Mumbai: A crane lifts the fallen trees to be carried away for building a construction site of metro car parking shed at Aarey Colony in 2019.
Mumbai: A crane lifts the fallen trees to be carried away for building a construction site of metro car parking shed at Aarey Colony in 2019.
File photo: PTI

Aarey is again in the news – for some good reasons as well as bad. The good news is the announcement made by Chief Minister Shri Uddhav Thackeray that ensures the Mumbai Metro Shed will be shifted to Kanjurmarg and that Aarey Colony would be declared as a forest. The bad news however is that trees continue to be felled inside Aarey for making a zoo inside Aarey.

Aarey, situated in the Northern Suburbs of Mumbai, is known for its lush green cover with tall trees, grasslands and rocky hills. Popular among citizens, the area is used for nature walks, exercising, family picnics and more. The area has more than 290 wild species of flora and fauna, such as leopards and rusty-spotted cats. Aarey the home of over 3,500 families of Warli adivasis and other tribal groups spread over 27 hamlets. There are cattle sheds in the area, and many units are engaged in the business of dairy farming. Aarey Colony is also famously known as the Aarey Milk Colony.

In the year 2014, it was publicly announced that Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Ltd had planned to undertake the Metro 3 Corridor project. The proposed route would run from Colaba in South Mumbai to SEEPZ in Andheri. However for the alleged purpose of real estate development in the nearby areas, the line was extended into the Green Zone that was the Aarey Colony. It was also proposed that a Metro service station (also called a Metro yard or shed) be constructed along with a railway Station inside Aarey. Further the project envisaged the loss of close to a thousand trees at one location alone in Prajapur Pada CTS Nos. 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 on about 33 hectares of land.

Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited, the agency implementing the metro project had claimed it would compensate by planting thrice as many saplings elsewhere. However, the protestors demanded that the car shed be shifted to an alternative site. Further, the planting of trees cannot be an adequate substitute for the destruction of flora and fauna developed over thousands of years. Till October 2019, the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation had cut 2,141 trees in the Aarey Milk Colony area to make space for the car shed in spite of many citizens protesting the Aarey project. Many individual volunteers from different walks of life along with communities such as the Aarey Conversation Group, the Save Aarey Community and others had launched a campaign to ‘Save Trees of Aarey Mumbai’

Citizens and environmentalists had been opposing the depot, stating that it would disturb the wildlife and the environment at large inside the colony -- the only green lung left in the city. Within the concrete jungle that is Mumbai, the Aarey Milk Colony is a treasured green patch. And with increasing environmental awareness, many people had come forward to spread the message of conservation and stood against the construction project.

Additionally, it was revealed that the loss of the trees will result in heavy floods at the international airport as the excess water during the rainy season would be directed to the Mithi river. This only adds to the list of consequences we might have to face for giving up our greenery. The site where the car shed was supposed to come is in an area where the Mithi river swells before it finds its course through some of the busiest parts of the city. This area has rich bio-diversity and is home to some rare species and leopards. Conservationists had feared that all this would be lost if the car shed came up.

The issue of Aarey Metro Shed arose at the time when the BJP-led government was ruling the state of Maharashtra. I remember despite there being firm opposition from their then ally, the Shiv Sena, the BJP-led government did not budge, going ahead with plans of having a Metro car depot inside Aarey Colony.

The plan of having a Metro shed inside Aarey had a curious list of supporters and opposers.

On one side was the erstwhile BJP-led state government, BJP supporters and influential actors from the Mumbai film industry, such as Amitabh Bachchan and Akshay Kumar, who had expressed support for the metro project. On the other side, were environmental activists, the BJP’s ally Shiv Sena, and the Aam Aadmi Party, as well as thousands of citizens objecting to the felling of trees and three dozen citizens groups. The leader of the Shiv Sena youth wing, Aaditya Thackeray had been vocally against the metro project work in Aarey.

Here, we should understand that people were not opposing the Metro, they were opposing the felling of trees and construction of Metro Shed inside Aarey. We all know that we all will suffer when trees are cut down. However, for Fadnavis-led government nothing mattered.

I remember when Preeti Sharma Menon and Ruben Mascarenhas of AAP approached me in the first week of October 2018, when they got to know about the cutting of trees inside Aarey. They approached me at a time when the petition seeking the declaration of Aarey as a forest by green activists was dismissed by Court.

