Given its strategic location between the fast-saturating suburbs of Andheri and Borivli, the Aarey forest holds a special relevance to the natural ecosystem of Mumbai and lakhs of citizens who regularly walk, jog or run along its paths. It also holds a particularly relishing prospect for Mumbaiites who determine the contours of this city – real estate developers.
The Aarey Colony may well be the next decade’s Bandra-Kurla Complex, a potential high-value area if it can be opened up for “development”, a convenient euphemism for construction. Given the fast-paced and determined steps the state government has taken in the past few weeks, it appears that the car shed of the Metro 3 project is the pioneering effort towards this end.
In the pipeline is the proposal to construct the Goregaon-Mulund link road across it and the rather horrifying idea of relocating the zoo from Byculla. And let it not be forgotten that the draft Development Plan 2014-34 proposed development on 1,009 of the nearly 1,620 hectares of the Aarey forest, with a theme park and commercial activities such as housing, retailing, educational campuses and a bus corridor, among others.
For decades, the state government-owned dairy was the only activity here, but it did not substantially alter the nature of the forest. The previous governments had allowed a developer to lay a golf course in the lush deciduous forest straddling the national park, which then led to a mini township. Soon, tall towers – both commercial and residential – were allowed around the buffer area of the forest.
The present government seems to want to out-do those mistakes. Some citizens have called this the official land-grab of a forest. Chief minister Devendra Fadnavis intends that only a portion of the Aarey forest will be cleared for the car shed, but what is the guarantee that the existing laws and rules will not be bent to create yet another attractive island of high-value real estate?
Fadnavis and his team of bureaucrats insist that the car shed for the Metro 3 – linking Colaba to SEEPZ in Andheri – will have to be in the Aarey forest, close to the termination point in Andheri. This will require a minimum of 28 hectares (perhaps up to 70 hectares) and will involve uprooting 2,298 trees of which 2,044 could be replanted.
In the past two years since the idea was first mooted, environmentalists and activists opposed to the idea have listed half-a-dozen alternative sites for the car shed. The bureaucrats handling the Metro 3 project in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) and the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRC) have dismissed all the alternatives without satisfactorily answering how they intend to replace the lost forest.
Environmental researchers and amateur naturalists have found a bewilderingly large and rich biodiversity and layers of complex habitats in the forest, including some mentioned in the Wildlife Protection Act. More than 70 species of birds have been enumerated. Bangalore-based researchers Zeeshan Mirza and Rajesh Sanap have listed 34 species of wildflowers, 86 species of butterflies, 13 species of amphibians, 46 species of reptiles, and 16 species of mammals – a complex habitat that cannot be recreated simply by replanting trees.
Also, the Aarey forest skirts the Mithi river and any change in its composition, or stark concretisation, could mean a runoff of rain water into the river that raises the likelihood of increased flooding in nearby areas, including the commercial -residential hub of Andheri.
The Shiv Sena, a key ally in the Fadnavis government, has been opposed to the car shed facility at that location. But it is unclear what Sena leaders and ministers have done or intend to do to halt the facility. In any case, the Sena is not exactly inimical to the real estate and construction lobby that stands to benefit if the Aarey forest is no longer a protected zone.
There is a clear and present danger to the Aarey forest.