The Shiv Sena and the Congress see it as “overgovernance” and “vote politics”.
Mumbai needs the Metro. It can strengthen the public transport network of India’s “Maximum City” and prove, as is being advertised, to be its clever “solution for (air) pollution”. It will also spare a large number of citizens using the Mumbai local train network their daily struggle for space.
To bring the Metro car to these citizens, the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation, along with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, has been planning since 2015 to build a yard on 74 acres in Aarey Milk Colony, a suburb in the eastern part of the city. What, however, is the cost of this plan? Not much, say the authorities, it is 2,700 fully grown trees — and an ecosystem comprising 290 wild species, of which five, including leopards, are on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) red list. New species of jumping spiders were discovered here as late as in 2016. There are 27 Adivasi villages in the colony, the residents of which complain of moves to declare these as slums and of a “sense that they are being targeted”.
But environmentalists have warned that deforestation in Aarey Colony, which serves as a giant soakpit in the catchment area of the Mithi, can lead to worse flooding next year, dividing Twitterati. Among the political parties, the BJP and the NCP are backing the project. The Shiv Sena and the Congress see it as “overgovernance” and “vote politics”.
So what is the fresh solution to this dilemma? Relocation. Why not move the project to nearby Kanjurmarg, where unlitigated land is still available? The MMRC contends that it is too expensive. In that case, why not cancel the 36-km road planned along Mumbai's western coast as well as the Rs 3,600-crore Shivaji statue project that will also require taking land from the sea at a huge financial and environmental cost? That money can be used towards sparing Aarey and improving the local train system.
For the 2,700 trees cut down, the MMRC has promised to plant 13,000 trees in 30 days. Reports say that 56 per cent of the 1,483 trees transplanted by MMRC are already dead and that number is increasing. Significantly, the official tender issued by MMRC for felling of trees states that it is in possession of 62 hectares of land. It has told the Supreme Court that it will use not 30, but 65, hectares in Aarey. There are plans to build a Metro Bhavan and a regional transport office of the Maharashtra motor vehicles department in Aarey.
Perhaps pertinently, Aarey’s loss of green cover has been subtle and steady. While in 1949 the colony was spread over 3,262 acres, today there are only 2,089 acres of forest cover left.
Three cases are currently being heard on Aarey. Two of them, originally filed in the National Green Tribunal and the Bombay high court, are in the Supreme Court. A third petition filed in the high court has resulted in a ruling by a bench led by Chief Justice Pradeep Nandrajog that stayed the cutting of trees till September 30.
The battle to save Aarey now seems set for the long haul.