In the corridors of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change in Delhi, a decision was quietly reached at last week that will greatly impact Mumbai’s environmental future. The ministry “excluded 1.65 square kilometre from the eco-sensitive zone” of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park and paved the way for the construction of the train depot of the ambitious Metro III project in the Aarey forest.
The 165 hectares of Aarey forest, which was eco-sensitive till last week was deemed non-eco-sensitive by re-drawing a few lines. In the pitched and layered battle between the Maharashtra government and environmental groups in the last two years, the former won. It is not a surprise that the union ministry backed the Devendra Fadnavis government’s proposal for the train depot, also called the car shed, in the Aarey forest.
What is astonishing is the sheer intransigence of all those in-charge of the Metro III project, which when completed will run 33.5 kilometres from Colaba in south Mumbai to SEEPZ in suburban north, which adjoins the Aarey forest area, to listen to reason about the car shed location. Environmental societies and activists under the banner of Aarey Conservation Group (ACG) not only protested the location but have also suggested seven alternative sites for it in the last two years.
Fadnavis has made the metro network in Mumbai, besides the ill-advised Coastal Road, his flagship project. There are debates around the advisability of the metro grid in Mumbai with transport analysts suggesting low-cost alternatives. But let’s accept, for a moment, that the Metro III is what the city needs. It still does not explain why the car shed cannot be at another location.
For decades, as the green cover across Mumbai was threatened and trounced by cement and concrete, Mumbai’s citizens believed that at least the Aarey forest was legally protected. Previous governments, against sane advice, had allowed some construction in the forest. The Fadnavis government need not – in fact, should not – have allowed more of it. Violations and transgressions in the past cannot be cited as justification for doing more.
And here’s the nub: even assuming that car shed is only feasible in the Aarey forest area, why did it call for such a large clearing of the forest? The car shed was initially ear-marked to cover 30 hectares. This was reduced to 20.8 hectares after protests by environmental groups. But the state government ostensibly proposed some 62 hectares and, before anyone could ask why, the union ministry okayed 165 hectares. So, what’s going on?
The environmentalists’ argument is simple: Nearly 2,300 trees of the deciduous forest will be cut down and only a fraction re-planted, 27 adivasi settlements will be displaced, and a rich, complex bio-diverse web of life will be permanently destroyed. As many as 77 species of birds, 34 species of wildflowers, 86 species of butterflies, 13 species of amphibians, 46 species of reptiles several of these listed under Schedule II of the Wildlife Protection Act, and 16 species of mammals have been documented in the Aarey forest, according to the environmental magazine, Down To Earth. Therefore, please locate the car shed elsewhere, the ACG has tirelessly appealed.
Given how the arguments stack up, it is fitting to ask why the Fadnavis government has been stubborn about locating the car shed in the Aarey forest. Does the government have plans that it is not declaring at this time, what is the hidden agenda, is this car shed the beginning of the end of the Aarey forest? If all it takes is a stroke of the pen to delete 165 hectares from the eco-sensitive zone, what prevents the Fadnavis government and the Union ministry – Constitutionally obliged to protect environment and conserve wildlife – from further invading into the green zone, opening up more of it to the avaricious builders’ lobby which has so fundamentally damaged the urban eco-system of Mumbai?