The state forest department on Wednesday claimed that 1,280 hectare (ha) of Aarey Milk Colony has been utilised for non-forest activities since 1949. The activities continued even after the Union environment ministry declared an eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) around Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) in December last year. The state also said that the location selected for constructing the Metro 3 car-shed falls outside the buffer zone.
In an affidavit submitted to the National Green Tribunal’s (NGT) western bench in Pune on Wednesday, the forest department said that claims made by NGO Vanashakti and Aarey Conservation Group’s — that Aarey Milk Colony is forest land — should be rejected.
Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL) has plans to construct a car-shed for the Metro 3 project (SEEPZ to Colaba) across 33 hectares in Aarey. The NGT has put a stay on any construction at the green lung until final orders are given on Vanshakti’s application. In June last year, Vanashakti and Aarey Conservation Group had filed a petition seeking long-term protection of the Aarey landscape and to maintain it as a no-development zone.
According to the forest department’s affidavit, out of total area of 1,279.74 ha, Aarey Colony is located within 768.6 ha and the remaining 511.17 ha is occupied by government departments. “The area has been used for non-forest activities since 1949 by the dairy development department and cannot be declared as forest land,” read the affidavit. “Of the 1,280ha, ESZ has been declared on 1,114.74ha. However, since non-forest activities have been carried out in the region for a long time, it cannot be declared a forest land because it is not a forest,” it stated.
On December 5, the Centre had passed the final notification on the buffer zone — an area meant to protect the environment — around the SGNP up to 4km from its boundary and proposed the development and construction work at Aarey, which falls under the permitted ESZ. The notification excluded 165 hectares from Aarey, aimed at allowing construction activities in the region.
“The notification excludes the area given to MMRCL and some patches south of Jogeshwari-Vikhroli eight lane road, which is on the fringes of proposed ESZ. Thus, there is no impediment in MMRCL using the said plot of land,” read the affidavit.
The state forest department will be submitting a list of survey numbers identifying Aarey as a non-forest area during the next and final hearing scheduled on April 10.