Saviour of Mumbai’s mangroves and a passionate conservationist, N. Vasudevan is all for tackling new age marine conservation issues with multiple approaches.
Written by Anisha Iyer
People often tend to think of mangroves as “wastelands” as very few know how valuable these forests are to the planet. Mangroves are ecosystems that have a massive impact on the lives of coastal and marine species, and most importantly, people. They help greatly in times of cyclones, floods, and other extreme events; help control coastal erosion and are extremely efficient at carbon sequestration. A healthy mangrove ecosystem is critical to the survival of many fishes, reptiles, birds, mammals and several other forms of life. Despite being the provider of these vital ecosystem services, they have been at the receiving end of wanton destruction.
In the mega city of Mumbai, mangroves occupy about 67 square kilometers. This is perhaps much more than any large metropolitan city in the world can claim of, but the fact remains that much of Mumbai’s mangroves were destroyed over the years to build roads, buildings and other public infrastructure. Many of Mumbai’s slums have come up at the cost of mangroves. Till as recently as 2013, Mumbai’s mangrove cover was just 46 square kilometers. But the next four years saw a massive increase of nearly 50% in Mumbai’s mangroves.
The man behind this extraordinary ecosystem revival in the megapolis is N. Vasudevan, the Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Maharashtra Forest Department. “Mangrove Cell”, the organization he has been heading since its inception in 2012, works on protection and management of the mangroves in Maharashtra. He was also the man behind notification of the “Thane Creek Flamingo Sanctuary” as a marine protected area within the metropolitan limits of Mumbai.
Vasudevan hails from a small coastal village in Kerala called Vatakara. Growing up, he walked alongside mangroves on way to school, piquing his interest from a very young age. Over the course of time he was able to pursue Marine Biology from Cochin University of Science and Technology and do a second Master’s in Public Policy and Management from IIM, Bangalore.
In 1992, he had the opportunity to undergo a 10-week specialised training in mangroves. This training took him to mangrove areas in different parts of the country and helped him develop a deep understanding of the mangrove ecosystem. He says, these encounters “stirred in me a fire for mangrove conservation”. But it took him nearly 20 years to find himself working on mangroves full time.
Mr. Vasudevan inspiring young minds
Maharashtra is the first, and till date, the only State in the country to establish a dedicated unit called ‘Mangrove Cell’ to address the issues of mangrove and marine biodiversity conservation. Mangrove Cell started off in 2012 as a one-man army, Vasudevan says. There was no office, no vehicle or staff. For a very long time, it suffered serious manpower shortage. Two important developments that contributed to the growth of Mangrove Cell were the setting up of a special protection unit for Mumbai (Mumbai Mangrove Conservation Unit) and the creation of the ‘Mangrove and Marine Biodiversity Conservation Foundation (or simply Mangrove Foundation). Today, Maharashtra has a force of over 300 people working for mangrove conservation.
In the initial days, Mangrove Cell focused on mapping of mangrove areas using high resolution satellite images, capacity building of staff and setting up of mangrove nurseries. With the creation of the Mumbai Mangrove Conservation Unit, the responsibility of mangrove protection in Mumbai and Navi Mumbai came to Mangrove Cell. This led to the creation of a robust protection force and consequent eviction of major encroachments on government land. Over 6,000 illegal structures that had cropped up in mangrove lands in Mumbai were demolished by Vasudevan’s team. Encroachments on 9 out of 11 locations have been removed so far and the axe will fall on the remaining areas soon. The manpower needed for protection duty was fulfilled by deploying security personnel from the Maharashtra Security Corporation, run by the Police Department. Of them 118 were specifically deployed for patrolling mangrove areas of Mumbai and to keep strict vigil on encroachments.
