Situated near Dharavi, Asia's largest slum, Maharashtra Nature Park, which was once called Mahim Nature Park comes across as a breath of fresh air. This educational park was the brainchild of Shanta Chatterji, a busy corporate lawyer and the chairperson of World Wildlife Fund (WWF). As a citizen she is very much concerned about environment conservation, which is deteriorating and needs immediate action.
The thought struck her in 1976. One day while passing through the Bandra-Kurla junction, she was struck by the different varieties of birds that flocked the creek. The awesome sight of those migratory birds did the needful. On further inquiry she realised that the area was host to 55 species of birds.
This propelled her to speak to the government and get the area earmarked as a bird sanctuary. Luckily the blueprint of her plan was passed by the Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC), which entrusted her with land for the project. In those days the land adjacent to the creek was simply used as a dumping ground for waste.
Thus developed the 37 acre Mahim Nature Park, which today stands testimony to the 12 long years of hard work put in by her and her team. The park was opened for school children in 1992. Two years later they began allowing general public to visit the park. Every year, around 1.5 lakh people visit this park, which has 580 species of plants, houses 123 species of birds (as recorded), more than 78 types of butterflies, 22 varieties of reptiles and amphibia and more than 30 species of spiders.
"I wanted to come up with a place that would be an education centre for students of environmental studies. Our education system is mostly theoretical, and it is very difficult to find education centres that give students a practical exposure to things," says Chatterji. She laments that the current Indian education system is very cut and dry and barely serves to educate students as is done abroad.
Further elucidating the cause for which she has set up the huge project, Chatterji says philosophically, "We first conceived the idea of a park, the first of the kind in India, which would showcase different varieties of trees, found in India. From there we proceeded to drive home the point that anything detrimental to nature can cause a lot of harm to human life."
"Trees emanate an aura, just like we human beings do. There is a place known as the Astral garden in the park, which has trees that correspond with the 27 rashis and 27 nakshatras. Sitting under one of the trees that corresponds with your sign helps you calm down and gives you a lot of peace," she says talking about the therapeutic value of trees.
The managing director of Mahim Nature Park, Mhaskar who has been with this project since its conceptualisation, feels that the park has been a boon to school children. "Initially it was planned for school kids. But when we realised that we needed finances for setting up an amphitheatre, library, etc., we had to open the park to other visitors too. We charge Rs 5 as entrance fee from the visitors. Also the sale proceeds from ayurvedic plants grown in the park, adds to our finances. However, a lot of people still are not aware of the existence of this park. We have to bring about more awareness about the park. They just look upon Dharavi as a slum area," he adds.
According to Mhaskar the major achievement of the park has been its ability to stop encroachment. "This park is nothing but a social obligation to stop the nuisance of public encroachment. And that has been our greatest achievement."
A peepal tree stands guard at the entrance of the park. "It is the life giving tree so it is at the entrance," explains Chatterji. A few metres away is an area earmarked for medicinal plants found in various parts of India. It is awesome to see such a variety in one place. Further down there is an area where fruits and vegetables are grown.
A place has been earmarked for bird watchers near the creek from where they can watch the various species. The best time to watch the birds is the crack of sunset, when one can see them flocking together. One can also take a leisurely stroll on 'Shantipath', a walkway that runs through the entire length of the park.
Right in the centre of the park is a sun-shaped building, which houses amongst others an amphitheatre, a library, an audio-visual room, etc. Anyone can borrow books as well as audio-visual tapes for further reference. The building also boasts of a mural called the 'web of life', painted by the well-known painter from Delhi, Mr. Krishan Khanna. 'The web of life' has paintings of the earth, sun, fire, moon and space. 'The core of our existence,' is how Chatterji sums up the mural.
This park is definitely an institution for environment lovers. Each place is an eye opener. Chatterji speaks like a through tree lover when she says, "Planting five trees by each family will be an ideal way to increase the green cover. I am not against cutting trees for wood, as long as we can return back to nature what we take from it."
The park authorities also conduct nature trails. The rooftop rainwater harvesting system stores around 2,000 kilolitres of water every monsoon, which is used to irrigate the vegetation in the park.