rann of Kutch, where they breed and nest on mudflats. What is particularly special about Mumbai’s Talawe wetlands is that it attracts the rarer lesser flamingos — the ones with the bright pink feathers, which they acquire from the beta carotene present in the organisms they consume.

Over 2018, Mumbai-based wildlife photographer Sarang Naik captured the birds at their gregarious best: filter feeding, wading, and performing their courtship rituals, almost oblivious to the changes around them. “I had been reading about the flamingos arriving each year in Navi Mumbai, and hearing about the threats from real estate. Besides, I wanted to test my new telephoto lens.”

Naik found a perfect perch on a mound of mud to train his lens on the dashing pink birds as they swerved up and about the flats in huge flocks. Every now and then, he says, a pink ‘missile’ would swoop down from the sky to the waters.

One of Naik’s pictures, of a flock of the flamboyantly plumed birds flying against the incongruous backdrop of the block of flats at NRI colony, won third prize at the Sanctuary Wildlife Photography Awards 2018.

Meanwhile, Agarwal and his neighbours began an online campaign to save the wetland. In March this year, Agarwal decided it was time to file a PIL challenging the development plan. A separate petition was filed to remove the debris. Happily for him, on November 1, the Bombay High Court scrapped the real estate project. “These water bodies form [an] essential and important part of our ecosystem which cannot be eroded for providing for commercial or other use,” the judgment said.

“What people don’t seem to understand is that wetlands and mangroves are not wastelands waiting to be developed,” says Agarwal. “They serve critical ecological functions.” Now, an online group, Save Navi Mumbai Environment, formed by Agarwal, hopes to organise a ‘run for flamingos’ next year to create awareness about the bird and the spectacular oasis in the heart of the metro.

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