‘The MMRC is spreading propaganda against Aarey, and we will fight against it’, was the general mood at a protest outside the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation’s office on Friday, a day after the civic body which is in charge of the multi-crore project published a full-page ad in at least 16 newspapers titled ‘The truth you should know’.
In the ad on 12 September, the MMRC, which reportedly functions under the direct authority of Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, refuted the objections made by environment activists against the proposed car shed of the Metro Line 3 set to be built in the Aarey Milk Colony, an eco-sensitive zone which is also one of Mumbai’s major ‘green lungs’.
Ever since the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC)’s Tree Authority in August gave its approval on felling around 2,700 trees in what experts say is a forested area, the ‘Save Aarey’ movement has picked up pace with people from all over the city coming together for peaceful protests and demonstrations against the proposal. The metro shed project, claim activists, is likely to rob Mumbai of its unique biodiversity, and one of its last frontiers against flooding.
MMRC claims Aarey is not a forest
Laying out ‘myths’ versus ‘facts’, the MMRC’s ad claims that Aarey, spread over 1,278 hectares, is not a forest. The MMRC stated that “the high court and National Green Tribunal have examined and rejected the claim (that Aarey is a forest)” even though a judgment on whether or not Aarey can be notified as a forest is still pending in the Bombay High Court.
The authority also held that Aarey is not a forest because it is owned by the Dairy Development Department of the state government.
Despite protests, on Sunday, Fadnavis reiterated the Maharashtra government's stand that Aarey is not a forest. Fadnavis also stated that the area was "government land".
Referring to thousands of objections that were sent in by citizens when the project was proposed in Aarey, the Maharashtra chief minister said, "Around 13,000 objections came... out of these objections, 10,000 were from one Bengaluru-based website. I can understand the view of (Aditya) Thackeray on this tree felling issue, but he should understand what is going on in the minds of some handful of people who are opposing it."
Prior to 2018, Aaarey was a 'No Development Zone', but this status was reversed by the Maharashtra government. A petition challenging this decision was filed in the Bombay High Court in the same year. During the hearing, the court held that while the Maharashtra government has the right to change the use of public land, it is still bound to meet conditions to ensure the safety of the environment. For example, the government is expected to institute committees to look into the impact on flora and fauna, as well as groundwater, etc.
However, during the hearing, a judge of the Bombay High Court had made a “passing comment” that Aarey is not a forest. Stalin Dayanand, head of Vanashakti NGO, accused the government of taking this statement of the Bombay high court judge "out of context” to justify its proposal in the area.
“The judge only made a passing remark on the question of whether Aarey is a forest, it was not a verdict. If the petition was not about whether it is a forest or not, and was only against making it a development zone, then how can MMRC say that the high court rejected the claim that it is a forest?” Dayanand argued.
Zoru Bhathena, another activist who is part of the Aarey Conservation Group, in an interview said that MMRC’s claim was “absolutely false”.
“The issue of whether it is a forest or not, is pending before the high court, and in 2017, it was pending before the NGT. Then the NGT said that it didn’t have jurisdiction over the issue. But MMRC has said that NGT has rejected it, which is false. This ad tells a different story,” he said.
So is Aarey a forest?
Even though the densely green area that falls under the Goregaon suburb of Mumbai has not officially been declared as a forest, literature documenting the characteristics of the ecosystem in Aarey indicates that the area can undoubtedly qualify as a forest.
A compilation of information as a rebuttal of the administration's claims on the issue by the Aarey Conservation Group states, "A 1963 study conducted by SC Tavakari shows that Aarey has 530 species of flowering plants, including 97 species of trees, 97 of shrubs, 270 of herbs, 46 of climbers, 19 of twinners and one epiphyte. Following this, Dr Rajendra Shinde, now principal of St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, published a study to explore whether Aarey can be determined as a forest purely in terms of its flora. It informs that more than 100 indigenous species of the flora in Aarey are recognised by botanists as ‘forest species’, having survived by self-propagation. Some species found in Aarey also never occur outside of forests. The study thereby concludes that Aarey falls under the botanical definition of forest."
In addition to this, they cite at least seven documents of the Maharashtra government over several decades – including management plans of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) – which refer to Aarey as a forest.
If Aarey is declared a forest, the authority will not be able to use it for a developmental project under the Forest Conservation Act. The case is listed before the Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court on 17 September.
Meanwhile, a technique the MMRC is banking on as a significant step to reduce the environmental impact is transplantation. However, while data on how many trees have been transplanted by the BMC for other projects and how many trees have survived is sketchy, experts warn that the often ineffective process is riddled with loopholes that may cause more damage to the environment.
MMRC, for the car depot project, has claimed that they have already transplanted “fully grown trees” but the Aarey Conservation Group’s report says, “From the 1,483 trees that were transplanted, 824 trees are already dead. That means the transplanted trees only have 44 percent survival rate so far. In January 2018, 42 percent were dead. In November 2018, 53 percent were dead. And now, less than a year later, another 3 percent are already gone.”
MMRC claims car depot will use 30 ha of land, site chosen is not wildlife habitat
The MMRC, in the ad, also claimed that of the 1,278 hectares of the Aarey Milk Colony, “30 hectares or only 2.5 percent of the land is required for the car depot. In the designated 30 hectares, 83 percent is without tree cover”.
However, activists said that the statement regarding 30 hectares is “a lie”. Bhathena said, “This is wrong. They have told the Supreme Court that they are going to use 65 ha.”
Dayanand added that the official tender issued by the MMRC for the felling of the trees says that they are in possession of 62 hectares.