In the latter part of 2012, Mangrove Cell was awarded a UNDP Project on marine biodiversity conservation. This was an important landmark in the history of the Mangrove Cell. It triggered Mangrove Cell’s foray into marine biodiversity conservation, gaining a deeper understanding of endangered life forms like sea turtles, corals, marine mammals, sea snakes, otters etc. and putting into place several conservation measures. “We were able to experiment with innovative and pioneering programmes in the area of marine biodiversity conservation and livelihood generation and upscale the idea of conservation onto another level,” says Vasudevan.
Mangrove Cell went on to win the National Biodiversity Award for this work in 2018. Another big step for the Cell was landing a GIZ project, which helped establish a Coastal and Marine Biodiversity Centre in Thane and introduce boat rides for the public to watch flamingos in Thane Creek.
Vasudevan believes that the long-term sustenance of mangrove conservation efforts depends on the wholehearted participation of the coastal communities. The Mangrove Cell created grassroots level institutions called ‘Mangrove Co-Management Committees’, which comprise local people encouraged to take up livelihood activities like crab farming, oyster farming, mussel farming, cage culture of brackish water fishes, ornamental fishery and ecotourism. The choice of the livelihood programmes are determined by the local geographical and climatic conditions. Projects like this have been benefitting local communities, which in turn help locals commit themselves to mangrove conservation movement. About 40 fisheries graduates have been hired by Mangrove Foundation and deployed across 120 villages along the Maharashtra coast to transfer aquaculture technologies to local communities.
The Mangrove Cell has achieved a great deal over the years, but the biggest win in Vasudevan’s eyes is that there has been a substantial increase in mangrove cover in the State. The Mangrove Cell started with 186 sq.km of mangroves in Maharashtra and now this has expanded to 304 sq.km., which is a 63% increase in mangrove cover since. Statistics regarding forest cover from Forest Survey of India in 2015 and 2017 indicates a maximum increase in Maharashtra compared to any other state in the country, Vasudevan notes. His efforts led to the notification of 15300 hectares of mangroves as reserved forests, covering more than 90% of mangroves on government land in Maharashtra.
Mr. Vasudevan with his team
With the country taking notice of the achievements of Maharashtra Mangrove Cell in enhancing mangrove cover, ensuring community participation in conservation and launching several successful pioneering initiatives in marine biodiversity conservation, other coastal states are showing the inclination to create similar institutions. In fact, the National Wildlife Action Plan (2017-31) mandates all coastal states to create similar “Coastal Ecosystem Cells” for conservation of mangroves and marine life.
One of the challenges the Cell faces, Vasudevan mentions is obtaining quality manpower. With limited number of permanent staff to take on duties, he says they are constantly on the lookout for dedicated, committed individuals to join their team. Vasudevan is now engaged in building a core team of professionals for the Mangrove Foundation. He also works on creating world-class Mangrove Parks in Mumbai to change the perception people have on mangroves from, “mosquito breeding centers”, to places of great aesthetic and recreational value, so that they appreciate the pressing need to conserve and protect them.
Vasudevan strongly believes in the role of recreation centers, education, media awareness and the idea of celebrating the mangrove ecosystem as one of nature’s unique gifts. Involving citizens in conservation is vital, he says. Mangrove cleanups, mangrove plantations, mangrove marathons, etc where people voluntarily come together, help create not only awareness, but also a sense of contentment for having contributed to the environment.
“The global conservation agenda is leaning increasingly towards marine and mangrove conservation, but in our country, this is still a largely unexplored area. The use of advanced technologies in marine conservation is definitely a vast area to be worked upon,” he adds. He believes in the capacity India has for positive change, with its rich biodiversity and proactive environmental policies. “There are many marine biodiversity hotspots yet to be documented and studied, and some of them are under threat from climate change and human impact. We intend to do our bit to conserve and protect these areas. Bringing sustainability in the fisheries sector is another major area of concern, and for this, we must spread awareness among fishermen about sustainable fishing practices and endangered marine animals.”
Having created stable institutions which are completely focused on coastal and marine biodiversity conservation, Vasudevan believes his work will continue and go further ahead beyond his years in service.