I have lived in Chembur for most of my life – and have never heard a kind word about the place from outsiders! ‘Gas Chembur’ they used to call it – the most polluted place in Bombay! While it is true that Chembur is a major industrial ghetto – we have the RCF factory, the HPCL refinery, the BPCL refinery, the Tata power generation plant and a number of chemical units including the VVF soap factory and so on…few people know that it is one of the greenest places in Mumbai!
This is strangely partly due to the industries themselves…the huge factories enabled the companies to create colonies for their workers to stay in – and these are vast expanses of green with amazing tree cover – and they have been safe from the depredations of government and overpopulation by dint of being private property.
Another reason is the presence of the atomic reactor of BARC just behind the Chembur hill – this has forced the government to declare the hill to be a high security protected area – and this has enabled the hill to remain pristine and untouched – and free from the depredations of quarrying, buildings and slum spread.
Yet another reason is that there is actually a reserved forest in Chembur – the mangroves along the Chembur – Sewri coastline has been declared to be part of the reserved forest under the Indian Forest Act, 1927, acting on a Bombay high court (HC) order of September 2018 that sought protection for the green cover. That has resulted in the protection of some beautiful mangrove zones in Chembur.
We have the tree-lined streets of Central Avenue and various parks like Diamond garden, Ambedkar garden, etc. Since Chembur is an old suburb, we still have a lot of trees in the built-up areas too.
And of course, we have the green expanse of the Bombay Presidency Golf Club – not exactly an example of untouched nature – but is green and refreshing.
Due to all of this, we have some excellent bird watching in Chembur – just from my window I can see a wonderful variety of birds fluttering around in the trees in front of my building – I can see Golden Orioles, Kingfishers, Hoopoes, Drongos, Cuckoos, Coucal, Purple sunbirds, Indian robin, Wagtails, Fantails, Mynas, Crested Bulbul, Orange-headed Bulbul … and even the occasional Blue Jay!
The Gulmohar trees are flaming with brilliant red blossoms and the Coppertops – or ‘Rain trees’ – have joined them by producing their yellow flowers with the gentle fragrance I associate with summer. Soon the silk-cotton trees will ripen and throw their threads into the air. The Bougainvillea is blooming and the sound of the Koel is in the air.
I can see a nest that a crow has built on a branch on the tree in front of my window – the chicks have hatched, and I can see the bright red of their open mouths as they implore their mama to feed them some tasty grubs and insects she has caught for them. I wonder if there is a cuckoo chick among them? Did any opportunistic Koel female get a chance to pop over and quickly lay her eggs in the crow’s’ nest?
If you would like some more exotic birdwatching, then get on your bike and cycle to BPT road and check out the wonderful salt flats out there, where the ‘Agri’ people still carry out their ancient profession of salt farming. They have made a catchment area where they capture the ea water as it comes in during high tide and allow it to dry in the sun so that they can harvest the salt. That area is home to varieties of egrets – greater egret, cattle egret and small egrets and also pond herons and stilts. I even saw a jackal there once!
During winter you can see huge flocks of flamingoes as they fly in from Russia and Europe to escape the harsh winters there. Earlier one could go to Mahul village and watch them from oil pipeline – but now the police don’t allow you to go there – more’s the pity. Talk about throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
But Mahul village and the entire coastal zone is an active fisherman’s colony – people still go out to catch fish – and the children catch crabs and shellfish in the mud to make a tasty curry. Earlier the boatmen used to take you out in their boats to see the flamingoes – but the police put an end to that too. What a pity.
You could see amazing flamingos and other sea birds like Ibis, stilts, painted storks etc at the Sewri jetty – but now that area is a wasteland due to the construction of the Uran highway.
But the birds are still there – they nest in the mangroves and hopefully will be unmolested once the bridge construction is finished.
Monkeys still come in from the BARC hills, and large clouds of bats circle the sky in the evening – it’s a magical sight to see them emerge from their nests as the evening approaches. There are many varieties of snakes to be found – and there is a snake protection society too…which implores people not to kill snakes out of fear. They just have to call the snake protection people, and they will come and catch the snake and release it safely in Borivali national park.
So the next time someone disses Chembur, be sure to tell them that there is much more to Chembur than meets the eye!
Ketan Joshi is a biker, backpacker and travel writer. He explored India extensively on his Royal Enfield, and has travelled to more than 50 countries. He is the author of 15 books – notably the ‘Three Men on Motorcycles’ series and the ‘One Man Goes Backpacking’ series.
Check out his work on www.ketanjoshi.net. His podcast ‘Travel with Ketan’ is available on all major podcasting apps, and his YouTube channel is ‘KetanWrites’. You can follow him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook as ‘Ketanwrites’.