He also slammed the government over the lack of permissions from the concerned authorities before beginning work on the car shed at Aarey.
So is there wildlife in Aarey?
The Aarey Conservation Group report says, “And although the EIA report for the MML-3 project states that there is no wildlife in Mumbai, a leopard was photographed sitting on a hillock right next to the Metro car depot site. A 2015 report by Nikit Surve used camera trappings to study the leopard populations of both SGNP and Aarey.”
The MMRC’s justification for stating that there is no wildlife in the plot chosen for the car depot in Aarey is that it is surrounded by “three major arterial roads that together carry more than one lakh vehicles a day”.
Dayanand countered, “There are roads also passing through tiger reserves in the country, does that mean there is no wildlife in those parts? I would like to ask Ashwini Bhide (chief of MMRC) to spend one night by herself at the site and see for herself if there is wildlife or not.”
MMRC claims Kanjurmarg site not feasible as alternative
One of the main contentions between activists and the MMRC is that the authority didn’t make sufficient and continued efforts to evaluate an alternative site for the car depot, in one of the the city’s eastern suburbs, Kanjurmarg.
In the ad, the MMRC makes three points against the plot in Kanjurmarg: That was never an option at the inception of the project because of technical difficulties; that it is tangled in a title dispute still pending in the high court despite the MMRC “sincere efforts” to get the land released in a “reasonable timeframe”; and lastly, that it is now too late to shift the project to another site as it has “progressed substantially and phase 1 is planned to be commissioned in December 2021.”
The activists, however, accuse the government of “deliberately” not trying hard enough to be able to use the plot.
“Their claim that they evaluated five other sites is a lie, there is no document to suggest that they had gone to the sites. When it comes to the 650 hectares plot in Kanjurmarg, only 270 is under dispute. They’ve been going back and forth about this at the court, but their plan was to continue work at Aarey and then say that they can’t move,” Dayanand said.
Echoing him, Bathena told Mirror Now, “In 2015, the Collector of Mumbai Suburban District made an application to the high court, to be given permission to use the undisputed sections of the Kanjurmarg plot, and that application has not been pursued at all."
“A government which cannot get permission for its own land, which is without any dispute, is a government that deliberately not getting permission.
“This application was filed, but was never moved, even though the Kanjurmarg site is a much larger piece of land and is an open barren land! As the application wasn’t moved, the Kanjurmarg land was not made available to MMRC," he added.
So, is the Kanjurmarg site fit to be used for the Metro car depot?
The Aarey Conservation Group’s report tackles the fact-check on this issue step by step. To begin with, the report quotes the dissent notes of the two environment experts — Dr Rakesh Kumar, Director of NEERI and Dr Shyam Asolekar, Professor at IIT Mumbai — who were appointed to the Technical Committee by the government in 2015 to investigate the impact the project would have on Aarey.
The report says, “The two environmental experts, however, only signed the Technical Committee Report with three attached notes of dissent, in which they have specifically mentioned that Aarey must be saved from ecological destruction at all costs.”
It quoted the experts as saying, "…In fact when MMRC provided further details on the KMS [Kanjurmarg site] in the comparison matrix; we suspect that the KMS nearly appears to be better (ecologically and from the point of view of ease of setting up the Car Depot) than the AS [Aarey Site].”
Reportedly, the experts in the Tree Authority quit soon after the meeting on the project on 29 August, saying that “tricked” into voting in favour of the proposal.
As far as the title dispute over the Kanjurmarg plot is concerned, the Aarey Conservation Group report states, “The state government issued a directive dated 16 October, 2015 that the land at Kanjurmarg be handed over to MMRC for construction of the Metro car depot. In lieu of this, the Collector of Mumbai Suburban District sought to hand the undisputed (definitely not private) area of the site, measuring 41 hectares, over to MMRC through a civil application.
“This application was filed, but was never moved, even though the Kanjurmarg site is a much larger piece of land and is an open barren land! As the application wasn’t moved, the Kanjurmarg land was not made available to MMRC.”
Citizen’s take on MMRC’s Aarey ad
The protest outside the authority’s office in Bandra Kurla Complex on Friday is the latest in a string of weekly peaceful demonstrations by citizens who are against the proposal.
In the past, Bollywood actors like Swara Bhaskar and Shraddha Kapoor, in addition to political leaders like Shiv Sena’s Aditya Thackeray have also taken up the cause.
At Friday’s protest, which saw a turn-out of around 100 people, one of the main topics of discussion was the MMRC’s ad.
“It’s a whole lot of money they’ve put into the ad, but more significantly, it’s a sign that the protests against the project are reaching them. This ad is a sign that the authorities are rattled by citizens’ opposition to the car shed at Aarey,” Vidya Heble, a resident of Borivali said.
She added, “This is the first official ad they’ve published, but their blitz of propaganda will continue behind the scenes.”
Cassendra Mendonza, a resident of Dahisar who has been actively involved in the protests said, “First of all, how dare the government use the tax payer’s money for blatant propaganda. We made a list of the newspapers that carried the ad, and we contacted the ad agencies to attempt to quantify how much this exercise cost them, and we’ve got a figure of Rs 2 crore. That is a lot of the money citizens pay the government, don’t we get a say in how it is used?”
Rita Newsnes, a first-time participant in the protest said, “They are saying they will transplant the trees but do they realise that each tree is an ecology in itself? Each tree is a decades-old ecosystem, supporting various forms of life. Cutting the tree is like uprooting a society and saying ‘go look for your home somewhere else’; where do they go?”
With inputs from Vaishnavi Patil, member of Aarey Conservation Group
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Updated Date: Sep 16, 2019 16:54:21 IST