Mumbai: Supreme Court refuses to stay Maharashtra Govt's decision to allow Metro Car Shed at Aarey

A Bench of Chief Justice of India Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud and Justice P S Narsimha gave the tree authority the liberty to take an appropriate decision on MMRCL's application by imposing suitable conditions.

FPJ BureauUpdated: Tuesday, November 29, 2022, 06:22 PM IST
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Mumbai: Supreme Court refuses to stay Maharashtra Govt's decision to allow Metro Car Shed at Aarey | (PTI Photo)

The Supreme Court on Tuesday allowed the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Ltd (MMRCL) to apply to the Tree Authority for the felling of 84 trees in the Aarey Colony, modifying its earlier status quo on felling of the trees for its metro car shed project, amounting to permit cutting of the trees.

A Bench of Chief Justice of India Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud and Justice P S Narsimha gave the tree authority the liberty to take an appropriate decision on MMRCL's application by imposing suitable conditions.

It observed that the Maharashtra government's fresh decision to restore the location of the car shed at Aarey, after changing the previous Uddhav Thackeray government's decision to relocate it at Kanjurmarg, was based on the relevant considerations and "it would be impossible for this court to stay the decision at the interim stage."

Noting that the Supreme Court had earlier declined the interim relief against the project, the Bench noted that prima facie the Bombay High Court holds as valid the felling of the trees as well as the location of the metro car shed at Aarey.

"In such projects involving a large outlay of public funds, the Court cannot be oblivious of the serious dislocations caused if the public investment which goes into the project is disregarded. Undoubtedly, the concerns relating to the environment are important, as all developments must be sustainable," the Bench observed.

It noted that the state government considered several factors, such as the letter written by the Centre and expert committee reports, while coming to the conclusion that the original decision to allow the metro car depot for Metro Line 3 at Aarey should be restored.

It also noted that a substantial number of trees(2144) have been cut and what remains is the cutting of the trees for the ramp. It clarified that it will hear the primary petitions at a later stage while disposing of the interlocutory applications.

In the heated exchanges, Solicitor General of India Tushar Mehta, appearing for the MMRCL, highlighting that 95% of the work is over, submitted that permission is sought for cutting the remaining 84 trees.

Assuring that the trees being cut will be transported or new trees will be planned, the Solicitor General said: "The original cost of the project was Rs 23,000 crore. We have already invested Rs 22,000. Because of the litigation, the price has increased to Rs 37,000 crore. There will be a huge impact on carbon emissions going down. Vehicular traffic on the metro track would virtually go. We will see the comparative benefits of prayer to cut 84 trees is allowed.

Highlighting that every day at least 9 citizens die daily due to overcrowding in trains, the SG said that the issue was related to a citizen's legitimate expectation to travel comfortably. Moreover, the proposal for an alternative site at Kanjurmarg was no longer viable, considering the investment in crores of rupees already made.

Senior Advocate Chander Uday Singh, appearing for activists opposing the felling of trees, stated that Rs 23,000 crores is the investment for the whole project and not for the car shed. As regards the car shed, he said except for a pillar, no construction has taken place in view of the Supreme Court's orders.

Moreover, he said the cost escalation to Rs 30,000 crore is on account of the market factors that have nothing to do with the car shed. Je referred to the committee reports suggesting Kanjurmarg as a more suitable site in terms of technical feasibility, ability to cater to the passenger needs, impact on the environment and land acquisition.

Singh asserted that the area is a "pristine forest" which is a habitat for several "endangered species". The present work has taken place only in the small window between July 21 and August 5, when the Supreme Court said it will hear the matter.

Senior Advocate Anita Shenoy submitted that the area is filled with trees and is a forest within the meaning of the definition given by the Supreme Court in the T N Godavarman case.

She added that the transplantation of trees had been a complete failure as 67% of the trees have died. 

Advocate Rukmini Bobde, making rejoinder submissions on behalf of the MMRCL, refuted the argument that the Aarey area is a "forest" land. She drew the court's attention to the Bombay High Court judgment refusing to hold that the region was not a forest. She said the National Green Tribunal has also dismissed applications filed in relation to the region.

She also pointed out that the Ministry of Environment and Forest has excluded this region while notifying the Sanjay Gandhi national park as an eco-sensitive zone. There is a film city, residential complexes and slums near the Aarey milk colony and the area cannot be termed as a forest.

"The tree authority must process our application, they may refuse it but they should process it. They've directed us to plant 3 times, and we've planted 6 times. 97% survival rates, we are even planting samples so they row," she said.

In 2019, the Supreme Court had registered a suo motu case titled "In Re Felling Of Trees In Aarey Forest (Maharashtra)" based on a letter petition sent by few law students against the cutting of trees for the metro car shed. The action taken by MMRCL and other authorities to cut the trees in Aarey had led to widespread protests by environmental activists and city residents.

On October 7, 2019, the Supreme Court had ordered status quo with respect to the cutting of trees, after Solicitor General Tushar Mehta submitted on behalf of the Maharashtra government that no further trees will be cut.

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