Petition in HC is another hope to save AareyUpdated: Nov 03, 2019, 23:13 IST
Attempts by citizens’ groups to get the government to shift the Metro-3 rail depot from Aarey Milk Colony have not been successful so far, with the courts allowing the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL) to cut trees at the site.
In the past, this column has pointed out that protests by citizens were focused on the 33-hectare depot for the underground SEEPZ-Colaba Metro at the 3,160-acre (1,281 ha) Aarey Milk Colony. Activists were trying to save 3% of Aarey, which has no protection from construction.
Aarey has already lost a substantial portion of its green cover to construction. A residential colony built by the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Board; a training and residential camp of the State Reserve Police; the government-run Dadasaheb Phalke Chitranagari (Film City), apart from other projects, have been built in Aarey. There are tribal hamlets, with around 10,000 residents; citizens’ groups estimate that illegal slums, that have over 30,000 residents, occupy a 10th of Aarey. Maharashtra’s dairy development board, which administers Aarey, has no data on the number of encroachers. The slums, which are growing in extent, will subsume Aarey eventually.
The protests, which were reported by international news agencies, however, made no mention of the bigger threats – like the slums – to Aarey. As this column had argued earlier, the government has notified 59.46-sqkm area (19.25-sqkm forest land and the rest non-forest) as an eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) around Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP). This includes parts of Aarey. Except for this plan, the area has no legal protection from destruction. The ESZ notification, as environmental groups have pointed out, is no guarantee that the land will be preserved in its natural state.
There is hope that the country’s courts can intervene to save one of the last green spaces in Mumbai. Last week, a citizens’ group filed a petition in the Bombay high court (HC) seeking protection for Aarey Milk Colony as a conservation reserve under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. Conservation reserves act as buffer zones around sanctuaries or as migration corridors between wildlife habitats.
The petition, filed by the Earth Brigade Foundation, seeks a halt on all construction in the area, including the train depot, a zoo, a slum rehabilitation project, and government office complexes. These projects are expected to take away 162 hectares (ha) of Aarey. The petitioners have argued that Aarey needs protection as the area is located on the boundary of SGNP, which hosts over 250 protect wildlife species. The claim has been backed by findings from various studies. Wildlife biologists have estimated that the area has 48 species of reptiles and 12 amphibian species, apart from 77 butterfly species. Large mammals like leopard, deer, boar, mongoose, jungle cats, which are found in SGNP, have been spotted in Aarey.
The petitioners have said that developmental activities in Aarey violate wildlife laws as construction will lead to the destruction of the forest. The court will hear the petition on November 7.
The petitioners have a tough task ahead. Courts have rejected earlier pleas that Aarey is part of a 2,076-ha “unclassed forest” in the SGNP, which was transferred to the forest department in 1969. The courts have been told that 575ha of this land was set aside for a recreational zone while the rest of the land was to remain part of the national park. According to this argument, Aarey consists of 1,500ha of former forest land. But this argument has found no acceptance, with a 2018 court judgement ruling that the area was not a forest.
Aarey Milk Colony may or may not qualify to be a forest, but it needs protection. It is one of the last natural areas in the city outside SGNP, which itself is one of the few natural forests located within the boundaries of the metropolis.