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NGT stops ‘developmental works’ at Matheran, for now

Gajanan Khergamker | Matheran

Matheran finds itself mired in a series of controversies. The much-touted Zonal Master Plan (ZMP) formulated after a whopping 15 year delay has been flayed for being ‘faulty and incomplete’ leading to a violation of environmental laws. The National Green Tribunal’s most recent direction in February 2020 prevents any new constructions in the Eco-Sensitive Zone (ESZ) and puts the brakes on all things spanking new and ‘developmental’ in nature until concerns raised by environment groups under the eco-sensitive zone notifications are tackled.

The Matheran Hill Station Municipal Council has failed to stop
illegal constructions or demolish those built in contravention of law
In an anti-climax of sorts, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) principal bench of Justice SP Wangdi and expert member Siddhanta Das decided this while hearing an application by Bombay Environment Action Group (BEAG) in February 2020. BEAG has maintained that the state had submitted a faulty and incomplete zonal master plan for municipal zones, area development, forest management, heritage and tourism plans for the ESZ thereby triggering a stark violation of environment laws. “There is simply no balance, as needed, between development projects and the impact on environment as feared,” says legal researcher and activist Vaidehi Shah.

It may be recalled that an ESZ notification dated February 4, 2003 mandated the ZMP be submitted within the two-year limitation period by 2005. However, the Union Environment Ministry submitted the same to the NGT in July 2019 after a colossal 15 year delay. The NGT also went on to impose a fine of Rs 27 lakh on the Union Environment Ministry for the delay.

Reportedly, apart from representatives from the Centre, Maharashtra Pollution Control Board and the Matheran Hill Station Municipal Council, other respondents including the Maharashtra government, forest department, Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), planning authority for Matheran, and the district collector (Raigad) failed to appear before the NGT bench despite reminders. Representatives from the state government have now been directed to be present for the next hearing on March 24 2020.

India’s longest ropeway – 4.7 kms - from Bhutivali to Matheran slated to transport 600 passengers in 20 minutes flat is said to provide an alternative to the transportation issues on the hill station. That the move needs re-categorising the forest land simply dodges issues of resolving existing infrastructure such as parking at Dasturi Naka and the inability to repair and resume the Toy Train Service from Neral to Matheran. The ropeway is seen as Maharashtra government’s diversionary tactic from existing issues.

The State’s intent to ‘develop’ the hill station even at the cost of the fragile eco-system was revealed, in September last, when Maharashtra’s Urban Development Department issued a notification that the state wanted to change the Raigad Regional Town Planning Scheme to bring hill stations under the agricultural department.

This created a huge furor as the issue of land use in Matheran itself came under the limelight. The Supreme Court had, in 2001, notified Matheran as an Eco-Sensitive Zone rendering it into a protected forest. And, although administratively Matheran remained under the control of a council, after the British-era leases expired, the area should ideally have been transferred to the forest department and not renewed by the Collector.

Today, despite all the orders ‘preventing new constructions’, Matheran’s residents continue to break every environmental law in the book and beyond by cutting through hills to create ‘rooms with views to let’ all below the nose of the all-powerful Matheran Municipal Council.

Illegal Constructions of shacks on the fragile hill-side providing bird's-eye view of the valley for tourists in Matheran
The Matheran Municipal Council, on its part, contends the illegal construction are undertaken by ‘outsiders’ who have rented places in Matheran from ‘locals’ and built structures above and beyond the permitted  ‘ground plus one’. It may be called that in 2016, an NGT Western Zone Bench had issued a stay on all new constructions in Matheran and demolition of all existing ones who had flouted the ground plus one rule.

“The Matheran Municipal Council instead of stopping the rot conveniently continued to look the other way saying the land either belonged to the Forest Department, Collector or Railways,” says Neral-based activist Shirish Goyal. The inordinate delay in preparing the zonal plan was often and squarely blamed for the rise in unauthorized constructions in Matheran’s ESZ. “This is nothing but hogwash,” says Mumbai resident and Matheran regular Vipul Shah. “I have literally seen Matheran convert from a quiet serene getaway to a bustling tourist hub complete with shameful irregularities,” he says. “Why, the red sand that Matheran was synonymous with has disappeared too. This has run parallel to the rise in number of ‘rooms’ along hillsides providing ‘breathtaking views of the valley’ and pose huge risk to the environment itself,” he adds.

Sandbags placed all along Matheran's inner roads to prevent soil erosion so rampant now
With the toy train services resumed from Aman Lodge till Matheran earlier this year, the situation is resolved but, conveniently, only for the locals. The quaint hill station known best for the toy train that meandered through sharp turns and twists for two hours before reaching the top had been robbed of its only highlight – the toy train – since 2016. That is, till early this year, when the toy train services were resumed from Aman Lodge – about five minutes away from Dasturi Naka where taxis arrive from Neral.

Without the last lap of train service – from Aman Lodge to Matheran Railway Station – available, locals would have to use horses and man-drawn carts to ferry goods up to the hill station thereby incurring huge costs and inconvenience. Little wonder then that the resumption of the toy train service was met with exhilaration from locals.

Matheran's forest cover is hit the worst with unbridled illegal constructions on Asia's only non-motorable hill station
Now, they can transport their wares till Matheran without incurring colossal costs or suffering inconvenience. That said, the service – in no way – affects the highly-inflated prices of goods all over the hill station escalated because of ‘transportation costs’. The ‘double-or-more’ prices over and beyond MRP continue as outlets justify them claiming ‘inaccessibility’ and ‘high transportation costs’.  The complete absence of accountability or penalizing authorities gives the locals a free hand in running the hill station on whim.

Tourists to Matheran have little option but to avail the taxi service from Neral to Dasturi Naka operated at the fancy of a taxi operator association putting life and limb at risk as they cart, over and beyond the mandatory number of passengers in trips fraught with risk around sharp bends and turns to the top till Dasturi Naka. The unregulated service providers tend to break every law aimed to protect, by over-charging even overfilling vehicles, and swiftly gang up to silence tourists into compliance.

On reaching Dasturi Naka, the tourist can avail a horse-back ride, a hand-pulled cart or, now, the toy train from Aman Lodge to Matheran. “I simply cannot understand why the authorities cannot resume the toy train service from Neral itself?” says a Thane-based home-maker Ritika Shah who finds it an ordeal reaching Matheran each time she arrives. “Once the toy train service starts from Neral itself, the taxi, horse riders and hand-pulled rickshaw mafia will be addressed,” she says.