Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray on Wednesday announced that a 600-acre land parcel in the Aarey Milk Colony near Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) would be reserved as a forest. The area of the reserved forest excludes the land on which the controversial car shed for the 33.5-km-long underground Colaba-Bandra-Seepz Metro Line 1 corridor is to come up.
Thackeray, who chaired a meeting on Aarey land, said that the government had decided to invoke Section 4 of the Indian Forest Act in respect of 600 acres in the over 3,000-acre Aarey Milk Colony.
Section 4 of IFA means the government intends to declare the land as reserve forest by appointing a forest settlement officer (FSO). The officer will inquire into and determine the existence, nature and extent of any rights of any person on the said land after seeking suggestions and objections from residents. Suggestions and objections also have to be invited from people, giving 45 days’ time for such responses after initiating the process.
“After hearing the suggestions and objections, the area to be excluded from the forest will be decided. But, the rights of the tribal community and other concerned will be protected while declaring it as forest,” said Thackeray.
Officials from the state government said that the proposed Aarey land to be reserved as forest does not include the proposed car shed and adjoining Metro projects. “The proposed Aarey land to be reserved as a forest is an open land without any construction on it,” said an official, adding that once declared as reserved forest, the land becomes unavailable for development.
Spread over 3,000 acres, which were once on the edge of the city, Aarey Milk Colony is now a part of the sprawling western suburb known as Goregaon. Established in 1949, Aarey has 27 tribal padas, or hamlets, with an adivasi population of over 10,000. It is also home to more than 290 wild species of flora and fauna. The sprawling green area has over the last 70 years been steadily eaten away at its edges.
Aarey has been the eye of a storm since October last year, after the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL) cleared the Metro car shed site and felling of over 2,000 trees leading to a public uproar over the need for preserving the last green bastion of the city.
Environment Minister Aaditya Thackeray had voiced his opposition to the tree cutting and proposed car shed. Ahead of assembly polls last year he had made a statement during his election campaign on the need to designate the area as a forest.
After coming to power, Uddhav Thackeray ordered stay on work on Metro car depot construction and then appointed a panel to study the feasibility of the alternate sites for the car depot of Metro-3. Last week, Thackeray had held a meeting on the issue of car depot and asked the officials to look for an alternate site.
“Approximately 600 acres of open land being declared as forest while all rights of Adivasi communities will stand protected. Rehabilitation of slums within the area would be expedited. This would be phase 1 for which the Forest Dept will move a proposal,” Aaditya Thackeray tweeted after the decision.
Environmentalists and green activists working in Aarey Colony have welcomed the state government’s move to reserve 600 acres of land bordering Sanjay Gandhi National park as ‘Reserved Forest’. Stalin D, director, Vanashakti, said, “Finally the state government is saying that 600 acres of forest exists in Aarey, unlike the government before this. It is a step in the right direction. The government has also recognised the rights of Adivasi and tribals in the area.”
“I would like to welcome this declaration as the first step towards conservation of Aarey forest. We know that the entire Aarey is around 1280 hectares. This area has dense tree cover, Mithi River and main tributaries of Oshiwara River are flowing through Aarey. Entire Aarey is the catchment area for both Mithi and Oshiwara River and hence this entire area is needed to be protected,” said Aarey Conservation Group (ACG) member Amrita Bhattacharjee.