The construction of a massive international airport on the outskirts of Mumbai is destroying great swathes of mangroves and jeopardising fishing communities. Hills are being levelled and streams filled in. An expanding zone of real-estate development around the airport and its feeder roads will gobble up even more of the coastal ecology and villages. Many local residents are angry at the loss of their land and traditional livelihoods. The Adani Group recently acquired a 23% share in the airport and has clinched a deal to increase that to 74%.
Navi Mumbai, 29 March 2021: On the north-eastern outskirts of India’s commercial capital Mumbai lie lush mangroves that are home to local fisherfolk. Such communities were here even before the port city was built up by the British East India Company in the 17th century. Since the mid-1970s, this landscape has faced urbanisation due to the development of Navi Mumbai, or ‘New Mumbai’, as a planned satellite city. An international airport that is under development here will cause further damage to the mangroves and to the lives of the indigenous fisher communities, classified as marginalised communities by the Indian government. Local people say that they have not been fairly recompensed by the authorities for having to give up their land and livelihoods. In the past year, with an assist from the Modi government’s investigation agencies, the Adani group acquired the development from the previous owner.
According to environmentalist Debi Goenka, quoted by Scroll.in, the Navi Mumbai Airport will end up ‘destroying 400 acres of mangroves, 1000 acres of mud-flats, [and] 300 acres of forest area.’ The authorities will ‘have to divert five rivers, [and] they will have to reclaim that land by filling it up to 11 meters – for that they will have to demolish hills,’ Goenka continued, explaining the wider environmental implications of the project.
The mangroves act as natural buffers against coastal erosion and flooding, and are understood to store up to four times as much carbon as many other forests due to their complex root-systems and the organic soils in which they grow. A 2019 report by climate researchers predicted that much of Mumbai will be under water by 2050 if global carbon emissions are not reduced. A 2005 study by Indian government researchers found that Mumbai lost nearly 40 percent of its mangroves between 1991 and 2001.
Nandkumar Pawar from the village of Bhandup runs the non-profit NGO Ekveera Aai Pratishthan. ‘This ecologically sensitive area was the only source of livelihood for inhabitants. It was also a habitat for more than two lakh (200,000) birds, insects and fish but the government and a private entity have destroyed the area’, he said.
‘There are a lot of laws and authorities and those are not working according to the laws, but it’s not being followed deliberately since there is convenience for the real estate and giant capitalists,’ he added.
Another local citizen critical of the destruction of the environment is Stalin Dayanand, founding member of the NGO Vanashakti (Power of Forests) in Mumbai. ‘Navi Mumbai Airport has faced environmental and land-acquisition problems as well as inhabitants’ opposition but the inhabitants’ voice is not heard’, he said.
Dayanand, a post-graduate in business management, has been identified as a hero by the Mumbai Mirror for taking a stand on behalf of the ecology and traditional livelihoods. In 2018, he was one of the applicants in a legal action against the proposed airport. He said that behind the destruction of one of the great wetlands there is a nexus of powerful interests. He said the Navi Mumbai Airport Influenced Notified Area (NAINA), a proposed planning area aimed at avoiding unplanned development, is already being bought off by the big builders and eventually there will be more destruction.
Over the coming decade, the Indian aviation industry is expected to grow at a rate of approximately 10% per annum. Over the next two decades, the number of airports in the country is expected to increase from 133 to 500. Of these, 367 are slated to be on ‘greenfield’ sites. India’s aviation market is expected to be the world's third largest by 2024.
The proposed Navi Mumbai International Airport (NMIA) is projected as the alternate to the second-busiest airport in India – the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport that is located close to some of India’s biggest Bollywood film studios. NMIA is being developed in the Uran Taluka (sub-division) of Maharashtra’s Raigad district. It will be a short distance from India’s largest seaport – the government-owned Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust that is also located in Uran. It is a ‘greenfield’ airport project which means that it uses previously undeveloped land for which commissioning, planning and construction processes are generally carried out from scratch. The airport’s final capacity is aimed at more than 60 million passengers annually.
The Navi Mumbai Airport was first approved by the Maharashtra government in July 2008. On 22 November 2010, final environmental clearance for the airport was provided by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), overruling the people who inhabited the area. Since then, according to local critics of the way the project has been handled, about 6000 families have been displaced to make way for the airport. The families are struggling for fair recompense (referred to as ‘rehabilitation’). Alternative accommodation and livelihood options for many locals are still unclear, with many yet to receive their full amounts.
The project has received enthusiastic support from politicians locally and nationally. In 2014, the then chief minister of Maharashtra, Devendra Fadanavis, promised that the airport will be functional by 2019. After this announcement the process of building the Navi Mumbai Airport accelerated. On 19 Feb 2018, Fadanavis retweeted this video with a title, ‘Here is how Navi Mumbai International Airport will change the lives of Mumbaikars!’. Recently, while announcing the 2021-22 budget, the national finance minister, Dr Nirmala Sitharaman, spoke of the need of increasing domestic manufacturing and identified Navi Mumbai Airport as one of the means of achieving that.
How Adani acquired the Navi Mumbai airport development
On 21 February 2021, the Adani group’s airports arm announced that it had completed the acquisition of a 23.5 percent stake in Mumbai International Airport Limited (MIAL), a company that owns Mumbai’s existing airport and the Navi Mumbai development. Until recently, MIAL had been controlled by a rival Indian corporate player, the GVK group. The acquisition cost the Adani Group Rs. 1685 crore (about US $233 million). This is the first sale of a stake in MIAL to Adani with more expected to follow, as Adani Airports Holdings Limited (AAHL) takes over the airport business in India’s second largest city. In September 2020, the group chairman, Gautam Adani, announced that the Adani group had arrived at a deal to acquire 74% of Mumbai’s airport from GVK.
