In a decision that has drawn huge cheers from eco warriors in Mumbai, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray has directed his government to look for alternative sites for the controversial Metro 3 car depot as he firms up plans to relocate it from the ecologically-sensitive Aarey Milk Colony. A week later, the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government also declared 600 acres of Aarey Colony land as a “Reserved Forest.”
The Shiv Sena had used the public anger over the controversy surrounding the car depot as its calling card in its election campaign in 2019, following its bitter divorce from its longstanding coalition partner, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The anti-Aarey carshed protests were spearheaded by the CM’s son and the state's environment and tourism minister Aaditya Thackeray. After the dramatic turn of events that unfolded before the government formation in November 2019, one of the first decisions made by the new CM was to indefinitely halt the ongoing car shed work.
The decision to live up to the “environment-first” election promise and then backing it up with the declaration of a reserved forest in the eco-sensitive Aarey zone showed that the new government had the courage to take tough decisions for Mumbai’s environmental sustainability. But questions remain.
Metro 3 timeline
Of the proposed nine metro corridors covering 146 kilometres, the 33.5 kilometre-long Metro 3 holds special significance. As the city’s first underground metro system, it is not only an engineering marvel, but provides the much-needed east-west connectivity across the city’s linear geography and connects bustling neighbourhoods which have hitherto remained underserved by public transport.
The work on the corridor got underway in 2011. After the technicalities were resolved, project execution began around 2015. Till the Covid-19 lockdown halted its progress, Mumbai saw one of the most complex infrastructure projects unfold, setting new benchmarks for speed and efficiency with every project milestone achieved. By the end of 2019, the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRC) had achieved a tunnelling speed of 1,500 metres per month. By early 2020, 80 per cent of the entire tunnelling work and 57 per cent of the overall work were completed.
While the lockdown has impacted the timelines of all the ongoing metro corridors, the uncertain fate of the Metro 3 car depot at Aarey, a crucial terminal link, is now threatening to derail the entire project. With further construction halted since November, the MMRC is incurring a daily loss of Rs 4.30 crore, of which, losses on the loan interest component at 2 per cent per annum alone are pegged Rs 1.50 crore per day.
The rest of the losses pertain to resource non-utilisation claims raised by contractors and other incidental costs, including depreciation of infrastructure that is constructed but lying idle. Senior officials of the MMRC who were interviewed by this author said, while the civil work has been fully completed, work on the other ‘packages’, including approach ramp, power supply, high-tension wiring and the conversion of the Marol-Maroshi road into an underpass, are either complete or at an advanced of execution. By the time the work was halted last November, the MMRC had spent over Rs 100 crore on the car depot.
However, the decision to relocate the car depot would make the city pay a much heavier penalty in terms of lost opportunity. Its relocation would lead to an additional delay of at least four years. Soil consolidation, a critical exercise, would take up to two-and-a-half years, which could go beyond three years if the new site is low-lying, with marine clay or mudflats. The bidding process will take up to six months. The construction of tunnels, elevated tracks, traction, power supply, signalling etc., even if undertaken on a war footing, will take another year-and-a-half. And this too would be possible only in an unlikely scenario that the work proceeds without glitches posed by court cases, rehabilitation and other environmental challenges.
After the fact
Looking for alternative sites would have been prudent had the forest still existed on the land at Aarey. But that is not the case. Swinging into action almost immediately after the dismissal of petitions against the felling of trees by the Bombay High Court, the MMRC uprooted nearly 2,500 trees overnight. The environmental damage that the government has sought to undo by looking for alternative sites, was sadly done within 24 hours of the court’s decision on October 4, 2019.
Given this scenario, instead of portraying the government’s clear intention of protecting Mumbai’s fast-disappearing natural heritage, both the decisions — seeking an alternative site as well as the declaration of the reserved forest — have raised a number of questions. First, the land of the Metro 3 depot at Aarey is not included in the welcome declaration of 600-acre area as a reserved forest. It thus still risks future commercial exploitation.
Second, if the intention of the government was indeed to ensure that the entire Aarey green belt that forms the periphery of the SGNP was protected from encroachments, it should have declared the entire 1,800-acre area as a reserved forest rather than being selective.
Third, if the government is duly justified in safeguarding Aarey for the city’s long-term environmental sustainability, it has little justification for putting its collective might behind the 9.8-kilometre coastal road project along the city’s western shoreline.
Doesn't the coastal road, which seeks to reclaim land from the sea that is nearly four times the size of the forest uprooted by the Metro 3 carshed in Aarey, pose an environmental hazard, especially when international studies have concluded that Mumbai faces grave risks because of rising sea levels? Aren’t the environmental, social and opportunity costs involved as different as chalk and cheese for the coastal road project, which will serve only the high-end toll-paying private car users, vis-à-vis the lakhs who would benefit from the metro rail project?
The situation of the car depot at Aarey — considering the advanced stage of construction and the deforestation already done, demands a discerning assessment about the perceived long-term environmental sustainability, against the heavy losses its relocation will incur to the urgent socioeconomic needs of the city. Who will be worst hit by the change of site at this juncture?
Alternative approach, not site
The situation could be turned into a unique opportunity for Mumbai. The learning from the Aarey controversy could be used to establish a green fund for the Mumbai Metropolitan Region on the lines of the UN’s Green Climate Fund (GCF). The GCF is a repository of financial resources, largely garnered by contributions from advanced economies, aimed at “addressing pressing mitigation and adaptation needs of developing countries.” The Mumbai green fund can similarly garner funds from mega infra projects to rejuvenate the region’s eroding ecological assets.
Using international best practices, each project must be evaluated for its environmental impact, an exercise which is largely attempted through the Environmental Impact Analysis in the early stages of the project, but merely to fulfil the project’s eligibility criteria. Based on such an impact valuation, the implementation agency must set aside an amount of, say, Rs 5 lakh for each tree cut to build the seed capital for the consolidated green fund. For instance, if 4,000 trees have been felled for the Metro 3 corridor across the city, the MMRC must contribute Rs 200 crore — which comes to a negligible 0.63 per cent of the total project cost. Likewise, the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) must contribute a similar amount for each tree cut for all projects currently under execution. So must be the case for any other state-owned or private agency.
The green fund corpus, in a PPP mode with the participation from corporate sector, NGOs and even international financial organisations, can be utilised to finance the city’s crying needs, such as the clean-up of its rivers — including the Mithi, the rejuvenation of mangroves and marshlands, replenishment of estuarine ecosystems and shorelines, upkeep of the biodiversity of the SGNP and Aarey itself and numerous such curative interventions for the city’s long-term environmental well-being.
The Observer Research Foundation