The Petition argued by me and decided by the bench of then Acting Chief Justice Naresh H. Patil and Hon’ble Justice G.S. Kulkarni on 11th October, 2018 came as a respite to the maddening speed at which trees were being cut in Aarey. In fact it won’t be wrong to say that the order of 11th October put a strategic halt to the cutting of trees and it was mandated that any or all proposals to cut the trees had to be duly published in newspapers as well as online and that sufficient time will be given for people to object.

It was further held by High Court that people are free to raise their objections to the proposal of cutting of trees and and that the authorities had to hear the objections and take a judicious decision.

What is important is that even such decision of the relevant authorities could again be challenged before the High Court if the decision is not judicious and order is not based sound reasons. The issue became more sensitive when, pursuant to the order of the Hon’ble Bombay High Court, lakhs of online objections were filed before the Tree Authority objecting to the proposal of cutting of trees. Due to the large number of objectors, the hearing which was scheduled to be only for half an hour continued for 3 hours without any actual results.

The Judgment of 11th October 2018 turned out to be of great help to activists and to the people protesting against the cutting of trees at Aarey as it provided them with a required respite. This is important because in 2018, the petition of Vanshakti before the National Green Tribunal (NGT) asking that Aarey be declared a “forest” was dismissed. Another petition filed by Amrita Bhattacharjee of Aarey Conservation Group in 2017, seeking the quashing of the change in land use of Aarey from No Development Zone to Metro car shed was dismissed by the Bombay High Court in 2018. The court upheld the government’s notification changing the land use.

All the hearings before the Tree Authority happened for nearly a year and finally, as per the minutes of the meeting from 29.8.2019, the Tree Authority decided to cut 2646 trees at Aarey. People had time to challenge the order and this time MCGM Standing Committee Chairman Mr. Yashant K. Jadhav approached me to challenge the order of the Tree Authority. It is interesting to note that Mr. Jadhav was a member of the Tree Authority.

The order to cut trees was challenged on the following grounds:

(a) the proposal could not be discussed due to paucity of time,

(b) Minutes of Meeting do not disclose exactly what transpired in the meeting of the Respondent No.1 dated 29.8.2019 and

(c) the Minutes of Meeting and the conclusion arrived therein being in violation of what was passed by the Court in PIL (L) No.60 of 2019.

However Bombay High Court dismissed the petition as well as other petitions challenging the decision of the Tree Authority to begin cutting trees on 4th October 2019. With the dismissal of Petitions, the then state Government started cutting trees on war footing and about 1,000 trees were cut by the time a stay was provided by the Supreme Court on 7th October, 2019. However, what is interesting and laudable is stand of the Shiv Sena, who in spite of being part of BJP alliance continued to oppose the cutting of trees at Aarey as well as the construction of Metro Shed at Aarey.

In late 2019, in spite of a pre-electoral alliance that saw the BJP-Shiv Sena gain a majority, the BJP could not form the government. A new unexpected government headed by Shiv Sena Leader Shri Uddhav Thackeray and supported by the Congress and NCP came to power and Aarey got its freedom. On 29th November 2019, a day after being sworn in as the Chief Minister, the Thackeray govt had stayed the car-shed construction work and ordered a review of the feasibility of relocating it elsewhere.

The announcement on 11th October 2020 is a natural conclusion to what was promised by Shiv Sena. After the announcement of Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray that the Metro shed will be shifted to Kanjurmarg and that Aarey Colony would be declared as forest, I am overwhelmed by the fact that the Aarey ecosystem has finally been saved.

It is a great victory for the people. We all know that Mumbai is the 4th most polluted mega-city in the world where 9 out of 10 people breathe in bad air. So, it is very necessary for us to save the forest in order to reduce pollution. And while the Metro plan would be for the benefit of the people, this benefit should never come at the cost of destroying nature. Once we destroy the environment, we cannot bring it back even with the use of world class technology.

Aarey forest which was standing on the edge of being slaughtered in the name of development has been saved today.

I just want to conclude by requesting every citizen of this country to plant at least one tree to save nature and to protect our future generations.

Rakesh K. Singh is an Advocate by profession and is the Founder Head of Law firm RKS Associate. He is also the Founder Head of NGO - Bharat Utthan Sangh. All views expressed in this article are his own.

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