Mumbai: Mumbai’s Aarey Colony has been in a sea of controversies for nearly half a decade now. But in the past 24 hours, it’s the “double standard” of Shiv Sena leaders over the felling of trees for the construction of a Mumbai Metro car shed that has dominated public discourse.
After a go-ahead from the Bombay High Court Friday, the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRC), a joint venture of the central and Maharashtra governments, started cutting nearly 3,000 trees at Aarey Colony, one of Mumbai’s rare green lungs, in the dead of the night.
Among the first leaders to speak out against the move was Shiv Sena scion Aaditya Thackeray, who is also contesting the upcoming Maharashtra assembly election.
Amid massive protests, the young leader lashed out at MMRC, saying its officials should be posted in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir with a charge to destroy terror camps rather than trees.
The vigour with which the @MumbaiMetro3 is slyly and swiftly cutting down an ecosystem in Aarey is shameful and disgusting. How about posting these officials in PoK, giving them charge to destroy terror camps rather than trees?
— Aaditya Thackeray (@AUThackeray) October 4, 2019
Earlier the same day, Aaditya and his father, Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray, sat shoulder-to-shoulder with Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, a vocal proponent of the Metro car depot at Aarey, and announced their poll pact for the 21 October assembly election.
Not a word was uttered on the Aarey controversy.
After protesters and activists were detained Saturday — including Shiv Sena leader Priyanka Chaturvedi — Thackeray said he would speak to Fadnavis to look into the arrests. However, the opposition as well as political experts have called the Shiv Sena out for what they describe as its “double standard” on the emotive issue. The party is currently a part of the government too, but it has promised to look into the issue when it “returns to office”.
Speaking to reporters Saturday, Uddhav Thackeray said the party was not letting go of the issue and he would seek all the information about what happened the night before.
“I am confident that our government is coming back to power. We will then see what should be done to the killers of trees,” he added.
On Friday night, speaking to reporters after his first campaign rally in Worli, Aaditya Thackeray said that, currently, everyone’s hands are tied due to the model code of conduct. He was responding to questions about the Shiv Sena’s stand on the Aarey controversy.
“One thing important, which Uddhav saheb has also said, once elections are over — because right now everyone’s hands are tied with polls, there is a model code of conduct — but once elections are over, whoever these officials are who have stolen government property, once our government comes back to power we will direct our anger to proper action,” he added.
“Shiv Sena will not stay quiet. Once the government comes, wherever we have to send them (MMRCL officials), even if to PoK, we will send them. Once Shiv Sena comes back to power, we will have Aarey declared a forest,” he said.
Not a condition for alliance, unlike Nanar
With the Maharashtra elections about a fortnight away, the situation is similar to what it was ahead of the Lok Sabha polls, but with a different issue.
Back then, the Shiv Sena was fiercely opposed to the Nanar oil refinery project in Ratnagiri district, citing the same grounds, environmental destruction and local opposition, as in the case of Aarey.
While announcing the party’s alliance with the BJP for the Lok Sabha elections, the Shiv Sena had demanded that the contentious oil refinery be moved out of Nanar, and this was one of the conditions set by the party. The alliance was forged and the project at Nanar scrapped.
“This time, while the seat-sharing discussion was on, the Shiv Sena publicly kept up the heat on the Aarey issue. It also helps in creating a public image of Aaditya Thackeray as someone who is pro-people, pro-environment, sustainable development and can get bigwigs from Bollywood involved,” said political commentator Hemant Desai.
“But they could not make Aarey an issue for the alliance as they did with Nanar simply because the Shiv Sena did not want to. Their stand on Aarey appears to be simply posturing,” he added.
No action until now
The proposal to construct a metro car shed at Aarey Colony has been a constant subject of disagreement between the Shiv Sena and the BJP.
In 2017, the BMC’s general body, where the Sena has a majority, voted against reserving land in Aarey Colony for the metro car depot. The state government, where the BJP is a majority partner, reversed the decision. State environment minister Ramdas Kadam is a Shiv Sena leader, but the project is not directly under him.
In August, the civic body’s tree authority discussed and approved a proposal to cut about 2,700 trees at the colony for the car shed. While all Shiv Sena members in the tree authority voted against the proposal, BJP and NCP corporators supported it.
However, the Shiv Sena has not directly attacked the BJP leadership over it and has instead chosen to target its ire at the MMRC.
“The Shiv Sena is putting on an act. It is just lip service. The party should either break its alliance with the BJP over the issue or come clean on its stand. These are double-standards, nothing else,” former Congress MP Sanjay Nirupam told ThePrint.
Aarey a concern, but not coastal road
While the Shiv Sena has been raising red flags about the possible environmental impact of the Metro car depot at Aarey Colony, the party has been aggressively backing another infrastructure project where environmentalists and activists have raised fears of ecological damage — the multi-crore coastal road.
In July, the Bombay High Court stopped work on the project, saying the clearances granted by the Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority (MCZMA) and the expert appraisal committee of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests were “illegal” and quashed them.
The bench said the MCZMA did not even bother to record objections from non-government organisations, and while the Environment Impact Assessment recorded the objections and noted the stand of the BMC, “it gave no reasons much less returned findings on the objections and the response of MCGM”.
Deepak Pawar, assistant professor at Mumbai University’s Department of Civics and Politics, said, “Aarey is the BJP’s sin, while the coastal road is the Shiv Sena’s sin. Both in a way are shielding each other.
“The BJP is being brutally anti-people when it comes to Aarey, while the Shiv Sena is trying to keep its feet on two stones at the same time. The party thinks the alliance is sealed, the opposition is comatose and victory is certain. The party is facing an identity crisis that starts with Aarey and ends with ‘kem cho Worli,” he said, referring to the Gujarati posters put up across Worli after the Shiv Sena announced Aaditya Thackeray’s candidature from the constituency.
This report has been updated with Aaditya Thackeray’s quote from a media interaction Saturday night