Maharashtra: Operation Lotus Ends, Aarey Story Restarts

| Updated: July 3, 2022 8:18 pm

As the BJP-Eknath Shinde alliance assumed power in Maharashtra on June 30, the Aarey Forest controversy resurfaced. The relocation of a metro car shed was, in fact, one of the first decisions that the new government enforced. However, this story goes back two-and-a-half years.  A protest, supported by AAP and the Shiv Sena, was held in Mumbai, Sunday, to gather support against the deforestation.

WHAT IS THE AAREY ROW?

Mumbai is maximum city with a rush hour that can be defeating. If the proposed north-south metro comes up, it will run through the length of the city from Bandra in the north to Colaba in the south. That means, capsuling commute time, relieving congestion on arterial roads and also minimising pollution in Mumbai. However, the perfect picture comes with a catch: the terminal point at Bandra would need a car shed. That car shed space has zeroed in on the what is called the “lungs of Mumbai.”

The Aarey Colony, measuring 1,287 hectares, is located adjacent to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. In 2019, the then BJP-Shiv Sena government wanted to utilise the space for its 33.5 km underground Colaba-Bandra-SEEPZ Metro project at the Aarey Milk Colony.

Despite the stay order by High Court, the BMC started felling trees in the area

When the entire row started sometime in early 2019, spearheading the movement against it was Uddhav Thackeray, then in the Opposition. He wanted relocation of the metro car shed from Aarey to Kanjurmarg. However, the battle assumed the proportions of a prestige battle with Fadvanis, mooting for deforestation to make way for the car shed.

Citizens and green activists approached the Bombay High Court against this move. But within hours of the High Court dismissing these petitions seeking a stay on the cutting of trees for the project, Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Ltd (MMRCL) started felling trees. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) granted the Metro authorities permission to cut as many as 2,700 trees to build a car depot for Metro Line 3.  Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation defended tree felling by contending that it is restricted only to a small area in Aarey Colony and is necessary to ensure a modern transport system for Mumbaikars.

“It wasn’t a matter of destruction of the jungles. The matter was in court. It went to the High Court, the Green Tribunal, the Supreme Court and there was a go-ahead from all. I want to ask how it is that these people have given clearance to some hotels in the area,” Devendra Fadnavis asked, Sunday when the entire controversy re-ignited.

“Even if the work starts, it will take four years to complete,” he stated, adding the construction won’t damage the environment.

Back in 2019, Shaina NC, a BJP leader had asked: “Should the government let a microscopic minority with a myopic view hinder the progress of a development project which will provide a greener alternative to traffic congestion and curb greenhouse emissions?” “Besides, we are taking only two per cent of Aarey land and planting over 20,000 trees across Maharashtra in its lieu,” Shaina NC had said.

Eknath Shinde, who is now the CM, was then Maharashtra’s Urban Development Minister. Back in 2019, he had supported the Uddhav Thackeray government’s decision to shift the project to Kanjumarg. However, immediately after coming to power as the CM with the BJP’s help, he overturned the decision and moved the project back to the Aaarey Colony.

Aarey Colony: “Mumbai’s Lungs,” is also home to some paddy plantation

WHAT ACTIVISTS SAY?

Environmentalists have opposed the move, saying that development can’t come at the cost of greenery and biodiversity. In 2019, Mumbai-based environment organisation, Vanshakti, had appealed to the Bombay High Court to pass an order granting the Aarey Colony the status of a “Reserved Forest” or a “Protected Forest” under the Indian Forest Act, 1927. The felling of trees in the area sparked huge protests with hundreds descending onto the streets to oppose the authorities. Section 144 had to be imposed and around 30 had to be placed under arrest.

PREVIOUS INSTANCES OF TREE FELLING

This is not the first incident when the Aarey colony is being shrunk to make way for modern Mumbai. Established in 1949 for dairy development, the colony was cut short by 200 acres to make way for Film City in 1971. In 2010, Byculla Zoo was extended 40 acres into the Aarey Colony.

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