Why Is Aarey So Vital For Mumbai? A Look At The Battles To Claim It

Mumbai's Aarey, a sensitive ecology home to endangered plants and animals, has been in a battle for many years.

Within a day of being sworn in as Maharashtra chief minister earlier this month, Eknath Shinde and his deputy Devendra Fadnavis announced their plan to move the metro car depot of Mumbai Metro Line 3 back to Aarey colony from Kanjurmarg. This overturned the Uddhav Thackeray-led government's decision to build the metro depot on a plot in Kanjurmarg, a suburb in north east Mumbai, rekindling the protests over the environmental impact of the move.

The new government officially lifted the stay on the work at Aarey on Thursday, thus paving the way for work to resume at Aarey.

Since the announcement, citizens have protested twice inside the Aarey colony, bringing back the #SaveAarey hashtag on social media. The movement is aimed at protecting the Aarey Colony forests, a sensitive ecology home to various endangered plant and animal species.

BOOM delved into the many twists and legal tussles of the metro depot issue to explain the different viewpoints and legal positions on the Aarey forest.

The Origins Of Aarey — A Milk Colony

The Aarey Milk Colony was set up for milk production and milk supply in the city of Bombay, initially in British India, and was later expanded to streamline Bombay's milk supply.

A milk processing factory was set up to source milk from dairy owners in the city, who were given quarters in Aarey colony to relocate and incentivise them. The 1287-hectares area lies on the southwestern boundary of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park and has always been a lush green and wooded area. It is home to nearly 300 species of flora and fauna which includes, among others, wild leopards, over 70 species of birds, and several species of snakes. The colony is also home to 10,000 families, largely belonging to indigenous tribes.

As Mumbai grew, the state government allowed the Aarey land to be used for other institutions, thus slowly eating into its greenery. The colony is home to the Film City, Bombay Veterinary College, a water filtration plant, a bakery, Force One (Mumbai Police commando unit) Camp and even a private golf course and residential project named Royal Palms.

Why Are Citizens Protesting Against The Car Depot There?

The gradual shrinking of Aarey's green cover has often irked Mumbaikars. In December 2016, the union environment ministry notified the eco-sensitive zone of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park by excluding 165 hectares of Aarey land meant for building a car depot for the Mumbai Metro Line 3.

This was seen as another attempt to shrink the green cover. The line 3 is a fully underground, 33.5km long corridor, connecting south Mumbai to north west Mumbai. It is considered as the most important line as it will connect the business districts of Andheri East (SEEPZ), Bandra-Kurla complex, Worli, Colaba and Cuffe Parade while passing through the proposed international and domestic airport terminal stations.

Non-profits and private citizens came together under the banner of Aarey Conservation Group and raised concerns as to why the state and union government, excluded 165 hectares of Aarey land from the eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, if only 30-35 hectares is needed for the depot and allied activities. This larger area, citizens allege and fear, will be exploited for commercial development later.

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ESZ's around national parks and sanctuaries are buffer areas where development is strictly regulated and often only low-impact public works such as roads, water pipelines and utility works are allowed.

Besides, citizens also fear that the proximity of the depot to the Mithi River channel (the river originates in Aarey) will cause flooding downstream. This concern was also echoed by two experts who were part of the state government's technical committee examining the Aarey plot and who had opposed Aarey as a depot site.

The plot chosen for the metro has been found to be frequented by 4-5 leopards regularly, camera trap images of Maharashtra Forest department have revealed.

The Legal Battle Over Aarey So Far

From 2015, citizens took legal recourse beginning with the National Green Tribunal (NGT), where they demanded that the verdant Aarey colony be declared as a forest. Vanashakti, a non-profit filed a plea on this issue. However, the NGT dismissed this petition in September 2018 on grounds that it did not have powers to declare Aarey as a forest area.

In 2016, Vanashakti approached the NGT once again after the union environment ministry excluded an area of 165 hectares from the eco-sensitive zone of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park abutting the Aarey colony. The NGT dismissed this plea in January 2020. Interestingly, neither the petitioner nor the respondent — the union environment ministry —were intimated about the order until it was made public.

Later in 2017, a petition was filed by two citizens before the Bombay High Court against the de-reservation of the Aarey depot plot from the 'no-development zone' category. The court dismissed the plea on grounds that the state government had followed due procedure.

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Further, the court dealt with another petition by Vanashakti, seeking to declare the entire Aarey colony as a forest area. The HC junked this plea on October 4, 2019, as well as another plea filed against the Mumbai civic body's order allowing tree felling on the Aarey depot plot.

Soon after the October 4 high court order, the state government moved swiftly and chopped 500 trees, including many old ones, triggering angry protests. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court took up this issue Suo moto based on the letter of a law student and on October 7, ordered a stay on tree felling.

What Happened To The Alternate Plot Chosen By Thackeray?

Soon after coming to power, the Uddhav Thackeray-led Maha Vikas Aghadi government stayed work on the Aarey plot on November 29, 2019. Later, on October 11, 2020, Thackeray declared 800 acres of Aarey as reserve forest and also announced that the car depot will be relocated to Kanjurmarg.

Notably, ten days prior to Thackeray's announcement, the Mumbai Suburban Collector had passed an order handing over the Kanjurmarg plot measuring 102 acres to the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority for the car depot, casting yard and other metro use. Earlier, the Fadnavis government of 2014-2019 had dropped plans for a depot at Kanjurmarg citing legal disputes.

The Mumbai Suburban Collector, though, handed over the land to MMRDA after taking the legal opinion of the Advocate General of Maharashtra, AA Kumbhakoni. The AG informed the collector that the land sought for the Metro depot in Kanjurmarg was not affected by any stay of the High Court.

However, the union government soon moved Bombay High Court staking claim over the Kanjurmarg land and challenging the collector's October order. On December 16, 2020, the HC stayed the collector's order, thus once again halting work on the car depot of Mumbai Metro Line 3.

In 2021, the MMRDA sought modification of HC's order to vacate the stay in order to continue work on the important public project. However, there has been no fresh order in this regard. The Shinde-Fadnavis government is expected to inform the High Court of its plans to move the metro depot back to Aarey in the next hearing, which is likely to happen soon.

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The opposition to the metro depot at Aarey has always been on environmental grounds, citizens and environmental activists have maintained, emphasizing that the metro is essential to improve public transport in the city. In fact, the alternate plot at Kanjurmarg was pointed out to the previous Fadnavis government by those fighting to save Aarey, so as to not impede the work on the metro.

With the Shinde-Fadnavis government taking an executive decision to lift the stay imposed on work at Aarey by the Thackeray government, it has paved the way for resuming work at the depot. The new government is also expected to inform the HC of this decision since it is hearing the matter of ownership of the Kanjurmarg plot.

Nikhil Ghanekar is an independent journalist based in Delhi. He writes on the environment, wildlife, and climate change.

Updated On: 2022-08-09T14:57:23+05:30
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