Maharashtra's Controversial Aarey Forest Project, Why Is It Resurfacing Time And Again?

In September 2019, then Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis said that the government is bound to cut trees in Mumbai's Aarey forest area as 'development is important'. After months of protest and controversy, the issue resurfaces once more with the Shinde government.

Mumbai's Aarey Colony.

Hours after becoming the Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Eknath Shinde has directed the Advocate General Ashutosh Kumbhakoni that the controversial Metro car shed be built in Mumbai's Aarey colony itself. In its bid to revere the Thackeray government’s order, Shinde has asked Kumbhakoni to submit its order in the court that the car shed will be built where it was promised in 2019 under the BJP-led Devendra Fadnavis government. The decision was taken in the first cabinet meeting held hours after coming to power

In September 2019, then Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis said that the government is bound to cut trees in Mumbai's Aarey forest area as "development is important". Now the Deputy Chief Minister, Fadnavis asked the advocate general to represent the government's side of building the car shed in Aarey Colony.

Officials in the urban development department said the matter is currently in the court and the next hearing will be held 15 days later.

Incidentally, Shinde's predecessor Uddhav Thackeray, immediately after becoming the chief minister in November 2019, had announced a stay on the construction of the proposed Metro-3 car shed in Aarey Colony.

The decision to set up the car shed in the wooded Aarey area had faced opposition from environmental groups as it entailed cutting down hundreds of trees. The Thackeray government had later shifted the site to Kanjurmarg, but it is embroiled in a legal dispute.

Fadnavis told the officials that the 33-km-long Colaba-Bandra-Seepz underground Metro project is getting delayed due to the court case.

Meanwhile, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) objected to the new government's proposal to shift the Metro car shed to Aarey Colony. In a tweet, NCP spokesperson Clyde Crasto said, "With so many important issues that need to be looked into in Maharashtra, what does the new Dy. CM Devendra Fadnavis do? He proposes to move Metro car shed back to Aarey. Re-creating a problem solved by MVA Govt. Green lung of Mumbai in danger once again. What will he gain?"

What is the Aarey Colony?

Mumbai’s Aarey Colony is often known as the ‘city’s lungs’, spreading over 13,000 hectares of land in the Goregaon region. It is home to thousands of tribals and Adivasi people, who live in around 27 hamlets. 

The city’s greenland is part of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, home to a range of flora and fauna.

What is the ‘Save Aaarey’ project?

The protest started in 2019 when the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) Trees Authority had granted permission to the Mumbai Metro rail Corporation (MMRC) to cut and transplant nearly 2,700 trees in the Aarey Colony for the construction of a Metro car depot of the Metro 3 line.

The decision had angered environmentalists, and activists, who believed that the felling of trees will largely destroy the biodiversity of the area, exploiting the land under the guise of development. 

Back then, city-based NGO, Vanshakti had filed a petition in the Bombay High Court to declare the entire 1280-hectare of the Aarey Colony as a ‘Reserved Forest’ or a ‘Protected Forest’ as the case could be under the Indian Forest Act 1927.

Following BMC’s order and the Bombay High Court’s ruling, hundreds of people protested stopping the civic body from cutting the trees. Section 144 was imposed and nearly 30 people were arrested, while 55 people were detained at the protest site, late at night for stopping the authorities to perform their duties. 

Protesters had included residents, activists, Congress members, Shiv Sena members and many Bollywood personalities had also raised their voices. 

Legal proceedings of the case

The protest had begun ahead of the Assembly elections in 2019, giving political momentum to the case.

On August 29, the proposal for cutting trees was passed by a vote. Eight votes (four BJP corporators, three experts and one NCP corporator) were in support of felling the trees, while six votes (all from Shiv Sena) were against the move. Two Congress corporators had walked out of the meeting before the voting began. 

Following the petition of the NGO, the civic body, state government and MMRC had argued that HC cannot give a decision on the matter as it was argued by another bench in 2018 and the case is pending before the Supreme Court. 

On October 4, 2019, the Bombay High Court dismissed all the petitions against the felling of the trees, following which protests started in places. 

A division bench of the Bombay HC had ruled on four petitions while refusing to declare Aarey Colony a forest and declined to quash BMC-appointed Tree Authority’s decision to fell over 2600 trees in the area. Taking note of the MMRC’s submission that the authority had already planted 20,900 trees in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, the court had said, “This establishes that about seven times the number of trees to be felled have been replaced by planting of saplings.”

However, in October, of the same year, the Supreme Court had asked officials to stop cutting trees in the forested area in Mumbai city after protesters clashed with police.

A special two-judge bench heard the matter after students wrote to the chief justice, asking the court to intervene and save the trees. The court had also ordered the release of all activists who were arrested or detained on bail.

On November 29, 2019, a day after being sworn in as the Chief Minister, Thackeray had stayed the car-shed construction work and ordered a review of the feasibility of relocating it elsewhere.

His government had decided to move the car shed out of Aarey to Kanjurmarg, an eastern suburb. He said the car shed will be relocated to a plot of government land for which the government will incur no extra cost.

Acting promptly, state Environment, Tourist, and Protocol Minister Aaditya Thackeray had issued a “stop work” notice.

Further, in April 2020, the Supreme Court had directed the NGO to file contempt of court if the orders of the APex court were flouted by the Metro authorities regarding certain ecological violations. In response, the MMRC had sought more time till July 2022 to give their stand on the matter.