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Tuesday, Sep 17, 2019

Battle for Aarey is a battle for Mumbai

This column rarely repeats an issue in successive weeks, but Aarey is too precious to lose even an inch of.

mumbai Updated: Sep 11, 2019 23:52 IST
Smruti Koppikar
Smruti Koppikar
Hindustan Times
People protest against the cutting of 2,700 trees for the Metro car shed at Aarey colony, on September 8.
People protest against the cutting of 2,700 trees for the Metro car shed at Aarey colony, on September 8.(HT FILE)
         

The endgame in the battle for the verdant Aarey Colony has begun. At the heart of this is the proposed site of the Metro 3 car shed spanning nearly 35 hectares including the nearly 2,700 trees to be axed. It’s the bone of contention between environmentalists and citizens on one side against the State and citizens on the other. Its outcome will determine the future of Aarey, and by extension, that of Mumbai. This then is the struggle to save Aarey itself — the sponge of the city, its green lung, its oasis.

In the week that went by, the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL) and the BMC, backed obviously by chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, came out all guns blazing to do two things — counter critics on public platforms, and launch an information campaign directly with citizens to build a consensus for the car shed. It’s a departure from their earlier postures and indicates that they have upped the ante.

At a well-attended town hall this week, MMRCL managing director Ashwini Bhide and municipal commissioner Praveen Pardeshi took on environmentalists and activists like D Stalin and Zoru Bhathena. As the latter outlined concerns, Bhide shot back, “…if that [car shed] does not happen, Metro 3 will not run. It will not be made operational”. She ruled out alternative sites suggested even by the technical committee appointed by the state. Pardeshi argued that the cost of shifting the car shed would be prohibitive — ₹5,750 crore on Kanjurmarg plot — and that the Metro 3 would reduce emissions in the long run. He added that six times the number of trees axed would be planted. Bhide also engaged with some on social media to show that Aarey land had been used earlier for projects and the Metro project would occupy only 2% of the land.

Though the Aarey exhibits features of a forest, it is not tagged as such. The story runs deep but suffice it to say that not terming it a forest — therefore a protected area — has allowed its land to be hived off for use in small parcels. Bhide and Pardeshi, of course, insist that it is not a forest. Be that as it may, the argument of “only 2%” is specious, given that all existing and proposed projects will cumulatively cover nearly 298 hectares or 23% of Aarey’s land, as activists calculate. Bhide may not be concerned beyond the land MMRCL wants but she cannot take offence if Mumbaiites consider Aarey land use in its entirety and protest losing even some of it to the car shed. Also, those who protest Aarey’s use are not against the Metro. It’s simple enough but needs to be stated.

In fact, there is room to take offence at the intransigence that if the car shed is not allowed in Aarey, then the Metro 3 will not run. This amounts to blackmail. It is not the language bureaucrats or politicians should use even with people who disagree with them. Questions about the original plan and alignment of Metro 3, which makes it so dependent on Aarey land, are valid. The Metro line runs from Colaba to SEEPZ. There must be government or private land around these areas that could have been considered. If not, Mumbaiites will ask, why not. The charge against those who want to save Aarey from the car shed and Metro Bhavan is that there exists a private resort and apartment complex within it, besides of course the Film City. Again, it would be a mistake to argue that because a wrong exists another should be allowed, and also to assume that these constructions happened without local and environmentalists’ protests.

The resort-apartment block was blessed by the then Sena chief, Bal Thackeray, against public protests. It is heartening that his grandson Aaditya has supported environmentalists to save Aarey and demanded that not only the car shed but even Bhide be shunted out. If his concern for Mumbai’s environment runs this high, what explains his party’s stubborn push for the coastal road which will impact the city’s marine and coastal zones? There’s more politics in there than the young Thackeray will let on.

The battle continues on the streets and in the HC. It is at a decisive point. This column rarely repeats an issue in successive weeks, but Aarey is too precious to lose even an inch of.

First Published: Sep 11, 2019 23:52 IST