Police cordon off the area following a protest against the tree-cutting, being carried out for the Metro car shed project, at Aarey colony in Mumbai
Police cordon off the area following a protest against the tree-cutting, being carried out for the Metro car shed project, at Aarey colony in Mumbai
PTI Photo/Mitesh Bhuvad

Actions do speak louder than words. The Indian government has for several months now been blowing its own trumpet at various fora about how it is doing more than its share to mitigate climate change. The campaign blitz on climate change is being led by the ministers, who do not miss any opportunity to tell the world and those in our country how good a job it is doing in that respect. The lead in this context is being taken by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has focused on this even at the United Nations General Assembly, as well as other international fora. Other ministers have also been at pains to show how India is at the forefront of global efforts to tackle environmental challenges and how this is a priority for the government. The propaganda is so heightened that there have been instances when instead of focusing on isolating Pakistan on terrorism and its designs with regard to Kashmir, the spotlight has been trained on what India has done and intends to do to save the planet.

India is also creating a new energy architecture for neighbouring countries as part of Modi’s neighbourhood first policy, which is a crucial aspect of the Centre’s foreign policy. As part of this, the state-owned Energy Efficiency Services Ltd has undertaken projects to help Bangladesh and the Maldives illuminate their streets, even as they help save energy and reduce carbon emissions by reducing the peak electricity demand of these nations.

However, this flies in the face of the action of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-Shiv Sena coalition government in Maharashtra in what has come to be known as the Aarey case. The controversy revolves around the plan to build a Mumbai metro car shed in the area, which is a green part of north Mumbai that has shrunk because of the various development projects undertaken in the area over the years. The Mumbai civic body approved the cutting of trees to make space for the car shed, following which people filed petitions in Bombay High Court challenging the civic body’s approval for axing the trees. However, the High Court had on Friday rejected the petitions, following which bulldozers rolled in to cut the trees.

This is incomprehensible as Aarey, which is considered a forest area, is not only a green lung with more than 4 lakh trees but also houses at least 76 species of birds, as many as 80 butterfly and 16 mammal species, as well as 38 reptile species, and nine leopards. The imminent destruction of such a rich ecological resource is anathema to most people, especially if alternatives can be found without much difficulty. The clearing of the trees, thus, not only decimates the green lung on the outskirts of the city but also endangers the very existence of these species of fauna. It was thus expected that the High Court would rule in favour of the petitioners. This is not the first time that forested area has been cleared in the region. Residents of the area now say that another part of the forested area is in danger. They also fear that soon private builders will be allowed to encroach into the Sanjay Gandhi National Park to the north of Aarey colony.

As such, the arrest of 29 people who protested against the axing of the trees is inexplicable and has evoked anger across the country. The government’s argument that these protestors had violated the restrictions imposed under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure does not wash as these restrictions were imposed to prevent opposition to an act that is patently wrong and further decimates the already shrinking green cover in the country and especially around megapolises such as Mumbai.

The Supreme Court has provided some relief to the petitioners by ruling that status quo be maintained at the site until the next hearing on 21 October. The top court has also provided relief to the protestors by ruling that they should be released. On the face of it, the verdict of the apex court is a huge victory for those protesting against the axing of the trees and other work in the forested area.

However, the devil is in the details. The court order followed the submission by Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, who appeared for the State of Maharashtra and the Bombay Municipal Corporation, that there will be no further cutting and that whatever had to be cut has already been cut. This essentially means that the State government has already done irreparable damage to the green lung and that the hearing on 21 October can only prevent further axing of trees in case the government comes up with plans for further projects in that area.

It is also significant that the counsel for the government has said on television that the court order for status quo is limited to the felling of trees and does not extend to any other work in the forested area. This raises fears that more trees may be surreptitiously cut by those undertaking the project of building the metro car shed as the probability of anyone monitoring their work effectively is remote. The fear is also justified as the government’s statement about the number of trees cut has been disputed by the activists and people living in that area and there is hardly any efficient mechanism to verify the numbers.

It is also pertinent that though saplings are planted when trees are cut, this does little to make up for the loss of green cover. This is primarily because the saplings will take a long time to become full-grown trees and provide the kind of green cover that the axed trees did. Besides, it is also common knowledge that those who plant saplings to make up in some sense for the trees that they cut hardly ever take care of the saplings and ensure that they grow well.

As such, the government would do well to act to save the green cover of the country instead of doing the diametrically opposite thing by arresting on one pretext or the other those who protest the axing of trees. When it does so, the government’s credentials with regard to preserving the environment will be evident and ministers will not need to proclaim it at every forum.

The writer is a Bengaluru-based journalist with expertise on social issues. Syndicate: The Billion Press

-By J R Solomon

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