Hope flickers for Aarey, SC to hold a special sitting today on tree felling

Mumbai: After failing thrice in convincing the Bombay High Court, the only hope left for the Save Aarey crusaders is the Supreme Court, which is going to remain shut till October 14 for Dussehra holidays.

Thus, seeking an urgent hearing, a delegation of the activists went knocking at the doors of the Chief Justice of India on Sunday, seeking a stay on the ongoing cutting of trees at Aarey, to pave the way for a metro car shed. The letter has been converted into a Public Interest Litigation.

However, CJI Gogoi was not available and after receiving the delegation’s letter, the apex court has taken suo motu (on its own) cognizance of the issue, and accordingly constituted a special bench that would be hearing the matter on Monday morning.

Meanwhile, in another court on Sunday, 29 activists, arrested for protesting against the assault on the green cover on Friday night, were given conditional bail.

It is the contention of these activists that the action of the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation to cut trees in the dead of the night was illegal and not tenable in law as it was done without observing the 15 day ‘cooling off’ period.

Moreover, it is pointed out that contrary to the laid down procedure, the BMC officials started cutting the trees without officers from the relevant department being present.

They have also questioned the tearing hurry to hack the trees; the exercise started within hours of the Bombay High court order dismissing all the four pleas challenging the cutting of over 2600 trees for the car shed.

“The rules specifically state no cutting of trees can be done till 15 days after the final order (permitting the chopping of trees) is published in newspaper advertisements or uploaded on the local authority’s (BMC in this case) website,” said activist Zoru Bhathena.

“According to rules, the 15 day period starts from which ever action (either publishing in newspapers or uploading on website) is done subsequent. For instance, if the authorities upload the order on website and after a week publish it in newspapers, then the 15 days would start from the date of publishing,” Bhathena explained.

Bhathena further said in the instant case of Aarey, the BMC published the advertisements in newspapers first and then on October 4, uploaded the order on its website.

“Thus, the 15 days waiting period commenced from October 4 and not in last week of August, when the order was published in the newspaper. On this point itself, the action of killing trees in the dead of the night is illegal and arbitrary,” Bhathena argued.

The BMC, on the other hand, has claimed that it has followed all the procedures and its decision is not at all arbitrary. “The 15 days commenced from the day when we published the newspaper advertisements.

As far the contention of uploading on the website is concerned that was not necessary in this case,” said senior counsel Anil Sakhre. Sakhre added,

“We had already submitted the copy of the order before the HC thus making it a public document. Hence, we do not think that in the instant case there was any necessity for us to upload the orders and then wait for 15 the day period.”

Two pleas against the metro car shed project are still pending in the Supreme Court, including an appeal by environmental activists, challenging Bombay High Court’s judgment of last year in which it was declared that "Aarey is not a forest" and had challenged the change of land use of the area.

In April 2019, the Supreme Court had rejected a plea seeking to shift the Mumbai metro car shed project away from the Aarey forest, on grounds that the technical committee of the forest department had not found any viable alternate sites for the construction.

Bail, yes, but can’t protest

The holiday court on Sunday ordered the release of 29 Aarey activists on the condition that they post a bail bond of Rs. 7,000 and not take part in any of the protests.

The lawyer for the activists, most of whom are students, argued in the bail plea that they have exams starting Monday. The activists are likely to walk out of the Thane Jail, where most of them have been lodged, by 11 am on Monday.

The 29 protesters -- including six Women -- were detained when some of them allegedly tried to obstruct the police personnel at Aarey from discharging their duty.

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