On September 17, 2018, Bombay High Court declared “The destruction of mangroves offends the fundamental right of citizens under Article 21 (right to life) of the Constitution of India”.
Why are mangroves important?
Mangroves are shrubs and trees that only grow in intertidal areas of tropical and sub-tropical regions of the world. These species have unique characteristics that help them tolerate waterlogging during sea tides and extreme saline soil and water conditions. Mangroves are amongst the most productive ecosystems in the world providing food and livelihoods to coastal communities. That means, not only are they habitats for many marine flora and fauna, and birds, but due to their dense canopy and prominent above soil surface roots, mangroves protect coastal biodiversity and communities by breaking high energy sea waves, slowing inland flow of water, reducing soil erosion and dissipating wind energy of cyclone.
In India, mangroves are found along the coastlines of nine states and three union territories. A recent assessment by Forest Survey of India (2017), indicates mangrove area to be 4921 km² with a net increase of 181 km² since 2015 assessments (mostly owing to plantation and natural regeneration). Prominent mangroves include in Sundarbans in the Bay of Bengal, East Godavari in Andhra Pradesh, Pichavaram in Tamil Nadu, North Andaman District in Andaman and Nicobar and Gulfs of Kachchh and Mannar in Gujarat.
What are the implications of mangrove destruction?
The functions and services of mangroves are in threat due to reasons which are intertwined between natural and human-made causes. Human-caused threats to mangroves include (but not limited to) habitat conversion for built-up area and alteration in upstream discharge of water. Habitat destruction of mangroves impedes their ability to slow down speed of high altitude sea waves and promotes soil erosion thereby, increasing shore erosion. Natural flows from inland when altered affect sediment deposition in coastal areas. Sediments include large and small soil particle which not only stabilize shores but also carry nutrients for downstream biodiversity.
Case from Kerala: Munroe Island in Ashtamudi Estuary (a Ramsar Site), is home to around 10,000 people and is gradually subsiding. Assessments done by Wetlands International South Asia for synthesising a management action plan for Ashtamudi, indicated replacement of coarse grain sand deposits from River Kallada with that of fine grain deposits from the sea as one of the key contributing factors. Removal of mangroves from the natural shorelines, reduced water inflow from upstream reservoirs and unmanaged sand mining in the upstream areas has further aggravated erosion rates. There has been 85% reduction in mangrove area during 1967-2016. Mangrove regeneration has been affected owing to diverse range of anthropogenic pressures as loss of habitat, cattle grazing, coconut husk retting, and harvest for medicine, timber and pollution.
The Constitution of India through its Article 21 provides right to life to all her citizens as fundamental to their existence as human beings and includes all aspects which make life meaningful, complete and worth living. The Constitution also recognizes the Public Trust Doctrine as a part of its jurisprudence, which enjoins upon the government to protect natural resources for the public rather than for private commercial purposes. The current decision of Bombay High Court accords mangrove conservation as an integral part of environment conservation and a means for a citizen to live a meaningful life as contemplated by Article 21 of the Constitution of India. The 83-page judgement by the Bombay High Court on Public Interest Litigation No.87 of 2004 on mangroves shall ever remain one of the most pragmatic and forward looking directions from the Indian judiciary.
Newspaper article mentioned:
Times of India (2018) ‘Destruction of mangroves affects right to life: HC’, 17 September. Available at: https://epaper.timesgroup.com/Olive/ODN/TimesOfIndia/shared/ShowArticle.aspx?doc=TOIM%2F2018%2F09%2F18&entity=Ar00808&sk=9C66F817&mode=text