Aarey: Now a forest, now not a forest
It has been the site of a pitched battle between state and citizens since the former proposed a 30-hectare car shed for Metro III in November 2014.Updated: May 17, 2018 00:19 IST
The verdant Aarey Milk Colony area, among Mumbai’s last few remaining green zones, is safe till at least July 10. Or it should be so. It has been the site of a pitched battle between state and citizens since the former proposed a 30-hectare car shed for Metro III in November 2014. At the heart of this battle lie two contentious questions: One, is Aarey forest land or a natural area or an eco-sensitive zone; and two, if the state hides behind nomenclature, how will it protect Mumbai’s life-saving green zones?
Environmentalists have run sustained campaigns to ensure that Aarey land remains untouched by construction and commercial exploitation. The State has dug in its heels. Last Monday brought a sigh of relief when the National Green Tribunal (NGT), on a petition filed by environmental NGOs including Vanashakti in 2015, restrained the state’s Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL) from reclaiming land, dumping debris, and felling trees till the matter is next heard on July 10.
The MMRCL denied that Aarey was forest land and, therefore, it had the authority to construct there without permissions from designated forest or local authorities. On the ground, environmentalists have spotted excavation work and earth movers on the portion fenced off for Metro III.
So what is the Aarey Milk Colony land? Mumbaiites have colloquially called it Aarey “forest”, it has villages within, its lush environs house a mind-boggling variety of flora and fauna, it has cattle farms, nurseries and picnic spots, and a few inter-connecting roads through its 1,281 hectares. De-reserving a section for the car shed may open it up for commercial purposes, also aggravate flooding during rain.
The government and MMRCL earlier told the Bombay High Court and the NGT that Aarey land is not “a naturally forested area’’ or a “pristine area of land… with dense tree cover”, nor “has it been recognized, notified and/or identified and demarcated” as forest land. Additionally, they told the Tribunal that it “has been used for non-forest activities since 1949”.
Indeed, this large green area was marked out for dairy development activities in 1949 to supply milk to Mumbai and the dairy was inaugurated by the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru two years later. A portion was later turned into Film City. Sections of Aarey land are owned by different state and central agencies.
All this allowed the state government to claim that it was not a forest. But social activists have challenged this too. Mumbai’s Development Plan 1991 had survey numbers collectively measuring 17 acres there as forest land and property cards stated this too, according to the Watchdog Foundation. To add to this imprecise status, the union government made it into an eco-sensitive zone and excluded area for the car shed in December 2016.
What the Aarey battle has shown is that an aggressive state government will push its agenda in the face of alternatives and environmental common sense, it will hide behind nomenclatures and definitions even in contravention of its constitutional responsibility to protect and preserve natural environment. The Metro III may well be the city’s lifesaver travel option in the future. But its car shed need not come at the cost of the city’s green area. Is that hard to understand?