Aarey Milk Colony is a green lung in the middle of Mumbai’s concrete jungle. Located in the Goregaon area, it was established in 1949 to cater to a burgeoning city’s dairy requirements. The 1,300-hectare green space is today under risk from a Metro rail car shed that is proposed to be built there. The project is under fire for short-sighted urban development policies, but critics say the protests against it also expose the flaws in srategy in saving the green cover.
In early September, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone for Metro Bhavan, the nerve centre of Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited’s (MMRCL) Metro operations in the city, in Aarey. Protests mounted against the project, and the issue took an unexpected turn when the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) partner, the Shiv Sena, decided to oppose the construction of the car shed in Aarey. Sena leader Aditya Thackeray, who is contesting the Assembly election, even declared that if he was elected he would not allow its construction on the site.
Opposition parties question the timing of the beginning of construction. They believe the BJP is attempting to gain political mileage out of the project with the Maharashtra Assembly election in sight.
Mumbai has two ongoing projects under a major city upgrade plan which started in 2014: the underground Metro and the coastal road project. Both were sanctioned to reduce pressure on the city’s congested roads and overworked local railway network.
The Rs.23,000-crore Mumbai Metro Line 3 project is a 33.5-kilometre underground corridor running from the southernmost tip of the island city in Cuffe Parade to Bandra and on to SEEPZ in Andheri. Currently under construction, it will have 27 stations. Work on the digging of tunnels began in 2016 and the city has seen a huge change in its landscape ever since construction began. According to MMRCL, the corridor will connect important residential, business, educational, health and recreational centres with major transport hubs, including domestic and international airports. It will cater to 17 lakh commuters daily, once fully commissioned. Additionally, the corridor is expected to reduce carbon dioxide emission by 10,000 tonnes a year. The car shed, intended to accommodate the trains, will be built on 33 hectares of land in Aarey.
High drama unfolded on October 4 when the Bombay High Court rejected an application moved by environmental activists to quash the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s (BMC) decision to fell 2,646 trees in the space allotted for the car shed. Within hours of the High Court order, the BMC felled close to 2,400 trees. Environmental activists and citizens’ groups rushed to the colony’s entry gates but could do little to save the trees, some of which, activists say, were more than 70 years old. As many as 29 activists were arrested and later released on bail. Following an urgent hearing, the Supreme Court has put a stay on further felling of trees.
But there are larger questions involved. How did the project, which locates a red category industry in a green zone, get clearance? Why did the city wake up only when the trees were in danger? What is the reason for the sudden emotional outburst on a project that has been in the public domain since 2014?
Environmental advocacy groups say the entire project has been executed in the most surreptitious manner. Apart from not revealing relevant facts about the underground Metro, they allege, the State government amended or removed crucial regulations to accommodate the project.
The enormity of what is at risk needs to be understood, said Anand Pendharkar, a wildlife biologist and environmentalist who is with SPROUTS, one of the groups with the Aarey Conservation Group. He lists the problems that will ensue if the car shed plan goes through: destruction of the city’s green cover, damage to the rich biodiversity that exists in the forest, impact on the floodplains of the nearby Mithi river because of construction work, and displacement of hundreds of Adivasi families residing in the colony and limiting their use of grazing and farming land. There are 12 villages within the protected area mainly inhabited by the Warli community, considered among Mumbai’s original inhabitants.
Aarey supports an entire ecosystem of its own with rich biodiversity. An ecosystem like this takes hundreds of years to build up. In fact, within Aarey, scientists have discovered at least five species of small animals. The area is also home to at least nine leopards.
Worse, activists fear that once Aarey opens its gates to development, land sharks will find ways to reap commercial benefit from it. Mumbai has witnessed this pattern time and again. It happened with the mill lands and it will happen again, says Pendharkar.
In 1977, the government carved out approximately 500 acres (200 ha) from Aarey to build a film city, which has been reasonably unobtrusive. Owing to the constant pressure on space and the real estate boom in the island city, Aarey became an alluring location, and it is said that housing projects were given clearances in the form of 99-year leases.
“It is a fait accompli. Protesting now has no relevance. It should have been done when they made the announcement in 2014 and before the financial closure. The MMRCL will say it will cost thousands of crores more to change the plan. How do you argue against that?” said Rishi Aggarwal, who leads Mumbai Sustainability Centre, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) working on environmental issues. “We are oversimplifying the issue by seeing it as giving up something. Nothing had to be given up if they had pursued several other options we had given them. I had several meetings with the authorities, giving them suggestions that have been researched and studied by experts.”
