Saving Lokhandwala Lake

2019-20 brings me to to the 20th anniversary of my first big environmental intervention when I got active to challenge and then successfully prevent the illegal reclamation of the 8 acre Lokhandwala Lake between 1999-2000. I saved the lake then and also named it so.

Set among the mangroves behind Lokhandwala Complex in Andheri (W), Mumbai the lake is an artificial lake formed due to the reclamation’s carried out in the 1970s or earlier to create the Versova Sewage Treatment Lagoon and the large electricity substation. A large area between the two divergent approach roads for these infrastructure projects saw access to the adjacent estuary being cut of and as a result of which the mangroves died and the depression became filled with monsoon water and became a lake.

On 7th August, 1999 I was about a month away from the 24th birthday and preparing reluctantly and with some drag for management entrance exams due in December 1999. I was then staying in the first lane of Lokhandwala Complex since five years and would intermittently visit the back road, which is now unrecognizable from what it was then. It was the before everything era. Before mobile phones, before internet as we see it now, before an explosion of cars, before a lot of the real estate, which now define its new identity. Before a time when I could take any photos of the situation and efforts then.

Unrecognizable today, the back road was very popular with morning and evening walkers even then. If anything the walking experience was better. The two roads leading to the electrical substation and the Versova Sewage Lagoon broke out in divergent Y forks from the back road and provided continuous long walking lengths completely free from any motorised transport, having the mangroves on one side and the lake – sandwiched in between – on the other. It was quiet like cannot be imagined now and with copious amounts of clean air, with greenery and a large selection of birds at hand to hear and enjoy for the bird brained.

The road leading towards the (then not operational) sewage lagoon was the hands down favourite. At times during the ‘peak hours’ it could look very much like the present highways during peak hour. In the preceding decade and a half Lokhandwala Complex had exploded in population and had somewhat become a poster boy for the unplanned urbanization in post independence Mumbai and also a metaphor for a concrete jungle. People escaped to this natural oasis juxtaposed next to the concrete jungle. Since the sewage lagoon was under construction there was no functional gate or restriction and people could walk right up to the lagoons and beyond touch the creek. Though a majority stuck till the gate.

The road leading to the Sewage lagoon now.
The road leading to the sewage lagoon. This picture is from January, 2017. The road is now being concretised. All the vegetation on the left is what came up on the reclaimed portion. The lake used to touch the road edge where the low mounds of mud can be seen. It is difficult to imagine now that used to be choc a block fill with walkers before 2002.

In September 2001 the municipal corporation opened a transit garbage collection facility adjacent to the Sewage Lagoon and since then the road has been overtaken by a continuous stream of garbage compactors coming and going. All through the 1990’s this road would be crowded with a stream of morning and evening walkers and day time picnickers and couples.

On 7th August, 1999 in the evening when I visited the Lake, there was no one walking on the road leading to the sewage lagoon – the popular option. Everybody had take to the sub-station road. The road leading to the sewage lagoon was unrecognizable. I was not a regular walker and so much have come after a month or so.

The road had become almost double the size, the vegetation which lined the lake was all gone and replaced by a filling of fresh earth and garbage. The junction had a stench of garbage which became stronger as one walked towards the road to the lagoon. Garbage trucks were dumping their fill on the edge of the lake and pushing it inside. That’s why people had completely stopped using that section.

I was left furious seeing the sight and walked straight towards the trucks which were emptying the garbage. I confronted a young man who must have been only a few years elder to me and questioned him. He was a friendly person and introduced himself as Deepak and was a mukadam with the municipal corporation.

I don’t remember the details of the conversation now but he was clear that the dumping could not stop since he had instructions from his seniors to cover up the lake. There was no way I was listening to all this and so began the efforts which would last over the next six months to ensure that the dumping was completely stopped and did not resume. We could not excavate what was already dumped and had to contend with a new edge for the lake.

