Mumbai: “Our entire existence has been erased,” said a Aasha Bhoye, two days after the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Ltd cut what it claims is 177 trees near the Aarey Metro Depot for the construction of the Metro 3 corridor, after a Supreme Court order.
Bhoye, a member of a tribal community and a resident of the erstwhile Aarey Milk Colony claimed that the actual number of trees which were cut by the MMRCL was close to 500.
“The Metro people claim to be more educated, so I think their way of counting trees must be the correct way,” she noted wryly.
An MMRC spokesperson has responded that this allegation has no basis in fact.
“The allegation is baseless. The felling of trees has been done as per approval of the Tree Authority of BMC,” the spokesperson told The Wire.
On April 24, 2023, Mumbai Metro authorities reached Prajapur Pada, a tribal hamlet of Aarey, as early as 5 am. Residents say that police deployment was heavy and that officials had modern machinery with them.
The apex court had earlier granted permission after imposing a Rs 10 lakh fine on the Metro construction body, MMRCL, for increasing the number of trees to be cut from 84 to 177. This permission was granted even as tribal resident Budhiya Bhoye’s petition on the contested land waits to be heard in the court.
‘Save Aarey’ activists said that this is what they feared. “They have begun,” said Amrita Bhattacharjee, who fears there is much more destruction in store.
Aasha Bhoye, quoted at the beginning of the piece, said that at least four generations of her and other tribal families have been living in Prajapur Pada. “We have been living here for centuries. I have land receipts also to show,” she said.
Her family depended on the fruits and vegetables that were grown on their own backyard. It is these trees that are now gone. A few new trees were planted as compensation by the MMRCL.
An almost 10 feet-tall fence of iron sheets has been put around the houses of the Bhoye family among others. This reporter had to climb up to see the area where the trees were being felled. Two men guarded the place, but even they struggled in the heat with no trees around to provide a moment’s shelter from the sun.
The ‘compensatory’ trees were easily spotted – as they were so few. Beyond the area where the trees were cut, the construction of the Aarey Car Depot or car shed continued in full swing. Thousands of travellers travel up and down on the adjoining road.
A teary-eyed Asha Bhoye says that fighting “a powerful organisation that tells lies in broad daylight” is impossible. “The MMRCL numbered the trees by putting tags. I saw one number on at least four trees. In this way, they could cut nearly 500 trees,” Bhoye claimed.
In the below pictures, one can easily notice the difference in the pictures taken before and after the MMRCL action:
Why is the land contested?
Stalin Dayanand, who is an active member of the Save Aarey movement, procured a 1980 document through the Right to Information Act (RTI) in 2017. This document reveals that land of 2076.073 hectares of the Aarey Milk Scheme was transferred to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) at the time of its expansion in 1969.
The document which mentions villages of the Aarey Milk Scheme as coming within the borders of the Borivali National Park which later became the Sanjay Gandhi National Park.
“Foolish people like us only keep talking, while they [the Metro authorities] have done what they always intended to do,” Dayanand said.
His NGO Vanashakti’s petition which is in court argues on three grounds – tree count, flora-fauna and the colony being part of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park – that the Aarey Milk Colony is indeed a forest and must be protected under the Wildlife Protection Act and the Forest Conservation Act.
In 2017, a development plan for Mumbai was approved by the Maharashtra government, which included changing the land classification of 147 hectares in Aarey Milk Colony from a ‘no-development zone’ to a ‘development zone’. The decision was challenged by activists but upheld by the Bombay HC.
The development project will result in the displacement of over 3,500 families of Warli Adivasis and other tribal groups who call Aarey their home. Prajapur Pada hamlet, for example, has already seen 70 out of over 80 families removed by the metro authorities and set up in a Slum Rehabilitation Authority building. This has meant a loss of their homes and livelihoods. The remaining 10 families have been spared because they are not within the project area.
Aasha Bhoye’s family alongside others’ are in uncertainty as the MMRCL plans to expand the metro network well beyond the Metro-3 line. The MMRDA website too, mentions the Aarey Depot station in the proposed Metro-6 development plan, which is likely to cause deforestation inside Aarey and the filling of the floodplains of Mumbai’s only fresh water source, the Mithi river.