SC permits Mumbai Metro To Appeal Before Tree Authority To Fell 84 Trees at Aarey

The apex court said the tree authority can take an independent decision on whether to go ahead and fell the 84 trees. Final plea hearing against the Metro project is scheduled for February 2023.

Save Aarey activists and local Mumbaikars participate protesting against cutting Aarey forest

The Supreme Court has allowed Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL) to seek permission from the Tree Authority to cut 84 trees for the metro car shed in Aarey Forest.

A bench comprising Chief Justice DY Chandrachud and Justice PS Narasimha took note of the submissions of Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Mumbai Metro that felling 84 trees was necessary to construct ramps for the trains at the car shed. The apex court said the tree authority can take an independent decision on whether to go ahead and fell the 84 trees. Final plea hearing against the Metro project is scheduled for February 2023.

The apex court, in 2019, had taken suo motu cognisance of a letter petition addressed to the Chief Justice of India by law student Rishav Ranjan seeking a stay on the felling of trees in the colony. The court order debarred authorities from further felling of trees. While MMRCL claims that since October 2019, no trees were cut in Aarey colony. "The state came to the conclusion that the original decision to allow the metro car depot for Metro Line 3 to be located at Aarey should be restored. It is not possible for the court at the interim stage to stay the decision," the top court said.

Why Aarey protests have intensified 2019 onwards

The Aarey Colony, nicknamed 'lung of Mumbai', measures 1,287 hectares and is adjacent to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. In 2014, the Metro-3 car shed was first proposed at Aarey by the then chief minister Prithviraj Chavan. City-based NGO Vanashakti filed a petition in Bombay High Court for declaration that entire 1,287 hectare area of Aarey Colony as ‘Reserved Forest’ or a ‘Protected Forest’ as the case may be, under the Indian Forest Act of 1927.

In 2019, the then BJP-Shiv Sena government pressed forth the issue to construct a shed at the site for its 33.5 km underground Colaba-Bandra-SEEPZ Metro project. Residents and environmental activists, nonetheless, opposed the cutting of trees for the construction of the metro car shed and also demanded relocation of the bus depot, which is a part of the Metro III project. However, the state, civic administration and MMRCL argued that the HC cannot decide the issue of Aarey being a forest since the matter was decided by another bench last October and an appeal against it is pending before the Supreme Court.

After the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress alliance came to power in 2019, the then CM Thackeray had reversed the decision, shifting the Metro-3 car shed to a site in the Kanjurmarg eastern suburb, but it was embroiled in a legal dispute.

On October 4, the Bombay High Court dismissed all petitions against the proposed cutting down of trees. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) granted the metro authorities permission to cut as many as 2,700 trees to build a car depot for the Metro Line 3. Hours later, hundreds of people gathered to stop authorities from cutting trees during the wee hours at Aarey forest. Mumbai police imposed Section 144 of CrPC (that prohibits public gathering) near the metro construction site.  Since Section 144 imposition, 29 people were sent to judicial custody and 55 others were detained under various IPC sections for five days obstructing government officials from performing their duties.

The Shinde-Fadnavis government and the MMRCL then said that the work on the car shed for Colaba-SEEPZ Metro 3 in Aarey Colony will continue as the Supreme Court has not given any interim stay.

Since July 3, 2022, activists have been gathering at Aarey’s Picnic Point to protest against the Metro-3 car shed, and the in subsequent months a number of them were even detained.

Species at stake

Apart from the tribal settlements and leopards, a host of flora and fauna face the threat of losing their habitat and lives. The urban forest houses five varieties of scorpions, 22 of spiders and 20 types of mammals, including leopard, deer, mongoose, wild boar, langur, macaques, civet cat, rusty spotted cat, bats and squirrels scorpions and spiders. Around 80 species of birds like Asian paradise flycatcher, spotted owlet, peacock, hornbill and night jars are found, and also 85 species of butterflies, including swordtail, common blue bottle and oak leaf. It is also home to several amphibians like bullfrog, toad, tree frog, fungoid frog, and 51 reptile species, including Indian rock python, monitor lizard and skink. The car depot site in particular, is home to at least five leopards, jungle cats, mongooses, and monitor lizards.