Early in February, Pooja Teli watched a local television news report about dozens of stray dogs and cats left behind without food or water in Navi Mumbai after at least 20 villages were evacuated to build Mumbai’s second international airport. Teli, who has spent 27 years as an animal rescuer in her neighbourhood of Kamothe in Navi Mumbai, decided to visit the construction site along with a few other animal lovers in her network.

“What we saw was much worse than expected,” said Teli.

Located 30 km from Mumbai city, the construction site was a 10 sq km expanse of dust, rubble, razed villages and debris from the hills that were being razed to make way for the new airport. Hiding in the shadows of broken boulders, Teli and her colleagues found starving dogs and cats – skeleton-thin, with no food in sight for themselves or their litters.

“At first we rescued a few dozen animals from the place where Ganeshpuri village used to be, and sent them to animal shelters,” said Teli. “But then we realised there were more than 450 dogs and cats stranded in the entire area. Most of them were so hungry, they were eating wet mud to survive. We found dead puppies every day under the debris.”

The rescuers realised they were going to need more help. Teli and fellow volunteer Varsha Pillai, both homemakers in their 50s, began making daily trips to the airport site with packets of pet food.

Businesswoman and animal lover Aditi Parameshwaran started mobilising support through social media requests for funds and volunteers.

After almost four months of rescue work, a team of five active volunteers has managed to shift 70 dogs to various animal shelters in Navi Mumbai. Most of them are puppies, their mothers, or other females in heat that have been neutered. Cats have been harder to rescue, with 10 placed in shelters and many disappearing from the site.

Pooja Teli feeds dogs and cats at the airport construction site almost every day. (Photo credit: Aarefa Johari).

There are still around 350 dogs and 30 cats living on the construction site, and Teli and Pillai have been leading efforts to ensure that they are fed every day.

But with the monsoon almost here, the rescuers are worried about the fate of these animals.

“Once it starts raining, the animals will have no shelter and the construction site will turn to sludge,” said Parameshwaran, who is also concerned about the spread of disease among the dogs and cats during the monsoon. “It will be very difficult for our small vehicles to go up and down the slopes to feed the animals. The government has provided compensation and rehabilitation to the people who were evacuated from their villages for this project. They also need to do something to save all these animals.”

Rescued puppies and kittens at an animal shelter in Navi Mumbai. (Photo courtesy: Anand Siva).

A mammoth task

The Navi Mumbai International Airport, a Rs 16,000-crore project intended to service more than 60 million passengers a year, has been controversial ever since it was approved in 2008. In addition to displacing more than 21,000 people, the project has also been described as a potential environmental disaster.

In 2010, Jairam Ramesh, the Union environment minister at that time, granted environmental clearance for the airport despite acknowledging that the project would involve the diversion of two rivers and damage to 2,000 hectares of mangroves.

Additionally, the airport site is close to Maharashtra’s protected Karnala bird sanctuary and is surrounded by wetlands that attract thousands of flamingos and other migratory birds every year. While the airport threatens their habitats, a study by the Bombay Natural History Society found that its proximity to wetlands could also cause bird hits once flight operations start.

In the midst of all these ecological threats, the stray dogs and cats belonging to the erstwhile villages on the site were left to fend for themselves. The villagers they depended on for food were evacuated over the past year after being given compensation packages of Rs 1,500 per square foot for the homes they lost. While many of the villagers have been rehabilitated at a new township in Ulwe in Raigad district, they left behind the animals, both strays and pets.

The barren construction site of the Navi Mumbai International Airport. (Photo credit: Aarefa Johari).

“The site is a disaster zone,” said Anand Siva, one of the volunteers helping Teli, Pillai and Parameshwaran. “Trees have been cut down and water bodies have been filled with construction debris. The animals left behind have been dying of malnutrition or accidents with trucks, and they are traumatised by the dynamite blasts on the hills.”

Feeding all the animals in these conditions has been a mammoth task.

“The cheapest food available for them is chicken feet, which are discarded by chicken sellers,” said Parameshwaran. A kilogram of chicken feet costs Rs 25, and the rescuers need at least 100 kg of food every day.

So far, they have been managing with the help of small donations to Parameshwaran’s crowd-funding efforts online. “But costs of food, vaccination, sterilisation and transport add up, so we are always in need of more funds,” said Parameshwaran.

An adoption drive

Aware that they cannot keep feeding the animals in the long run, Teli, Pillai and other volunteers have appealed to the City and Industrial Development Corporation or CIDCO – the agency implementing the Navi Mumbai airport project – to rehabilitate the strays.

“Since March, we have been asking CIDCO to allocate a plot for sheltering these dogs and cats,” said Teli. “But the plot they suggested is already a shelter for 200 cows. So we have asked for another one, and are still waiting for a response.”

While the volunteers are hopeful for a positive response from CIDCO, environmentalist Debi Goenka is less so.

“The BNHS [Bombay Natural History Society] report clearly indicates that this airport will be unsafe in terms of the probability of bird hits,” said Goenka. “If CIDCO is not worried about passengers in airplanes, will they worry about dogs and cats?”

Goenka is the executive trustee of the non-profit Conservation Action Trust, which has filed a writ petition in the Bombay High Court appealing for a revocation of the environmental clearance given to the airport project.

The animal rescuers in Navi Mumbai, however, are trying their best to keep the stray dogs and cats alive. After 29 puppies were adopted at a camp organised on May 26, they are now planning another adoption camp on June 16 in Navi Mumbai.

“Most people usually want to adopt high-breed dogs, but we have at least 20 stray pups up for adoption this time,” said Parameshwaran. “Hopefully they will all get homes.”

Rohit Kamble, Sagar Savla, Aditi Parameshwaran and Pooja Teli are among the volunteers working to feed stray dogs and cats at the airport site. (Photo credit: Aarefa Johari).