New Delhi: In a somewhat belated victory for green activists, the Supreme Court on Monday halted further cutting of trees in Aarey Milk Colony until next hearing on October 21, to protect the "green lungs" of the metropolis.
Observing that it “appeared Aarey was a forest at some point of time”, the court asked the state government to submit a status report on the number of trees felled so far and the compulsory afforestation undertaken by the Mumbai Metro.
It was not immediately clear how many trees have already been cut down since Friday. Senior officials say that 2,134 trees are already gone. The MMRCL did not immediately respond to a request for information, but its officials claimed 1800 trees have been cut.
The Bench also ordered listing of the matter before the Forest Bench, which would examine whether Aarey is a forested area or an eco-sensitive zone. This, in turn, will determine whether the cutting of trees in the dead of the night was legal or not.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta stated on behalf of the Maharashtra Government that there will be no further cutting of trees till the next hearing and the incumbents who were arrested have been released.
Mehta told the court over 20,000 trees were planted in the last few years by the government. But, the top court was not convinced and asked the state to place a report with photographs mentioning how many trees have since survived.
The two-judge bench of Justices Arun Mishra and Ashok Bhushan was constituted after a group of law students wrote to Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi seeking the top court's intervention in the matter and pleaded that the cutting of trees be suspended immediately.
This comes a day after the Bombay High Court rejected an application moved by environmentalists seeking a stay on the cutting of trees.
While the Maharashtra government has been asked to maintain the status quo until the next hearing, the MMCRL has not been restrained from undertaking work on the car shed site, which has already been cleared.
MMCRL is likely to interpret the court order to imply that only said "status quo (is) to be maintained... with respect to cutting of trees".
Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar on Monday refused to comment after the Supreme Court order, though only two days ago he had backed the decision to cut trees in Aarey Colony claiming that it was not a forest. He had also said development and environment protection need to go hand in hand while citing the example of Delhi Metro.