Mumbai: Residents and activists from across Mumbai had gathered outside the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRC) office last week, in the plush Bandra Kurla Complex, to ‘Save Aarey’ from being used for a Metro car depot.
While one group of protesters spoke about the significance of the biodiversity within Aarey Colony in suburban Goregaon, another made a piquant gesture of wrapping a log of wood with a white cloth and garlands before loading it inside an ambulance amid chants of “Ram nam satya hain“.
It was one among a wave of protests against the MMRC’s plan to cut around 2,700 trees in Aarey Colony to make space for a car depot for the Colaba-Bandra-Seepz Metro.
In response, the MMRC issued full-page advertisements, addressed citizens’ concerns via social media, highlighted environmental benefits and emphasised on how trees to be cut in Aarey are only a small fraction of the total number across the colony. But citizens and activists would have none of it. The Bombay High Court Tuesday verbally directed authorities to not cut any tree until 30 September.
ThePrint looks at the Aarey controversy and explains the various factors that have come into play.
The Aarey Colony was established in 1949 across 1,287 hectares of land in Goregaon and it comes under the jurisdiction of Maharashtra’s dairy development department. According to government data — of the total land in Aarey — 430 hectares have been allotted to different state and central government departments and institutes. Besides, the dairy department has 30 stable units in the area and about 27 tribal hamlets are spread over another 1,000 acres.
While there are no official figures, a number of illegal structures have also come up in Aarey Colony over the years. Situated adjacent to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Aarey — that has at least seven-eight leopards — has also been witness to rising instances of human-animal conflict.
This green lung today has become a bone of contention between the Maharashtra government and MMRC on the one hand, and residents and activists — backed by almost all political outfits barring the BJP — on the other. The dispute has thrown up the classic ‘development-environment’ debate.
Project benefits outweigh damage: MMRC
A car depot for the 33.5 km fully underground Colaba-Bandra-Seepz Metro corridor on a 30 hectare plot in Aarey will require axing of 2,646 trees. Of the 30 hectares, the MMRC has decided to preserve the green belt on 5 hectares.
Besides the location being “ideal”, MMRC has also argued that the number of trees to be cut would only be 2 per cent of the total number in Aarey.
“At the detailed project report stage, Mahalaxmi Racecourse, MMRDA Ground, BKC, Kalina University and Aarey Milk Colony were evaluated. In the technical committee stage, five more locations — Backbay reclamation, Mumbai Port Trust, Dharavi, Sariput Nagar and Kanjurmarg — were also considered. All locations were examined on merit but were ruled out on the basis of inadequate land area, technical suitability, environment, legal/ownership constraints and regulatory constraints,” the MMRC had said, as part of a full-page statement published in all leading newspapers last week.
The corporation’s Environment Impact Assessment report also states that there is no wildlife at the site of the car depot, which abuts three busy arterial roads of the city — the Jogeshwari Vikhroli link Road, Marol Maroshi road and Goregaon Powai road.
The Colaba-Bandra-Seepz Metro will bring environmental benefits to the city too by cutting down CO2 emissions, said authorities, far outweighing the damage done by hacking 2,646 trees.
Protests not just about trees: Activists
For the activists, however, the protests are not just about the number of trees to be hacked. It is about destroying a portion of the green lung which acts as a buffer zone to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park and its rich biodiversity.
An additional red flag they have raised says the proposed site falls in the catchment area of the Mithi river and could flood parts surrounding the Mumbai airport and Chakala.
While the MMRC has said that there is no wildlife in the proposed site, biodiversity experts, photographers and conservationists have recorded leopard movements close to it.
A Mumbai-based wildlife journalist, who did not wish to be named, said, “It is incorrect to say that there is no biodiversity at the site of the car shed. There have been instances of human-animal conflict in tribal hamlets like Khadakpada that is just 200-300 metres away from the site. There is a hillock about 100 metres from the site where forest officials have captured photographs of leopards and cubs.”
The journalist added that it was not possible to know wildlife movement inside the site now since it has been barricaded. “But, there have been records of Indian rock pythons, rusty spotted cats, moose and so on spotted around it.”
Congress leader and former environment minister Jairam Ramesh, who visited Aarey Colony Tuesday, said, “The Metro project opens a doorway into Aarey. It is not just a small project. It is the beginning…Nobody is against the Metro or against development. But this is not development. It is stubbornness.”
Planning started in 2012
While the latest trigger for widespread protests was the approval given by Mumbai civic body’s Tree Authority to fell 2,646 trees, plans on using a portion of the Aarey land for a car shed had begun as early as 2012. At the time, there were a few, dispersed voices of protest.
The initial plans for the car depot were drawn up and approved under the Prithviraj Chavan-led Congress-NCP government even as the Congress today opposes it. In the first public meeting to hear suggestions and objections regarding the Colaba-Bandra-Seepz Metro in April 2012, Environmental Activist Rishi Aggarwal had raised an objection to the proposed car shed.
“The response was very lackadaisical. There was absolutely no public voice raised at that time,” Aggarwal said.
In 2015, when the cause finally gained momentum, the project was already under tendering, and finances were in place, prompting officials to suggest that a change in plans at that stage might result in massive delays and cost escalations. The new Devendra-Fadnavis government then had formed a committee of experts to evaluate alternatives.
In its final report, submitted in October 2015, suggestions were made to have an integrated car depot for two Metro lines at Kanjurmarg and a small facility with about 16 stabling lines at Aarey to take care of the immediate needs of the Colaba-Bandra Seepz Metro.
According to MMRC officials, the corporation had made “sincere efforts” to get hold of the Kanjurmarg land, mired in litigation, but the case was not resolved in a reasonable time frame and the state government finally gave it permission to proceed with Aarey car depot.
Over the past four years, activists have also approached various courts to put a stop to the MMRC’s Aarey plans. The Bombay High Court had last year cleared the land-use conversion to allow the project, while the National Green Tribunal rejected a plea to tag Aarey Colony as a forest.
The Shiv Sena and Congress members have rejected the proposal for the car depot but BJP and NCP corporators have expressed their support. The Tree Authority, meanwhile, has asked the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Ltd (MMRCL) to plant 13,110 trees in 30 days as ‘compensation’.
The matter is now once again at the Bombay HC with a bunch of public interest litigations related to felling of trees in Aarey Colony pending with it.