A specially constituted vacation bench of the Supreme Court on Monday ordered a stay on felling trees located in Mumbai’s Aarey Colony until October 21, when it will hear a plea against the government’s decision to cut vegetation in the area to make way for the city’s metro project. The apex court also asked for the release of activists held for protesting against the felling since Friday evening.
Although this is not the first time that a construction project embarked upon with a clear view of urbanisation has met with environmentalists’ protests, the situation of Aarey is unique and its singularity is perhaps what has drawn several to the protest sites.
Here are the ten most crucial things worth knowing about the green strip and why its being taken down.
1) As is well known by now, the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited aims to construct a car parking shed at the place where the green cover of Aarey Colony now stands. This is a part of the MMRCL’s ongoing Mumbai Metro 3 project.
As part of the project, the 33.5-kilometre Aqua line or the Colaba-Bandra-SEEPZ line is being built. This is going to be the first underground railway line in Mumbai, which depends heavily on its overground local train system. The Aqua line promises to reduce crowds in the Western Line of the Mumbai city railway which covers the busiest office areas in the city.
2) However, Aarey is a costly collateral in this project. It has often been referred to as the “green lung of the city” in reference to the present controversy, but its significance runs deeper.
The Wire‘s Sukanya Shantha wrote in one of her many articles before the tree felling actually started that Aarey is home to tribals who have been living there for generations, in slums and run cowsheds which supply milk to a locally situated government run dairy. A builder had managed to get permission to construct a hotel and a few towers, but it is largely untouched by construction and is a popular picnic spot.
3) As far as untouched land in a city as heavily urbanised as Mumbai goes, Aarey comes pretty close. Vanashakti, one of the NGOs that have been resolutely fighting against the felling of trees for the car shed, has argued that the region should actually be called a “forest”.
Had it been labelled as such, then neither the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and nor the MMRCL would have been able to touch it for construction.
4) In spite of activists’ clear reservations with the construction and the fact that protests have seen large numbers of citizens turn up at Mumbai’s northern suburbs, the felling project has seen nearly all branches of the Mumbai administration and judiciary come together seamlessly.
The MMRCL, BMC and Maharashtra government’s vision for this project was complimented by the Bombay high court, which on Friday, refused to declare the Aarey Colony a forest area and declined to quash the BMC’s green light to fell the trees in the region.
5) According to reports, however, the court’s Chief Justice Pradeep Nandrajog had orally observed that he hoped authorities will not start cutting the trees before the petitioners moved the Supreme Court. This was clearly not followed by the MMRCL which began cutting trees on the evening of October 4 itself.
6) It is not clear exactly how many trees have yet been felled by the MMRCL. The required number for which the BMC has given permission is 2,646. However, activists say that the number of trees felled range between 500 and 1,000. There is confusion over whether the MMRCL has been felling only trees that have been numbered, with many activists alleging that unnumbered trees have been cut down too. MMRCL is operating under a promise to replace a portion of the felled trees. This, it will not be able to do if it cuts down unmarked trees as well.
7) The allegedly pliant role played by the BMC’s tree authority in granting permission to fell more than 2,000 trees was also brought to question in this regard. Activist Zoru Bathena had filed a PIL in the Bombay high court against the authority’s permission to cut the trees. Bathena’s counsel Janak Dwarkadas, on Monday, argued that the tree authority’s decision suffers from “non-application of mind” and was taken in “haste” without following provisions laid down under the Trees Act in view of the election.
Dwarkadas said that the authority, in its over 900-page proposal granting permission to MMRCL, did not even record the objections raised by the petitioner and over one lakh common citizens during the two public hearings conducted by the authority in October last year and in July this year.
In the previously cited report, Shantha also quotes activists as alleging that once permission to fell trees are given, the same information must be put up on the BMC’s website and be made open to people’s responses.
8) Friday’s initial surprise at the alacrity with which MMRCL moved to cut the trees, gave way to the widespread outrage of Saturday when protesters gathered from all around Mumbai. As many as 29 were arrested. A local magistrate court sent all 29 activists to judicial custody for five days, rejecting their bail plea. Section 144 was clamped in the area.
9) The lack of public empathy towards the BMC and MMRCL’s ’cause’ could well become a colossal sore point in this election season. Maharashtra is going into assembly elections later in October. Shiv Sena, which has control of the BMC, has therefore conveniently aligned itself with the protesters and called the Supreme Court stay a ‘victory’. The party, in its mouthpiece Saamna, tore into its alliance partner, BJP over what it called “the murder of trees”.
Aaditya Thackeray, the first person from the state’s most politically powerful family, has also been tweeting often on the issue.
May truth and justice prevail for the ecosystem of Aarey! https://t.co/9ApPpGckJH
— Aaditya Thackeray (@AUThackeray) October 6, 2019
10) The case will be heard on October 21, after the Dussehra holidays are over.