Aggarwal said that bigger forests had been submerged because of infrastructure projects. The point is that urban development needs mature and visionary planning, which does not seem to happen.
In a press release, MMRCL said it would cost another Rs.10,000 crore to change the car shed location, vindicating Aggarwal’s point that the protest should have happened earlier. Soon after the Supreme Court order staying further felling of trees, the State government lawyer told the media that the status quo was only for tree cutting implying that construction on 33 hectares of Aarey land has been cleared.
MMRCL officials were unwilling to comment on the issues as it would interfere with the model code of conduct for elections. Given the MMRCL modus operandi in getting the project off the ground, the car shed at Aarey seems inevitable, said a bureaucrat on condition of anonymity.
Environmental activists say railway car sheds fall under the red category industry, which causes the highest level of pollution. They say the shed will use oil and grease, not to mention industrial cleaning and maintenance products such as acid and paint which come with their own share of pollutants. The effluents will be discharged into the nearest waterbody which is the Mithi. Furthermore, groundwater will be exploited and will get polluted.
Pendharkar cites the government’s scrapping of the Non Development Zone (NDZ) rules in 2018 as an example of how policies were changed to suit the project. The NDZ did not permit construction of industry within one kilometre of a river. As the Mithi runs close to the project, the government apparently changed this regulation.
Moreover, the area is labelled an eco-sensitive zone. Documents reveal that the Metro and a few other projects planned in Aarey have now been left out of these eco-sensitive zones, said Pendharkar. “All of this has been done in such a stealthy manner that we were caught off guard,” he said.
D. Stalin of Vanashakti, one of the organisations protesting against the Aarey car shed, said he disagreed that activists had not done enough. He said: “We have been fighting this ever since the government announced the Metro rail plan in 2014. It was because of the cases we filed and the litigation that followed that the campaign did not get as much publicity as it did recently. The state is making it sound as though we are anti-Metro, which we are not. We are questioning why Aarey when they had Kanjurmarg as an option. In fact, Kanjurmarg is an undisputed stretch of land.” Stalin added: “Every violation has been covered up. We have been asking for the groundwater report. They would not give us that. We filed an appeal which got us the information. They require 50,000 litres of fresh water a day to keep the trains clean. If groundwater is used for this, it is obvious it will lead to the forest drying up. They still do not have the permission.”
Stalin said that for years there were notices on trees which indicated they were marked for felling for the Metro project. In a sudden move, in August this year, the BMC’s Tree Authority cleared the proposal to cut 2,232 trees and transplant 469 to other locations. “They sent a 900-page document to the committee and gave them a day to clear the plan. While the Shiv Sena members decided not to vote, the BJP and others went ahead and gave their permission. How can a committee vote overnight?” he asked.
The tree-felling incident has led to a debate on whether a city that is struggling with poor air quality owing to high pollution from vehicles should give up a valuable asset for a better future. Recently, an air quality measurement by the System of Air Quality Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR) found that Mumbai’s Air Quality Index at its highest was 244 (“poor”)—higher than Delhi which had an AQI of 204.
Citizens are, however, divided on the project. “I have been commuting for 20 years from Virar to Nariman Point. In the past two or three years, the trains have been overcrowded even during non-rush hour. We need alternatives, and the Metro will reduce the pressure,” said Danesh Zaveri, a stock broker.
“We are not against the Metro. But other options were given. They conveniently discarded those. It was easier to build on Aarey as the location was perfect,” said Suranjan Choudhary.
Pendharkar and several activists believe the government is eyeing the land in its totality. The film city was the first to be built a few decades ago, a zoo has now been proposed, and a few slum rehabilitation settlements are reportedly on the cards. A huge residential complex, called the Royal Palms, has been given a long lease allegedly on Aarey land. “Once it opens up to real estate we will lose it forever,” said Pendharkar.
Along with quashing the petitions on tree cutting, the Bombay High Court dismissed petitions on declaring Aarey a forest, which would prevent construction. According to the court, the petitioners failed in their attempts to prove it was a forest, according to the definition under the Forest Conservation Act. The court also dismissed a petition filed by the activist Zoru Bathena seeking that Aarey be declared a floodplain and therefore an unfit zone for development. The Save Aarey movement believes that between the Supreme Court preventing tree felling and the National Green Tribunal which is hearing three petitions, there is still some hope of saving the land.