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  • Writer's pictureShatakshi Gawade

Salim Ali Biodiversity Park: Paradise threatened

Ecological Society student in 2019-2020 Sanjeev Naik participated in a bird walk in Sálim Ali Biodiversity Park on the birth anniversary of Sálim Ali on 12 November. The park was inaugurated in the winter of 1973 in the presence of Sálim Moizuddin Abdul Ali (12 November 1896 – 20 June 1987). It was also known as the “Mula-Mutha Pakshi Abhay Pradesh” or the “Mula-Mutha Bird Protected Area”. Sanjeev writes about the disturbing events at the park over the last year.

Sanjeev Naik (extreme left in green)
Sanjeev Naik (extreme left in green)

On the 123rd birth anniversary of Birdman of India Sálim Ali, I am filled with nostalgia about our initial visit to the Salim Ali Biodiversity Park, Yerwada, Pune. As avid bird enthusiasts, my wife Smith, son Aniruddh and I were disappointed that in spite of staying in Pune, we had not yet visited this famous spot. Little did we know that our first visit would turn into a series of events which we had never imagined.

Participation on Sálim Ali's birth anniversary
Participation on Sálim Ali's birth anniversary

The first opportunity to visit the park was for an important initiative in May 2019 – a cleanup planned by local residents. After being involved in the Plastic Ban Awareness Campaign, I was geared up to take part in another ecologically and socially important initiative.

I was welcomed by enthusiastic volunteers of this group. Most of the volunteers were perplexed that I had come from as far as Balewadi, which is a good 15 km from the park. But the love of birds did not let this feel like an inconvenience.

However, I was shocked by the condition of the park, what with a crematorium as the entry point, a garbage depot to lead you in and then the ubiquitous garbage strewn about by careless humans. Despite all this, it was such a delightful habitat for birds. For me, it was like a paradise in the centre of the city, where you could see heaven amidst hell!

Soon we learned the history of the Park – noted ecologist and expert bird watcher/lover Shri Prakash Gole had established this pristine area. Later, India’s most famous ornithologist, Dr Sálim Ali had visited this place and was very keen that it should be notified as a Bird Sanctuary. The private owners of this land, the Wadias, were gracious enough to donate this to the government for this noble cause. Efforts thereon to preserve the rich biodiversity and conservation however were not taken seriously by the various departments entrusted for the same, and so the beautiful park gradually deteriorated like a wasteland and led to encroachments by vested interests. The pollution in the Mula-Mutha river next to the Park, which was also purely due to human activities, made the situation worse, and the park was almost forgotten.

Environmental awareness however has led to a revival of this park over the past year, and local activists and volunteers have initiated activities to attract enthusiasts and citizens to visit and enjoy this rich, biodiverse spot. This area has an astonishing mix of thriving grassland, forest and water ecosystems, which have attracted more than 70 species of birds, many of which have their habitat here. Regular bird walks combined with nature drawing events and talks by bird experts have delighted and brought in more citizens from various parts of the city to enjoy this natural paradise.

Even as the park has been seeing more footfall, we got a rude shock when it was announced that there would be a new road which would be constructed right through the heart of the park, in order to reduce congestion on the parallel Nagar road (which itself was earlier constructed on the periphery of the park, and had already affected the ecological environment). Appeals to stop this new road construction fell on ears which pretended to listen but went ahead and did exactly opposite of what was assured. Trees were cut haphazardly with no proper process followed. Overnight, the destruction of the park had begun.

Activists and volunteers came together to prevent further damage by organising silent human chains as well as taking up legal petitions to object to the felling of trees and construction.

Human chain to protest the cutting of trees in the Salim Ali Biodiversity Park

Even as that was happening, the authorities went ahead and hacked more trees in the most shameful manner. The sight of these massive trees reduced to stumps left most of us disconsolate; however it also led to the stir becoming more determined to conserve what was left. The tree department admitted that they had not followed proper procedures and assured that this will not happen again. However, irreparable damage had already been done and the area was now cleared for the construction of the road.

Just as we were recovering from the shock of the road, a new threat cropped up with changes to a proposal to lay a metro line, again cutting right through the park. We heard the most irrational justification for this new alignment – that the original plan could threaten the heritage structure of Aga Khan Palace, though it was more than the prescribed distance. Once again, it did not matter that this mindless urban progress was destroying the natural environment, which is shrinking at a faster pace than before. Now, with permission granted to cut more trees, it was a double whammy for all the original and historic non-human residents of this habitat. Metro pillars were constructed at a pace which amazingly is not noticed elsewhere. The noise from all this constructions has already disturbed many species like grey francolin, red-naped ibis, flycatchers, and woodpeckers from their centuries-old home; many have likely perished and disappeared forever from this area.

One consoling factor was that at least the water habitat was not disturbed much by this human-led devastation, though it was not completely immune, as we saw the rapid spread of the invasive water hycanith, again thanks to pollution caused by industrial and other harmful effluents. However, this was not to last long – unprecedented rainfall in Pune and in the upstream areas, along with river encroachment and unscientific planning, led to massive inundation in the park area. The flooding almost submerged the large island in the river which was the roosting and nesting area for spot-billed ducks, purple swamphen, and grey, purple and night herons. The water receded over time, but left behind a huge litter of plastic and other man-made materials over 10 feet high!

River island garbage

Now all that remains is a half-constructed road, an unplanned and highly controversial metro line, and a completely devastated nature park. Very few have bothered to ask why the BRTS bus system just 50 metres from the park, which could have solved most of the traffic problems across this entire area, did not succeed, in spite of massive spending in setting up the infrastructure.

All the above human-led unsustainable development (development being a misnomer for nature) have almost ended the dreams of Sálim Ali, Gole Sir and conscious citizens to live in harmony with their natural surroundings and its inhabitants.

But even today, the committed movement continues, fuelled by the untiring efforts of representative activists and nature lovers. Regular bird walks and cleanup drives are conducted here, and authorities are reminded to work on conservation of this rich, ecologically sensitive area.

(From left) Pradeep Raheja of Robin Hood Army, biodiversity expert Dharmaraj Patil, Oikos founders and ES faculty Manasi Karandikar and Ketaki Ghate, and Meghana Baphna of the Save Salim Ali Biodiversity Park group

Photos from Sanjeev Naik

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