Reversing the decision of the previous BJP-led government, Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray on Sunday announced the scrapping of the construction of the Colaba-Bandra-Seepz Metro car shed in Mumbai’s Aarey Milk Colony.
The decision, communicated during an online address, came days after the Maha Vikas Aghadi coalition government withdrew cases against students and activists who had protested the previous regime’s overnight felling of trees at Aarey — one of the last vestiges of green space remaining in Mumbai — a few weeks before the Assembly elections last October.
The Shiv Sena, then a partner in the Devendra Fadnavis-led regime, had backed those who were protesting the felling of the trees, with Thackeray’s son Aaditya, now the state’s Environment Minister, coming out in opposition to the move.
The Aarey car shed had been a bone of contention between the former allies. On November 29 last year, a day after being sworn in as Chief Minister, Thackeray had stopped the work on its construction, and ordered a review of the feasibility of relocating it elsewhere.
The Aarey forest area in Mumbai after 2,134 trees were cut. (Express photo)
On Sunday, Thackeray said the new site would be at Kanjurmarg. “The cost of acquiring this land is zero. We will not let the money already spent on the construction at Aarey go to waste, we will use it for some other purpose,” he said.
In January, a four-member committee appointed by Thackeray to explore the possibility of shifting the car shed elsewhere had recommended that the shed remain in Aarey, citing logistical hurdles, cost escalation, and further delay in the commissioning of the 33.5 km underground Metro route. The committee had recommended that green areas inside the colony should be preserved like a protected forest.
Thackeray has overruled these recommendations based on a recent report by the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) that found technical merit in integrating the underground Metro line with another Metro line – the 14.5-km Jogeshwari-Lokhandwala-Vikhroli-Kanjurmarg line – near Aarey Colony, and relocating the proposed car shed to state-owned land that has recently become available in Kanjurmarg.
“Biodiversity in Aarey needs to be conserved and protected. Nowhere is there an 800-acre jungle in an urban set-up,” Thackeray said in the course of his online address. “Mumbai has natural forest cover. We know that jungles are converted to cities, but here, the city is converted to a jungle. We must preserve what we have and carry out development in the remaining areas,” he said.
Thackeray’s government had earlier declared 600 acres of land in Aarey as a reserve forest; on Sunday, the Chief Minister said this had now been enhanced to 800 acres. There will be no infringement on the rights of tribal people residing in the area, he said.
Fadnavis criticised the decision as “unfortunate”, and taken “just to satisfy ego”. The Thackeray government’s own committee had estimated it would result in a cost escalation of at least Rs 4,000 crore, he said on Twitter.
In a series of tweets, the former CM underlined that not only was the Kanjurmarg site under litigation, it was “marshy land” that “will require at least 2 years to stabilise”.
Also, “all the previous tenders will have to be scrapped and a new process will have to be followed. No DPR or feasibility report has been made for this site.
“This means that the Metro project, which would have been in the service of Mumbaikars just next year, has now been postponed indefinitely. Rs 400 crore was already spent for Aarey CarShed, Rs 1300 crore wasted due to staying of project & additional cost escalation of Rs 4000 crore!”
The BJP described the Chief Minister’s decision as “anti-people”, and an example of his government’s “anti-development” agenda. “The Thackeray government has cheated the people of this state, this will only delay the project,” MLA Ram Kadam said.
BJP leader Kirit Somaiya said: “The move will cost the state Rs 5,000 crore. It will also delay the project by five more years. The Metro cars will have to take an 8 km detour to reach Kanjurmarg, which will raise operational costs.”
Somaiya also said one piece of land in Kanjurmarg was under litigation, and another was not usable. The Fadnavis government had briefly considered the possibility of shifting the project to Kanjurmarg, but had assessed it to be unviable. Thackeray’s government had considered private land at Pahadi Goregaon and a plot in Sariput Nagar in Jogeshwari, but did not find them suitable.
Sunday’s decision is likely to win the Shiv Sena the goodwill of citizens’ groups and environmentalists who have been petitioning the Thackeray family to scrap the project. Using the protest hashtag #SaveAarey, Aaditya tweeted: “Aarey saved”. NCP chief spokesperson and Cabinet Minister Nawab Malik said: “This was the demand of the people, they had protested against the project.” Congress leader Sanjay Nirupam said this had been his promise to citizens, and thanked the government.
Explained | The fight over Mumbai’s Aarey Colony
Activist Zoru Bhatena, who had gone to court against the project, said, “We are thrilled to hear that the government has agreed that there is an easy way to move the depot out of Aarey. Citizens will get the priceless benefit of better Metro connectivity, government will benefit from lifelong cost savings from merging depots, and Mumbaikars will forever benefit from the preservation of the Aarey forest. A win-win for everyone.”
Bhatena added, “The only questions that remains unanswered is why the previous government refused to act for the overall benefit of Mumbai when all these benefits were known way back in 2015 itself.”
In October 2019, the Fadnavis government had scored a victory after the Bombay High Court allowed construction on the land. Almost overnight, the government ordered the clearing of hundreds of trees on the land, leading to strong protests by environmentalists.
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