With the addition of Mumbai, Adani now has under its belt seven operational airports (see the airports deal described in a previous story by AdaniWatch) and one that is under development.
The sequence of events leading up to Adani’s deal to acquire the Mumbai airport from GVK presents an interesting story. In short, GVK initially did not want to sell the airport and had resisted Adani’s attempts to buy out the stakes of smaller investors in MIAL but was eventually forced to sell.
When in February 2019 it was reported that Adani had made a formal offer to buy out the 23.5 percent stake in the MIAL held by two smaller investors, the GVK group fought to prevent the deal from going through, asserting that it had the right of first refusal over any sale of its partners’ stake in MIAL. The tussle between GVK and Adani intensified over the following year and a half through litigation that reached India’s Supreme Court and has been described in detail by NewsClick.
The tipping point in the tussle came when Indian government authorities began investigating the GVK Group. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Enforcement Directorate (ED) investigated the GVK group on suspicion of having ‘connived’ in and ‘deliberately committing fraud and causing (a) loss to the government exchequer’ by siphoning off ‘funds meant for the development of Mumbai airport’ and of money laundering. In June 2020 the CBI conducted raids at the offices of the MIAL and GVK. In July, the ED conducted raids at the offices of MIAL and the GVK group, and also at the homes of the GVK group’s owners.
Soon after, GVK’s tussle with Adani over the Mumbai airport came to a close. On 31 August 2020, through a statement issued to the press, not only did GVK accept the sale of its minor partners’ stake to Adani, it also agreed to sell its own controlling stake of 50.5 percent (the remaining 26 percent is held by the government’s AAI), ceding control of the company and all its assets to the Adani group. Adani therefore acquired a controlling stake in the operational airport in Mumbai and the under-construction airport at Navi Mumbai. It was a total capitulation by GVK.
Adani’s acquisition of a controlling share in the Mumbai airports was raised in India’s parliament by an opposition parliamentarian. In response, the aviation minister, Hardeep Singh Puri, said that everything had occurred in accordance with the rules.
Destruction of the wetlands, livelihoods and culture
Neither the ex-chief minister of Maharashtra Fadnavis, nor the civil aviation minister Puri, nor the current finance minister of India, Sitharaman, has spoken of the destruction of the wetlands, the rivers, the mangroves, the mudflats and the swamps in the area, and nor did they mention the project-affected people of the area in Navi Mumbai. The satellite town has seen aggressive expansion since the mid-1990s and is now struggling with the severe impacts of climate change. Its inhabitants are frequently exposed to heavy floods during high tides and untimely cyclones. Particularly vulnerable are the fisher communities who live among the mangroves.
Vinayak Koli, a 35-year-old resident of Moha village near Ulwe, an upcoming financial hub said, ‘Mumbai needs more space to grow. Space cannot be created, so the projects have moved looking for alternate space, and reached here. If they (government) cannot accommodate residents, how are they going to accommodate the migrants?’
He said that people who have a voice are now speaking of how airport construction has endangered the area’s biodiversity.
A botany student who is resident of Ulwe village and who wished to remain anonymous said, ‘many organisations have come forward to conduct clean-up drives in mangroves and river areas to show how aware they are as citizens but in the end when government destroys thousands of hectares in one decision, their awareness doesn’t count. The victim here, is the fisherman, the local, the inhabitant who has lost his work and home.’
Rajaram Patil, a local leader from the town of Kegaon and a representative of the marginalised communities of the area, says, ‘people have suffered abuse of power at the hands of the authorities. The state cannot touch the mangroves under the CRZ (Coastal Regulation Zones) … but Adani can just come in with some phoney court order and cut down 2000 ha.’
He stated that only 1160 hectares of land were assigned to build the airport but, in reality, 2000 hectares were cleared deliberately to develop for real estate. He said that the river Ulwe, the water source for villages such as Ganesh Puri, Chinchpada, Dungi, Ulwe and Pargaon, has been all but destroyed by landfill.
Activist lawyer Prashant Patil, a resident affected by the airport, has not been given compensation and calls the project a waste of money because ‘the Ulwe river and tidal water will encroach upon the airport because there will be no mangroves to stop the tidal water during full moon nights.’
However, when local residents affected by the Navi Mumbai International Airport project raise concerns, the Adani Group deploys the government's administration to handle it.
Social activist Shambuk Sankalpana Uday is concerned that ‘the irony of reality is that political parties have already started the name game for the airport and nobody is working for the rights and compensation for the inhabitants’.
Earlier it was proposed that the airport be named after the warrior king Shivaji Maharaj, just like the existing Mumbai airport. Now the government is pushing for it to be named after the late Balasaheb Thakare, the founder of the Shiv Sena [which holds the Maharashtra government in an alliance with the Congress party and the Nationalist Congress Party.] The local resistance has been demanding that the airport be named after the late Dinkar Balu Patil, a senior member of the Peasants and Workers Party of India who was popular with the masses.
Meanwhile, residents of the village Kombhalguj say they have never experienced the kinds of floods during high tide as they do now. Many believe this must be happening because of the sins they committed in their previous lives (a common Hindu belief to explain misfortune). Many villagers believe the implications of climate change are their karma.
Others are angry and feel ignored by the government and Adani.
Naren Patil, a 40-year-old farmer from Ulwe, said ‘our rice fields have been destroyed and our land is taken to build the houses for affected people’.
A local women protester stated ‘fishing is not just a business but it's our culture and only these communities know how to catch fish and sell it in the market. These communities cannot even think of doing any other work to earn money. Everything has been destroyed in the name of development’.
Shiva Thorat is an independent researcher and film-maker based in Mumbai