Aarey declared a forest since 1969, but documents missing
While the 20.76-sqkm (2,076 hectares) Aarey Colony, categorised as “unclassed forest in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP)”, was transferred to the state’s forest department in 1969, the records of it are missing, with neither the park nor forest officials being aware of it, NGO Vanashakti told the Bombay high court (HC) on Thursday, seeking a halt on development activities in the region. A bench of justices B R Gavai and MS Karnik of the HC has directed the state to respond to the allegations within two weeks.
In its petition, Vanashakti said that based on the 1969 directive of the dairy development board which they obtained through the Right To Information (RTI) Act, the Forest Development Corporation of Maharashtra Limited (FDCM) in Nagpur sent a letter to the regional manager of FDCM in Thane on July 22, 1980, stating that the 2,076.073ha of revenue land transferred from the Aarey Milk Scheme be included in the national park.
“Of the 2076.073 ha, 575 ha shall be extracted for a recreational zone and the rest of the land (1501.073 ha) will continue to remain a major part of the Borivli National Park,” the FDCM letter read.
Vanashakti said the forest department concealed the information for construction purposes. It alleged that in the absence of demarcation records, indiscriminate felling of trees was going on in the periphery of SGNP for commercial and residential projects.
“If the missing land is not protected and preserved, the flora, fauna (including endemic species) and natural habitat of several endangered animals, birds, insects and other living organisms will be under immediate jeopardy,” the petition read.
“It is pertinent to note that for several years, the missing land was a part of SGNP, but in the recent land records, 1501 hectares is no longer accounted for.”
The status of Aarey has been mired in controversy, since the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRC) announced the construction of a car shed for the Metro-3 line (Colaba-Bandra-Seepz) there.Vanashakti had in 2015 filed a petition with the National Green Tribunal (NGT) asking Aarey be declared a forest, but last month the tribunal excused itself from the matter, citing lack of jurisdiction, after which the environment group withdrew the plea. The petition in the HC also compared the disparity in SGNP land area in different documents. “In a period of 10 years (2003 to 2013), an area of 9.76sqkm or 976 hectares was de-reserved as forest. However, under the provisions of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, no such action could have been taken to de-reserve the said forest area, without the permission of the Centre,” the petition said.
“Despite following up with the government for two years to take corrective action against the Aarey-SGNP land scam, no action was initiated. Instead, the government went on destroying various parts of the national park under different pretexts. It is shocking that more than 2,000 hectares go missing from government land records, which points to a larger scam that needs to be investigated thoroughly,” said Stalin D, director, Vanashakti.
The forest department told HT that all these issues were discussed when the matter was being heard by the National Green Tribunal (NGT).
“These allegations are baseless and unsubstantial. The matter was heard by NGT and this is another attempt to raise the same issues in the HC,” said Jitendra Ramgaokar, deputy conservator of forest, Thane forest range. “Whatever we submitted to NGT in this context will be resubmitted in HC based on the points raised in this petition. However, we stand by the fact that no land is missing from SGNP.”
“We have clarified this issue with NGT and will do it again if need be at the HC,” said Nathu Rathod, chief executive officer, Aarey Colony.
With inputs K.A.Y Dodhiya