Exhibition city project raises fears of doom for Mangalavanam

Plan for international facility with hotels, residential buildings near bird sanctuary

The Kerala State Housing Board’s (KSHB) plan to construct an international exhibition centre near the Mangalavanam Bird Sanctuary could smother the last green patch in the city in a sea of concrete.

Mangalavanam, a thick mangrove patch, is already threatened by the buildings towering over it. In the immediate vicinity, it is enclosed by the High Court building, the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute and the Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited’s flats and petrol pump, besides a slew of apartments on the seaward side.

Slated to be constructed on nearly 18 acres of land, the ₹3,105-crore ‘international exhibition city’ project will have hotels, commercial spaces and residential buildings.

K.J. Sohan, former Mayor, terms the convention centre “another unwanted mega project” by the government. “The 17 acres proposed for the project, 22 acres of adjoining railway land and 2.5 acres of BPCL land are a vast patch of green. Under town planning norms, cities need a minimum of 15% open space. It is under 1% in Kochi,” he says.

“The green belt in the Mangalavanam area works like the city’s lungs. The whole area was covered with trees before the road and high-rises came up,” said John Peruvanthanam, an environmental activist.

The 2.74-hectare patch with around six species of mangroves has ceased to be a bird sanctuary – herons and egrets, which used to frequent the area, have long since abandoned it.

Existing constructions have destroyed the migratory path of the birds, said Manu M.S., forest officer at Mangalavanam. “Water birds need a slope to ascend into the air. The buildings have already shut out part of this path,” he said. The KSHB construction is likely to close the last route available into Mangalavanam for birds.

“Destroying this area is a huge mistake,” said V.S. Vijayan, former chairman of the Kerala State Biodiversity Board. “Construction activity will drive the remaining birds away. When there is enough space in other areas for these projects, why do they have to come up here?”

Impact assessment

According to Abdul Nasar, who demitted office as Housing Commissioner a fortnight ago, “four acres of the site will be set aside for afforestation, almost like an extension of Mangalavanam for the birds. An environment impact assessment will be done before we begin construction in December.”

But environmentalists are sceptical about the project’s proposed eco-friendliness. “To ensure air quality, open spaces need to be maintained within the city. Planting a few trees in between concrete structures does not help in sustaining this open space,” said S. Sitaraman, an environmental activist.

Surrounding constructions can adversely impact a wetland. “Wetlands are very sensitive to small changes. The entire habitat will be destroyed gradually if it is walled in. Mangroves can survive only in environments of specific salinity and pH levels. Constructions will disturb these ideal conditions,” said P. Sujanapal, scientist, Kerala Forest Research Institute.

“The land should ideally be left vacant as a buffer zone for the sanctuary. When there are other convention centres close by, what is the need for another one,” said T.P. Ramesh, member of the Mangalavanam Samrakshana Samiti.

The survival of the ecosystem hinges on a small canal that connects Mangalavanam to the Vembanad Lake. “The canal has been carrying sediments and waste for several years because of the construction and dredging in the area. The depth of the water has reduced and the canal has very few fish, which may have kept the birds away,” said P.V. Karunakaran, scientist at the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History. Since the mangroves are walled in, they begin to grow inwards and the birds may not spot the water beyond the dense canopy, he said.

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