Aarey being razed to replicate a BKC complex: Zoru Bhathena

Why are you opposing the cutting of trees at Aarey metro car depot?

At the outset, I wish to make it clear that we are not opposing the metro project. We agree that the metro will be helpful for a convenient, safe and speedy transport.

These benefits of a car shed will be available for Mumbaikars irrespective of where the car shed is built. Car depot is just a parking lot and servicing centre. Our opposition is to build a metro car shed in Aarey and cutting of trees for this.

We are demanding that the metro car shed should be built on other places.Aarey is a forest that is connected with the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP). Wild animals travel freely between Aarey and SGNP. Aarey’s land is also on the bank of Mithi River, which is an important water channel of Mumbai.

The water from SGNP and Aarey flows into Mithi keeping the river alive. Aarey’s forest and open land are the flood plain of the Mithi River. When Mithi overflows, the water reaches inside Aarey forest.

If we destroy this flood plain area with a concrete construction and by cutting trees, then the extra water in the river will move into residential localities in Mumbai and in the case of heavy rains, this will result in a deluge.In 2005, Mumbai witnessed very heavy rains of 945mm. But in 2019, with just 244mm of rain, Mithi River overflowed thrice.

The 2005 deluge in Mumbai killed many people and destroyed property worth crores. This may happen again if we destroy Aarey’s forest cover. The state government has recently issued a state water policy. This clearly states that rivers will be protected from any type of construction on their flood plains. Then, why is the government violating its own policy? Do they think Mithi is not a river?

If not Aarey, then where should this depot be built?

The original plan was to build the metro car depot at Cuffe Parade. The plot is still reserved for a depot. This land is nearby Adarsh Building and Best bus depot.

There is also an open space near this reserved plot that can be used for the construction of a metro depot. But slums have come up and the government says that we cannot remove these.

However, the same government has removed slums in Andheri, Mahim and BKC for metro work. But when it comes to removal of slums in Cuffe Parade land, the same government says we cannot remove it. Why? Are these slum-dwellers so special? You can implement a slum redevelopment plan in Cuffe Parade and build flats above the car depot and rehabilitate these slum dwellers. T

here are 17 storey buildings on the Andheri and Ghatkopar metro railway stations. Even Churchgate and Vashi stations house big buildings where government or corporate offices function. Then why cannot this be done for the Cuffe Parade slum?

In a public debate at a town hall meeting held recently, Ashwini Bhide, Managing Director of Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Ltd (MMRCL) admitted that they never looked at Cuffe Parade plot for building a metro car depot. Thus, the government should construct its car depot at Cuffe Parade land as per the original plan.

What was the opinion of the expert committee specially constituted to study this project?

In 2012, the government decided to build a car depot in Aarey and notices were pasted on trees. There was a huge protest against using this pristine land. The government agreeing with protestors decided to set up a technical expert committee of six members.

It consisted of BMC Commissioner Ajoy Mehta, who is now Chief Secretary, then MMRDA commissioner, urban development department’s secretary, one representative of the Delhi Metro and two environmentalists.

This committee was tasked to decide whether a metro depot in Aarey will be dangerous or not. In 2015, all members unanimously opined that the car depot will be disastrous for the environment and Mumbai city. They all recommended to shift the depot to Kanjurmarg, but they left a loophole for MMRCL.

If the Kanjurmarg land is not handed over to them in three months, then MMRCL can build the depot in Aarey, the committee said. This means that even if the construction of a depot is disastrous for the environment and Mumbai, MMRCL can carry on with disaster project after waiting for just three months.

But the same committee that provided them this loop-hole, tried to minimise this disaster. The committee recommended to keep the car depot space small and cut only 446 trees. The report was accepted and notified by the state government. But now the same government is acting against the report.

But now the government is saying that the Kanjurmarg land is not economically viable and is under legal dispute?

The expert committee has suggested to build a car depot in Kanjurmarg. The Metro 6 is also in process, which will connect Jogeshwari and Kanjurmarg.

The car depot of Metro 6 will be constructed in Kanjurmarg on the same land. Then why not build the car depot of Metro 3 there instead of at Aarey?

Metro 3 is not connected to the Central railway line. The Kanjurmarg depot will ensure its connectivity with the Central line as this metro line will pass nearby to Kanjurmarg station.

Metro 3 was planned in 1980s to be built between Andheri and Colaba. But now the offices in South Mumbai, especially Nariman Point, Fort and Colaba, are moving to suburban Mumbai.

