Mr CM, take Aarey and you set up Mumbai for more floods
In the downpour that hit Mumbai late Tuesday night and continued well through yesterday, several areas recorded more than 100mm rain in a few hours and got flooded, disrupting life’s rhythms yet again this monsoon. These included the eastern belt of Goregaon, Jogeshwari, Powai, Andheri (East), Chandivli, Vikhroli and Kanjurmarg – all areas abutting Aarey forest.
If there was an immediate empirical way to measure just how much rainwater was absorbed by trees and soil at Aarey, and to that extent, lowered flood levels in these areas, it would provide the strongest argument to not encroach into the verdant land for any purpose, including the Metro car shed.
However, despite mounting pressure from activists, tree experts, environmentalists, environmental engineers, scientists, IIT-Bombay academics, flood-plain researchers, and the oversight of the Bombay high court, chief minister Devendra Fadnavis and the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRCL) managing director Ashwini Bhide are adamant to hive off nearly 35 hectares of Aarey for the Metro 3 car shed. What do they know that the rest of us don’t? What is their agenda in pushing it?
These questions have come up time and again since the southern end of Aarey was earmarked for the car shed almost five years ago. Nearly 2,300 trees and the eco-system they support over 35 hectares, was at stake.
The MMRCL initially argued that Aarey was not a forest; then accepted when a portion of its 1,287 hectares was tagged as an eco-sensitive zone of the adjacent Sanjay Gandhi National Park. The Rail Corporation was dragged to the National Green Tribunal for violating norms in axing trees and dumping debris; then proposed limited commercial development in a part but retracted, and eventually approached the Supreme Court to allow it to cut the trees for the car shed.
When the BMC’s Tree Authority finally issued permission on August 29, to fell more than 2,640 trees (and transplant a few hundred of them) all hell broke loose, as it should. The fight to keep Aarey pristine has entered its last phase. Once again, the HC door has been knocked. Activist and petitioner Zoru Bhathena moved the court, asking that the Tree Authority’s decision be quashed because it was taken “in haste” and was a “brazen breach” of the procedure laid down last month by the HC to cut the trees.
The Tree Authority meeting, which saw a split of eight to six in favour of the proposal, seems to have had its share of slyness, politics and confusion. The BJP voted for, while the Shiv Sena voted against; the National Congress Party member did a U-turn to back it while Congress members abstained, and two of the five experts present that day backed it but later regretted on the grounds that the proposal was in Marathi, passed without discussion and amidst the chaos. The BMC administration with the BJP and NCP, appear to have handed Fadnavis and Bhide what the duo wanted.
This has set Mumbai, certainly the western suburbs, on the path of worsening urban floods, and has opened the door to possible later commercial use of land in Aarey. It now transpires that the Tree Authority was in possession of a 2015 technical committee report which made it clear that tearing down Aarey, in whatever measure, and concretising it, would lead to excess rainwater running off and flooding nearby areas, including the international airport.
In the face of clear environmental impact assessment and growing opposition – former Union minister Jairam Ramesh and icon Lata Mangeshkar tweeted to save Aarey, while actor Shraddha Kapoor was at a recent protest – Fadnavis and Bhide have to offer robust and sound reasons why they insist on tearing down Aarey when it spells future devastation. Indeed, it could open the area for future commercial use. Is the car shed the gateway to that? There are a handful of activities and stray construction there from decades ago, but these do not justify using 35 hectares of Aarey now. It cannot be that difficult to find alternative sites for the car shed if it’s only about the car shed.
Taken as a whole, opening up Aarey alongside constructing the coastal road; encroaching into mangroves and the National Park; releasing salt pan lands for construction, and axing a staggering 12,450 trees just this year, Mumbai seems to be primed for flood disasters in the future.