The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s (BMC) Tree Authority has given the final clearance for the felling and transplanting of 2,646 trees in Aarey Milk Colony to make way for a car-shed for the underground Metro 3 (Colaba-Bandra-SEEPZ) project. Since earlier this month, the showdown between citizens opposing the decision and the government has peaked. While Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL) has said that Aarey is the only option for constructing a car-shed, environmentalists crusading against building the facility say it is a matter of will. Environmentalist Stalin D of NGO Vanshakti, who is among those leading the ‘Save Aarey’ campaign, discusses the issue with The Indian Express.
Why has protecting trees in Aarey become the bone of contention between citizens and the administration?
Aarey gives the city a recreational space, it reduces the temperature, gives fresh air, soaks pollution and the trees help hold groundwater in Goregaon as well as rest of Mumbai. It also provides an important habitat to wildlife and is home to endemic species, flora and fauna not found anywhere else. It’s also home to two rivers, three lakes and five lakh trees. It’s a jewel in Mumbai, no other city has such biodiversity inside city limits.
How will the Metro car shed affect Aarey? MMRCL says only 2 per cent of Aarey land is going to be used for the project but activists are portraying that whole of Aarey will be destroyed.
It will have direct and indirect effects. The direct effect is, trees will be cut, destroying 62 hectares of forest, and taking away the floodplains of Mithi. Also, it will require 50,000 litres of groundwater everyday for washing (metro rakes). The indirect effect will be long-term. Besides the car-shed, MMRCL is also planning a Metro station in Aarey. Why should a station come up inside Aarey? A 90-acre SRA project is also being planned near the station. The station will destroy Aarey Colony. About 1.5 lakh people are going to stay in the SRA tenements. Moreover, several plots have been taken away for other activities like zoo, Metro Bhavan, RTO testing centre, labour camp. All kinds of activities are coming to Aarey because of the car-shed.
Let the government say we are canceling all the schemes in Aarey and only Metro shed will remain. Will they say that? If you see the final notification of ecological sensitive zone, it allows every kind of activity in Aarey. Only the municipal commissioner has to approve it.
What were the options to shift the car shed from Aarey? MMRCL says Aarey was finalised after extensive studies.
MMRCL claims they have done a thorough study for all alternative sites. The environmental experts on the chief minister’s technical committee say no data was given to them for alternatives sites. There were seven options for alternative sites. The first was Backbay Reclamation. In the old Development Plan, land is reserved for a Metro car-shed at Backbay. MMRCL has not considered it at all. Last week, in a public interaction, MMRCL said as it will require reclamation, it was not keen. Well, the government is already carrying out reclamation on the same plot, on which a 100-acre botanical garden is being planned. Next alternative site was Mahalaxmi, where they said there is enough land but they will need to dig 60 metres away from the spectator stand in the racecourse as it’s heritage. Now the question is, if you can dig 20 metres from CSMT station and BMC building, which is grade 1 heritage, then why not Mahalaxmi?
Another option was Kalina University. There is about 30 hectares, unused since years. Slums are encroaching on that land. There will be a station at Kalina, so they could have easily done it. But MMRCL said that the university will need it in future and students objected to the plan. But when we asked them to show documents, they had nothing. Next was BKC exhibition ground. That was also rejected on grounds of high real estate value. Yet another option was SEEPZ but as there are multiple small plots, they have to be amalgamated. Last option was Kanjur Marg. For Kanjur Marg, in 2015 the government had said in its own affidavit (to court) that the land is owned by them and since Aarey is an eco-sensitive zone, give us Kanjur Marg land and we can merge Metro 3 and Metro 6, which can help us protect the environment. After filing this in 2015 they did not take the matter forward.
MMRCL claims there is selective outrage from citizens and activists on environmental issues. For example, in the last five years, it claims, over 23,000 trees were cut in the city but there were no protests? Why only Aarey?
There is a place called Aram Nagar in Versova. A builder wanted to cut close to 2,000 trees for his project. We went to court in 2015 and got a stay. MMRDA was cutting 3,000 trees for road expansion at Wada. We challenged that. We have always taken up issues whenever it has come to us. The wetlands of Maharashtra are protected because of our petition… MMRCL should do a study on what we have done before making any comment.
Metro 3 will reduce 2.61 lakh metric tonne CO2 after it starts operation. Why has this aspect been ignored by environmentalists?
Trees are not only about carbon sequestration. Is MMRCL saying Metro will reduce the temperature of the city? Will the Metro give fresh oxygen, place to birds for nesting and groundwater? Do Delhi, Kolkata and Bengaluru have less carbon in the air? They all have good Metro networks.
MMRCL has been maintaining that it will plant six times more trees against the trees cut in Aarey. Why can’t citizens come forward and volunteer themselves to plant more trees?
Before investing in high return schemes it makes sense to protect your existing investments. Today your trees are your bank balance. It’s not right to squander away what you have and then invest in new schemes. Transplant is not the solution as Mumbai does not have space. You can’t take trees from Colaba and place them in Borivali and then tell people to put up with high temperatures, your trees are in Borivali, go there. Science has proven that to get benefit of one tree you have to plant 40 saplings of your height. Are they going to do that? MMRDA had compensated for about 1,200 tees cut for monorail. Go and see the status of these transplanted trees in Kandivali sports club. Most of these trees died and nobody waters them. Saplings are not equal to trees and trees are not equal to forest.
For citizens to take part in plantation and safeguard trees the question is how Mumbaikars travel everyday to that place from their respective areas? How will they go and look after these trees? If it is near their houses they might do it.