Among the first things I did was to go back to my newly bought computer and design A3 size posters with messages to save the lake and invite the walkers to join in the efforts. I would carry it on a floppy disk to Krishna Communication on the main road, take a printout which would be stuck on a card board with which I then stood at the corner between the two roads.

Simultaneously I called up Mr. P K Patel who then stayed in the second lane in Guru Kripa building (now sold his flat and moved out of Mumbai). We were new friends. He must have been about double my age then and we had bonded well over a bird watching trip organised by BNHS in the first week of November 1998. The wader watch would be a popular program of BNHS then in the mudflat of Malad Creek. In that particular walk we had entered into a dense patch of mangroves opposite Millat Nagar which is adjacent to Lokhandwala Complex. That visit is a very long separate story of what would two years later become a highlight of my activism career.

Mr. Patel is a nature lover but not inclined towards activism. He was an RSS Pracharak in his primary public leaning and one of the more active ones in Lokhandwala Complex. Over the coming decade he would become a willing accomplice and partner in all my efforts to save the lake as well as the large swathes of mangroves. Among the first suggestions from him was to approach the actor Mr. Parikshit Sahni who was a regular walker on the back road. Mr. Patel had some acquaintance with him and was of the opinion that he would join the efforts. Much as he had mentioned Mr. Sahni (Parikshitji since then) would take a keen interest. He was a regular walker and he too had changed his direction. I remember we first met him in the morning just a few meters before the sub-station gate.

In those first few weeks, I had stood before the trucks, invited others to join, made life a bit difficult for the dumpers, which slowed down but did not cease. Simultaneously I made my first visit to a ward office in Mumbai; this was the K(W) ward office under which Andheri (West) was one of the areas. The administrative head for the ward would then be called the Ward Officer (now Assistant Municipal Commissioner) and it was Mr. Amar Dubey then.

Mr. Dubey was not much cooperative and I was left with the feeling that this was being coordinated from within the municipal office itself. I realised we will have only increase the agitation on the site.

I now don’t have a day by day and week breakup of the events but in the next few weeks sometime we visited Amar Dubey as a bigger delegation and asked Mr. Sahni to join us. And that of course had a big effect. Mr. Dubey was a changed person and willing to more easily accommodate Mr. Sahni and humour him and give assurances. The administration does love when somebody from the entertainment world drops by into their very worldly existence.

Not everything that Mr. Dubey would assure was followed through on the ground. Over the course it became my and Mr. Patel’s routine to maintain a hawks eye on the situation. I took the lead and making sure that there was a continuous visible presence (and deterrence to the dumpers) from our side on the ground.

I think it was during this period of action is also that Mr. Patel introduced me to the late Mr. S P Gupta, who was also a resident of second lane in Montana building. He was a fire brand senior citizen, a born activist with communist leanings(I think a card carrying member of CPI), who had retired from very senior positions in the Income Tax departments. He was originally a Delhi resident but maybe due to his last posting in Mumbai or the estranged relationship with his family or both he was settled in Mumbai.

A highly sensitive person with public welfare and good governance at heart he had been closely following, commenting and more importantly acting on all the irregularities around the Development Plan and DCRs in Lokhandwala Complex. At least in the second and much bigger innings from 2001-02 and there on I remember very close interaction with him and my first learning of all the intricacies of making changes to land use in the Development Plan, the actors in this collusion, how massive profits are reaped or inducements provided for the same and how the public interest at large gets harmed through the deficiencies in essential public services required to serve a certain density of population.

I could write separately at length on his work and its a general tragedy of Indian existence that there is no interest or audience or support for recording history. Its a timeless nation and society, which has its own wisdom maybe and understands something more than I do – everything goes into the dustbin of history, whose contents have no value for those in the ‘present’.

In a longer separate note for a book, which has not come through till now I have shared in detail my angst and disgust about the upper middle class and elite that come to dominate the Lokhandwala Complex (and it could be the same for pan city or country) and their sheer selfishness and refusal to be involved with public matters.

