Aarey saved! We owe a debt to the planet we live on, writes Maharashtra minister Aaditya Thackeray
The decision, to withdraw cases, must be held as a highest example of environmental justice. Not justice for us, Homo sapiens, but for nature at large, writes Maharashtra’s environment minister
Mumbaikars received their news of joy amid the pandemic on Sunday afternoon, as they heard chief minister Uddhav Thackeray speak to them, through his video address to Maharashtra. As everyone expected him to brief them about the state’s fight against Covid-19, the background seemed different. The usual sober tones were replaced by an illustration of wildlife and Mumbai, coexisting, as one.
That was the three-point message he gave the people, and it was about Aarey:
1) All cases filed against satyagrahis of Aarey to be withdrawn with immediate effect.
2) Almost 808 acres of Aarey land to be declared a reserve forest.
3) The car depot of Mumbai Metro-3 to be moved out of Aarey to Kanjurmarg.
All three decisions are historic in their own way and hopefully will set a golden precedent in environment decisions of our country, especially while going through a pandemic, supposedly caused by a zoonotic disease that has threatened humanity like never before.
The first decision, to withdraw the cases, must be held as a highest example of environmental justice. Not justice for us, Homo sapiens, but for nature at large.
A criminal charge on peaceful protestors, mostly students, can’t be justified when they stand up for a cause like protecting a forest from mindless destruction in the middle of the night.
The second decision, to declare almost 808 acres of Aarey as a reserve forest, was long overdue. The reason for the protests in Aarey against the car depot of Metro-3 is simply not just about trees. Everyone realises that on a daily basis, multiple trees are trimmed/transplanted/cut to make way for infrastructure projects in urban sprawls. Aarey is much more than just trees. It is an ecosystem in itself. From leopards to spiders, birds to scorpions, and the rusty spotted cat and geckos, it is home to a lot more flora and fauna than what meets the human eye. We also tend to forget the adivasis, who have made Aarey their home for more than a century and live in co-existence with nature.
According the reserve forest status to prime piece of land in a city like Mumbai is not easy, and calling the decision a bold one is not exaggeration.
However, the decision by chief minister Uddhav Thackeray has redefined “development”, making it a word that is truly prefixed by “sustainable”, making it a global example for decision-makers.
The third and most crucial decision was to move the Metro-3 car depot from Aarey to Kanjurmarg. While declaring the rest of Aarey as forest, it is crucial to note that sensitivities were tinkered with, primarily, owing to the allocation of the car depot in the Aarey forest.
All along, every voice that shouted against the car depot, including mine, was only because of the fact that Aarey car depot plot was much more than just 2,700 trees. This is also the flood plains of the Mithi River, which would flood certain areas when it overflows during the monsoon.
All along, the Metro-6 was coming up without land being given by the government for a car depot in either Kanjurmarg or Pahadi, Goregaon. Typically, had things carried on as they did earlier, it may have been a finished line, but delayed for the lack of a car depot, which was possibly denied, to avoid the shift and merge request for Metro-3 and Metro-6.
The Urban Development Department and the MMRDA made their case to the CM. A couple of points made the merger feasible – same technical (electrical and civil work) specifications.
Once this was seen as possible, a 102-acre plot in Kanjurmarg was handed over to the MMRDA by the district collectorate.
The work on the new depot has begun and it does not add to the financial burden, as it is free of cost and free of encroachments. It was anyway needed for Metro-6 and is now given without any charge. It further adds to the footfall of Metro-3 as it connects the eastern suburbs of Mumbai to central and south Mumbai. More so, the proposed Metro-14, connecting the rest of MMR, ends at Kanjurmarg. This would make Kanjurmarg a nodal hub for three Metro lines and connect a population of around 22 lakhs.
The headway of the metro trains, at peak volume projected much later, remains the same. Neither does it waste the tunnel ramp already made nor does it waste a single penny spent on Metro-3. It only adds further value to its planning and to the city.
Over the past five years, I have met multiple activists fighting for Aarey, from experts of planning and transport to wildlife enthusiasts and researchers, kids and the elderly who stood in the rain forming a human chain to protect the forest. All of them were Mumbaikars, who grew up in the city and those who want a better city for the future. They want the Metro and they want the forest. They want sustainable development.
People from all political parties, social and economic backgrounds had raised their voice.
The Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi’s bold move led by the three decisions of chief minister Uddhav Thackeray are a historic step towards making climate change mitigation and adaptation a part of our daily decision-making process. No other city has probably done this yet, but I hope we will not hold this “no other city” position alone and soon many more will join us.
We must realise that these three decisions weren’t to do with politics or ideology, they are to do with the need for a better planet, cleaner environment and the survival of the human race.
We owe a debt to the planet we live on.
(Aaditya Thackeray is the Maharashtra environment minister)