From November-June, the Sewri-Mahul creek in south-east Mumbai is home to thousands of flamingos from Kutch, Gujarat.

In 2014, the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) launched a five-year study to map and record the movement of these pink-feathered birds in the 10km-long and 3km-wide Thane to Sewri-Mahul creek. It estimates that close to 40,000 of these migratory birds spend a big part of the year here, along with 500,000 other birds.

Listing it at the time as one of the top 10 threatened Important Biodiversity Areas in the world, the BNHS estimated that the mudflats were home to 150 species of resident and wintering birds, including the Black-headed Ibis, Black-tailed Godwit, Western Reef-Egret, River Tern, Common Greenshank, heron, crane and wagtail.

Conservationists now fear some of this could be lost soon. They say the proposed 17,500 crore Mumbai Trans Harbour Link (MTHL) threatens the biodiversity of mudflats in the Sewri-Mahul and Nhava creeks, where the sea link will take off and land. The 22km-long route will connect Mumbai with Navi Mumbai.

Last year, the BNHS had submitted a report to the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), the state government entity implementing the project, asking that the proposed take-off point be moved 500m away from the birds’ habitat. MMRDA chief engineer P.D. Mamdapure says the authority had informally asked the Japan International Cooperation Agency (which has agreed to provide 80% of the project cost as loan) if the alignment could be changed but the agency had refused to consider any change at this stage.

So, there seems to be little likelihood of this happening. The Maharashtra government has, in fact, already issued civil contract tenders for the project.

The BNHS director did not respond to an email on the issue. Its spokesperson directed Mint to the “authorities concerned".

According to an MMRDA engineer, who has seen the report but did not wish to be identified, the other key recommendation is about increasing the distance between pillars at both ends of the link to protect mangroves and mudflats. The BNHS has also suggested a cable-free sea link—unlike the Bandra-Worli Sea Link—so that it doesn’t hinder the flight of flamingos and other water birds.

The mudflats in Sewri-Mahul are one of four sites in Mumbai—the others being Uran, Nhava and Bhandup—that are visited by flamingos. Nitya Goel Aggarwal of Wildnest Travel and Photography, which conducts flamingo watching tours at Sewri, says the Sewri creek is the best place to observe these birds since it’s the most accessible of the four sites.

Says Aggarwal: “The birds start arriving in November but their number is high around January. That is when most people visit the Sewri creek. This year, we have noticed greater awareness and curiosity. There have been weekends when we have seen more than 200 visitors to observe flamingo movement."

In March, when the BNHS conducted its annual flamingo festival, it said in a press release that “the water birds, including flamingos, may get disturbed and fly away when the work on the MTHL begins, due to noise pollution and movement of construction equipment. In the medium term, this could also lead to changes in their migration preferences".

Stalin D., director of environmental non-profit Vanashakti, echoes the fear. “The project would definitely impact the movement of flamingos and other birds in the Sewri mudflats. The government should reconsider the MTHL project or at least move the take-off point."

Bittu Sahgal, conservationist and editor of the Sanctuary Asia magazine, argues that it isn’t just about flamingos. “They are a reminder of how fortunate we are to be living in one of the world’s most exquisite tropical seascapes—Mumbai.

“The habitat of the flamingos also acts as Mumbai’s green armour of defence against sea surges. In an era of climate change, that one service is beyond financial measure."

On weekends, birdwatchers flock to the place.
On weekends, birdwatchers flock to the place.
Locals from the hutments nearby also visit Sewri Jetty for a sight of the birds.
Locals from the hutments nearby also visit Sewri Jetty for a sight of the birds.
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