The number of footfalls in Churchgate and CST are reducing now. The people who work in Andheri, stay in Dahisar or other areas in North Mumbai. I agree this will trigger changes in the plan and an increase in expenditure.

But the expert committee has taken all these aspects into consideration and then suggested Kanjurmarg as an optionThe total land in Kanjurmarg is owned by the state government.

Only a small part of this land is under litigation. The Jogeshwari-Vikhroli Link Road (JVLR) also passes through this disputed part of plot and meets the Eastern Express Highway.

The same land was demanded for using as a dumping ground by the state government through an application in the Bombay High court, which the court allowed. The state government later dropped this idea.

In December 2015, the state submitted one more application to the Bombay High Court. It informed the court that it had dropped the idea of building a metro depot in Aarey.

And it sought permission to use a 41 hectare-land that is not disputed to build the depot in Kanjurmarg and requested to lift the stay on use of this land. It also sought to build poles of Metro 3 on JVLR that is passing through the disputed land. The state submitted this application to the HC but never moved or mentioned it before the court.

Therefore, it never came for a hearing before the court. This resulted in a lapse of three-month time period given by the experts committee. Then MMRCL announced that since they did not get an alternate land in three months, they will construct the car depot in Aarey. This lethargy by the state was purposely adopted to allow MMRCL to claim the Aarey land.

Forest minister Sudhir Mungantiwar said that the yearly socio-economic value of the oxygen producing capacity of a single tree is Rs 23.72 lakh. The 2,646 trees, which the metro project wants to cut, has a yearly socio-economic value of the oxygen producing capacity as Rs 627 crore per year.

The battle to save Aarey has been going on since 2014. Thus, in these last five years, these trees contributed Rs 3,135 crore to Mumbai's health by government’s own logic.

Why is the government so aggressive about the Aarey land?

The draft Development Plan of 2034 was published a few years back. This draft was prepared by the state government. This has clearly stated that the government wants to develop Aarey land as a new business complex like the Bandra-Kurla Complex and a map for this was published in the DP.

After a public outcry against this plan, the state earmarked this land as a Green Zone. This was the first time such a category was created. In a Green Zone, literally no construction or development can take place. But MMRCL was adamant and said it wants to build a car depot only in Aarey.

The government then while notifying the DP of 2034 of Mumbai, earmarked Aarey as Green Zone, excluding an 33-acre plot that was demanded by MMRCL for the metro car depot. All these developments show that the expert committee was an eye-wash.

MMRCL, BMC and the expert committee were part of a game plan of the state government to fool the people. Even though on paper they dropped the idea of building a new BKC in Aarey, they are secretly following the plan to create a new BKC by destroying Aarey’s forest with the construction of the metro car depot. After destroying this forest, builders and corporates will exploit this area for their businesses.

You are terming Aarey land as a forest. But Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has recently quoted a Supreme Court order and said that Aarey is not a forest. MMRCL is saying this was just a grazing land. What is your response to this?

CM Fadnavis is lying. All activists have already challenged the CM to show the SC order that says Aarey is not a forest. Vanshakti, a NGO, which first started the battle against the depot, has first noticed that Aarey is a forest but not officially announced as a forest.

They demanded to announce this as a forest and eco-sensitive zone. Therefore, they approached the National Green Tribunal (NGT). NGT then stayed all construction activities in 2015.

The state agreed before NGT that Aarey was an eco-sensitive zone and forested area both. The state in 2016 notified this as an eco-sensitive zone. But the wildlife board that has the duty to protect the ecology, itself showed readiness to remove this eco-sensitive zone tag.

The board mentioned that Aarey has 7 resident leopards, which means those leopards live in Aarey. The board also agreed that the entire Aarey land is an eco-sensitive zone. But this board agreed to remove the eco-sensitive tag for the metro car shed.

What is the job of a wildlife board? To save or destroy the eco-sensitive zone?Sanjay Gandhi National Park’s management plan clearly says that Aarey is a forest. The forest department’s old documents also mentioned that Aarey is a forest but not yet officially notified as a forest.

In 2017, the Bombay High Court ruled that the state government has the power to change the zone. However, HC only upheld the decision of the state to change the zone of plot meant for the metro car shed, which was earlier in the green zone.

But HC said that MMRCL can work on that only after getting permissions from all concerned departments. However, work has already started without getting the requisite permissions.

Now the decisions on all my key petitions against this car depot are expected on Tuesday as the high court has listed these cases for hearing.

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