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A green exercise

Menka Shivdasani

What makes the Maharashtra Nature Park truly remarkable is that it was once a municipal landfill site, buried under tons of garbage, and touching a creek reeling under effluent.

One of the nicer ways to spend a weekend this monsoon, if you like green spaces and don't mind getting a little wet, is to take a walk down a Maharashtra Nature Park trail. This park is right in the heart of the city — in fact, it stands cheek by jowl against the Dharavi slums, but the contrasts between the two worlds could not be greater.

You would have driven past it often enough, on the Sion-Dharavi Link Road that is perpetually locked in traffic snarls. A 37-acre plot with 27 acres as a functional nature park, a thick woodland with nearly 14,000 plants of about 300 varieties and 100 species of trees, including the baobab, of which there are barely 50 specimens in Mumbai.

You will also find 115 species of birds, both common ones such as cormorants, and other more elusive ones such as the Little Green Heron, which has been sighted at least twice, according to Sunjoy Monga's book Back to Nature, which was launched at the park recently.

What makes this park truly remarkable is that it was once a municipal landfill site, buried under tons of garbage, and touching a creek reeling under effluent. Then, in 1983, when the idea of the nature park first originated, the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) approached World Wildlife Fund - India to oversee the rebirth of these grounds.

It was not a pleasant task, scraping through harmful garbage, and spreading soil over it; Dr Salim Ali, the well-known ornithologist, planted the first tree, and over the years, several thousand saplings were planted. The Maharashtra Nature Park was finally opened to the public on April 22, 1994 — Earth Day.

Amazingly, absolutely no artificial fertilisers or chemicals were used in the transformation. Instead, vermiculture programmes and rainwater harvesting have made all the difference.

The park has crossed another milestone this monsoon, with the launch of its rainwater harvesting project. Avinash Kubal, Deputy Director, says the project is designed to collect 22,500 kilolitres of rainwater, making it independent of the municipal water supply — an amount that would be enough for the daily needs of 250 families. The water collected from the project will be stored in an open pond, encouraging water birds and aquatic plants, and providing a backdrop for the Rain Education Centre.

Today, when an average of 150-200 people visit the park on weekends, it's hard to believe this was once a smelly, uninhabitable municipal landfill site. Instead, there are nature trails, butterfly walks, bird-watching, treasure hunts, plant shows, and many other activities.

Conservation and the city

Efforts to conserve the environment take some unique forms in this city. Hariyali, a Thane-based organisation, for instance, has been busy sowing seeds across barren hills and hard-to-reach mountain slopes.

First, it collects or grows seeds of assorted species of trees, along with local soft soil. Then, it converts the soil into mud and turns this into lemon-shaped balls, with two or three seeds embedded into each one. These `seed balls' are reinforced with either rice husk or small pieces of grass and then placed in the hills. The seeds start germinating with the monsoon showers, and gradually transform the slopes.

Thirty activists, including industrialists and professionals, recently carried out this exercise at the Dindeshwar Mahadeo Range near the Kalyan-Bhiwandi Junction, about 20 km from Thane. Seeds of trees such as Karanj, Palash, Gulmohur, Raintree, Jamun, Pangara, Ain, etc were sown.

It's an arduous task and calls for patience. Last Sunday, Punam Singavi, president of Hariyali, was out in the jungles with other activists, planting seeds that would be ready for use as saplings only by next year. But he says spreading the message is an even slower task, and urges Mumbaikars to carry out similar exercises in their own surroundings.

The monsoon is the best time to do this, and it can also leave you with some very pleasant memories of a day well spent.

Picture courtesy: `Back to Nature' by Sunjoy Monga

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