City group seeks Conservation Reserve tag for Aarey Colony

Published on Aug 18, 2022 12:50 AM IST

Mumbai: A public interest litigation (PIL) by a city-based NGO, expected to be listed before the Bombay High Court soon, has sought to bring all of Aarey Colony under the purview of the Wildlife Protection Act (1972) by declaring it as a Conservation Reserve

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ByPrayag Arora-Desai

Mumbai: A public interest litigation (PIL) by a city-based NGO, expected to be listed before the Bombay High Court soon, has sought to bring all of Aarey Colony under the purview of the Wildlife Protection Act (1972) by declaring it as a Conservation Reserve.

Conservation Reserves are legally protected areas which act as buffer zones or migratory corridors between two ecologically separated wildlife habitats, to avoid fragmentation. They can be declared by the state government under Section 36-A of the Wildlife Protection Act (WPA).

Filed by the Earth Brigade Foundation -- a key petitioner against the killing of tigress T1 (nicknamed Avni) -- in 2019, prior to Aarey protests breaking out, the hearing of the PIL had been delayed for a prolonged period of time. On July 28, however, the Bombay High Court had instructed that the petition be listed on Thursday, August 18.

While the presence of wildlife in Aarey Colony, which include species like leopards (which are given the highest protection under the WPA) has been well documented, the petitioner in this instance has alleged that the state forest and wildlife departments have failed to perform their duties “by not raising objections to the proposed projects in Aarey” over the years, which include the Metro-3 car-shed, the Metro Bhavan building, slum rehabilitation housing and a proposed zoo.

“The question of whether Aarey Colony is a forest or not has been extensively debated, and the matter is still pending in the Supreme Court. But those arguments relate to the Indian Forest Act, 1927, and the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. Whichever way the court’s decision goes, the wildlife of Aarey will still be vulnerable to future developments. Forest land can always be diverted through legal means,” said Sarita Subramanian, co-founder, Earth Brigade Foundation.

Subramaniam added, “The Wildlife Act applies to protected species regardless of whether they are located in forests or otherwise. There are 250 species of fauna which have been documented in Aarey, falling under Schedules 1 to 4 of the WPA. Hence, we have sought special Conservation Reserve status for the entire colony, so that any future developments are taken subject to wildlife clearance, unlike the Metro-3 car-shed, for example. Aarey Colony is contiguous with Sanjay Gandhi National Park, which is also protected under the Wildlife Act, so there is legal precedence for the High Court to recommend such an action to the state government.”

Specifically addressing the controversial Metro-3 car-shed, the Earth Brigade Foundation’s PIL refers to the project’s Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report as an “unscientific exercise” since it mentions that “no wildlife was observed at the (car-shed) site”. This claim has been called into question by a recent forest department survey, using camera traps, which found that the plot is frequented by five leopards, in addition to feral cats, mongooses and monitor lizards.

“It is a matter of simple statistical extrapolation that if the area outside the barricaded metro car-shed is teeming with wildlife, there is no reason for the wildlife within the barricaded area to be any different (with the exception of some of the more sensitive residents, or the larger mammals which may have been driven away, or fled due to disturbance). Unless the habitat has been totally destroyed, or the wildlife has been systematically eliminated, the wildlife within would be similar to that on the outside,” states the petition.

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