In a victory for green activists, the Supreme Court yesterday ordered status quo in the Aarey tree felling case, ordering the Maharashtra government not to cut down any more trees till the next hearing on October 21. Observing that it “appeared Aarey was a forest at some point of time”, the court asked the state government to submit a status report on the number of trees felled so far and the compulsory afforestation by the Mumbai metro. However, the hearing may have come too late. News reports say 98% of the trees have already been felled.
The bench was constituted during the Dussehra break after the court took suo motu cognizance of a letter-petition addressed to Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi by Rishav Ranjan, a Greater Noida law college student, who sought a stay on the felling of trees in Aarey. He was representing a student delegation.
Disregarding presence of valuable biodiversity (including leopards) at Aarey Milk Colony, the state government has diverted forest land for building a polluting metro carshed and for real estate development.
The 1200 Ha Aarey Milk Colony is a biodiversity hub and a catchment area for the Mithi River that flows through the city of Mumbai. The Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL) wants to locate its metro car shed within the forest. They have demanded the denotification of 165 Ha of forest land for this purpose. Despite citizens’ outrage and the availability of 7 other alternate locations, the government of Maharashtra remains adamant about locating its carshed here. There have been allegations that the zoning of Aarey forest (From NDZ to Commercial) in the new Development Plan has been changed to benefit the builder lobbies in the city. The government has further denied in open court that Aarey is a forest despite the fact that government records clearly show the land having been declared as a forest as far back as 1969.
The Aarey forest is home to around 10,000 tribals — some of whom have already lost their homes, their lands and their livelihoods due to increasing encroachment by the State on forest land. The ones who havent been displaced already are under pressure to move into the SRA buildings or move out of the forest entirely.
One of the greatest challenges has been to educate ordinary Mumbaikars about the importance of forests — why we need to protect them — and get them involved in this fight. It has been a challenge to counter government pro-development propaganda. The ‘anti-development is an anti-national’ narrative seems to be overly powerful and extremely effective.
At the same time, the greatest strength comes from the fact that a lot of urban educated youngsters have been participating in the protests (including risking arrests and detention). They bring with them a list of skill sets — from designing websites to handling social media to setting up petitions to filing RTIs. They are writers, artists, photographers, engineers, architects, freelancers, students. Bands like Maati Baani and Swadesi Nation created musical scores to help raise awareness about the issue. Most recently, a youth-based cultural initiative (using rap music) was set up to help raise funds and awareness regarding the Aarey forest controversy.
A special bench of Justices Arun Mishra and Ashok Bhushan said the court’s Forest Bench will hear the matter in detail on October 21 to ascertain if the area in question falls in an eco-sensitive zone. It directed that no tree be cut until then. Restraining authorities from felling more trees in Mumbai’s Aarey area for a Metro car shed, the Supreme Court Monday ordered status quo even as the Maharashtra government told the court that trees that had to be cut have already been cut. In a statement later, the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL) said 2,141 trees have been felled.
Last Friday, the Bombay High Court rejected petitions challenging the decision of the municipal authorities to allow the felling of 2,185 trees and transplantation of 460 for a car shed of the MMRCL. Within hours of the High Court order, the cutting of trees began.
Sanjay Gandhi National Park and Aarey Forest are lush green oases; they not only tackle pollution and floods but also help bring down temperatures. They are home to indigenous peoples and hold great biodiversity. Nevertheless, part of this area is being sacrificed for “development”.