Supreme Court to hear plea against Aarey tree felling today
The Supreme Court set up a special bench on Sunday to hear petitions challenging the felling of trees in Mumbai’s Aarey Milk Colony on a day a court granted bail to 29 people who were part of protests that rocked India’s financial capital over the alleged ecological damage to one of the city’s only green lungs.
A notice put out by the SC registry said that the court had taken suo motu cognisance of a letter, dated October 6 and written by law students, and set up a special bench to hear the matter on Monday at 10am. The notice did not mention either the number or the names of the judges who will be on the bench, but added that the letter was treated as a public interest litigation.
In the letter, law student Rishav Ranjan and other students urged the top court to pay urgent attention to Aarey, where authorities plan to axe around 2,646 trees to make way for a car shed for an upcoming line of the Mumbai Metro. After the Bombay high court refused to stop the Metro construction, the administration began felling trees late on Friday, igniting protests across the city.
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“We believe that no procedure or technicalities can bar us from coming to Supreme Court, your lordship. [But] By the time an appeal is filed in the Supreme Court, we feel the part of Aarey will be cleared with all trees axed leading to irrevocable loss,” the students wrote.
The Aarey Milk colony is a 1,287 hectare area housing roughly 500,000 trees abutting the Sanjay Gandhi National Park and the Mithi river. Home to hundreds of species of birds and animals, Aarey may be irreparably damaged by the felling of trees and construction of a shed where Metro rakes will be washed and repaired, say activists. But the government points out that only a small fraction of the total tree cover will be axed, and saplings many times that number will be replanted elsewhere. The government and civic body have also pointed out the importance of the metro in a city of 18 million that is struggling with pollution, choked roads, and traffic snarls.
Last Friday, the Bombay high court upheld the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation tree authority’s approval for the axing of 2,646 trees and refused to classify Aarey as a forest, which would have introduced restrictions on tree felling. Hours later, the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRC), which is building the Metro-3 car shed, began cutting trees, prompting activists to gather at the site at around 11pm on Friday. They then forced their way past the barricades, clung to the trees, and stopped MMRC workers. Police detained about 50 people and work resumed around 3am on Saturday after the site was cordoned off.
The protesters claimed they were manhandled by the police; the police denied the allegation and said their personnel were injured when the activists clashed with them. At least 29 people were detained and charged under Sections 332 (voluntarily causing hurt to deter a public servant from his duty), 353 (assault or criminal force to deter a public servant from discharge of his duty), and 143 and 149 (unlawful assembly) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The HC refused to stay its decision on Saturday.
On Sunday, a Mumbai sessions court granted bail to all 29 people. “All of them have been granted bail by the holiday sessions court after paying ~7,000. But they will have to visit the police station after every 15 days and will have to cooperate with the investigating officer,” said advocate Sonali Samuel, who represented the protesters.
The controversy continued to draw political responses. Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi chief Prakash Ambedkar was briefly detained on Sunday when he tried to enter Aarey in support of the activists. He alleged that the Maharashtra government was using “muscle power” to silence those raising voices against tree felling.
In a statement, the BJP claimed that cutting trees in Aarey was done with proper permission and was not illegal. “There is no reason that the car depot would increase pollution level due to cutting of trees. While we need to cut 2,200 trees from the car depot, 13,000 additional trees are going to get planted afresh.” the statement added.