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The Election Commission of India is expected to announce the dates ‘any moment’ for the Maharashtra assembly elections, due in October, but the ruling BJP and Shiv Sena are still procrastinating on their seat-sharing formula. The coalition partners are currently on a collision course over a contentious environment-vs-development issue, which has rocked Mumbai. CM Devendra Fadnavis has been advocating the felling of 2,703 trees at Aarey Colony in Goregaon to facilitate the construction of a metro car shed by Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Ltd (MMRCL) on time, but Sena chief Udhav Thackeray says his party will not allow it.
The ambitious project has been embroiled in a big controversy, triggering vociferous protests by environmentalists, social activists and other civil society members. Udhav has warned that the metro car shed will meet the fate of the proposed Rs 3-lakh Nanar refinery project in the Konkan region, which had to be aborted before the Lok Sabha elections following protests by local farmers.
Udhav’s statement came close on the heels of similar ones by his son and Yuva Sena chief Aditya Thackeray, who had asserted that protecting biodiversity was far more important than the proposed shed. He had even called for the removal of MMRCL managing director Ashwini Bhide, who was of the view that the project would face a massive setback if it was moved out of Aarey at this juncture since 40 per cent of the work had been completed.
According to reports, MMRCL, which wants Metro-3 to be fully operational by the end of 2021, hopes to start receiving rakes at the Aarey car depot by the end of next year. But it all depends now on the outcome of the major row. Fadnavis has been backing MMRCL to the hilt so far. Speaking at a recent function in Mumbai, he called for striking a balance between development and environment. “Even I am an environmentalist and the felling of every tree pains me, but there is a need to strike a balance between development and environment,” he said.
According to the CM, the issue had gone up to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the area where trees are being cut is not a forest. “It is a misconception that a forest is being destroyed,” he maintained. Environmentalists, however, claim the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) had sanctioned the felling of trees rather hastily on the basis of its tree authority’s approval. They aver that destruction of the city’s green lungs would spell an ecological disaster and cause floods in the future. A PIL has also been filed in the Bombay High Court.
NCP chief Sharad Pawar arrives at a meeting.
The controversy has cast its shadow on BJP-Sena ties. Political observers believe that the Sena’s stand on such a sensitive issue has put the BJP under pressure before the polls. Even though the opposition Congress and the NCP have already announced their seat pact for the election, the BJP and the Sena have not come to any conclusion despite several rounds of talks. The Sena is said to be angling for the 50:50 formula and wants 135 seats each for itself and the BJP, while leaving the remaining 18 constituencies for the smaller allies. But the BJP appears to be in no mood to contest less than 150 seats. Incidentally, in 2014, when the two parties had contested separately, the BJP had won 122 seats, while the Sena had to contend with only 63 seats. Later, they joined hands to form the government.
Both the parties are now likely to hold the final round of seat-sharing talks later this week on the completion of Fadnavis’s ongoing Maha Janadesh Yatra. But buoyed by the 2019 Lok Sabha election results in Maharashtra, where the NDA won 41 of the total 48 seats on the crest of “Modi wave”, the BJP apparently thinks that support for the party, in general, and for the PM, in particular, has since grown in the state due to measures taken by the central government on issues like triple talaq and Article 370. It is, therefore, unlikely to cede much ground to the Sena despite all its posturing.
By Giridhar Jha in Mumbai