These are the people who had the luxury of regular walks in the evening or mornings because they were fully supported through their wealth to be able to do so. When their main walking route started seeing reclamation, they effortlessly shifted their walking to another route – no reaction, no stress. I was not even a regular walker and yet when I landed there for a walk after a good many weeks I was devastated enough to move into action immediately. I wont even get into writing here the terrible times we were going through as a family then.

By the time I reacted the lake had been pushed in by 15 feet with no reaction from the regular walkers. I can imagine that 100s of trucks of debris and garbage must have been dumped right in front of their eyes. I think if I had not intervened then the whole lake would have been covered setting a good foundation for illegal slums and commercial establishments like garages etc.

If anything the Maslow’s pyramid, which I would see so celebrated and dished out through the 90’s (as the answer for when environmental issues will finally get addressed) should have set in? This was then, in 1999, now is different but now is not necessarily any better, just more pretense and posturing and great digital marketing tools at hand.

This episode also laid the foundation for my idea to create a local NGO called Lokhandwala Complex Environmental Action Group, which would get functional in the next big involvement in 2001 and then registered by 2004. All of these involvements and more would define my work over the coming decade and create a prominent public image on Mumbai’s then environmental leadership and action landscape. I brought together a lot of like minded people during that decade, convened regular meetings at the back road or in the gardens and created a lot of engagement with local police and other authorities.

There was a time in the first decade when I would be an eager guide (beside one of the watchmen) to all and sundry, happily taking them for a tour of the lake and showing its various features, how and where the dumping started and how we prevented and saved the lake.Before I progressively withdrew post 2012 and then 2015-16 and feel unrecognizable from what I was 20 years ago.

I hardly visit the lake once in a year now and cannot get myself to be involved as effortlessly as I once would. There are others who have joined now but none so keenly and with the same spirit in my opinion.

I had thought of organising a talk or function on 2nd February, 2020 on occasion of World Wetlands Day but these just remain thoughts.

The interconnectedness of issues

On March 19th I along with Janak Daftary of Jal Birdari and Mr. Jagdish Gandhi met MMRDA officials at the site of the retaining wall that is being built next to the Vakola Nala  mangroves Рfollow the picture and details below

http://mumbaimangroves.wordpress.com/2009/02/19/mmrda-destroying-mangroves/

The meeting was inconclusive but valuable all the same. As far as I am concerned the meeting the issue no longer remained one of protection of mangroves. The issue is a confluence of three important public interest areas. For far too long mangrove conservation has been considered as an issue which should be left to a few people who ‘understand’ the issue and the issue has nothing of interest for the vast majority. The following three issues should provide clarity:

1) How are decisions taken within the government about issues of public interest? The engineers present for the visit could not answer critical questions beyond a point and their only defense for the wall was that the same had been suggested by CWPRS and IIT-Bombay and they were only carrying out the execution based on the said directives. That any real public good was coming out of it was left for everyone to guess. Everybody who has no interest in mangroves but interest in governance needs to be concerned about the decision making.

2) How is the tax payers money utilised? It is a fundamental premise that funds should not be blown on projects which are unnecessary and should be instead directed towards essential infrastructure and needs. In this case Rs. 2 crores has been spent on constructing a white elephant which is of no use at all. People who cry hoarse about the amount of money Mumbai sends to the Center and how much it gets back in return should first question whether each and every existing rupee being sent in Mumbai is being used wisely or half of it is being siphoned off? Should stopping this leakage be the top priority?

3) Everybody who is interested in the illegal proliferation of slums and a control on the illegal nexus which helps them come up needs to be interested in the issue. From one end of the mangroves dumping is progressing at a slow rate. If not stopped in 5 years you will have no mangroves and in its place a ground avaiable for encrocahment and in in another decade you will have a bursting slum. Public memory being the way it is everybody would forget that this was a mangrove plot which could have been saved with a little bit of vigilance and effort.