On Sunday, Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray announced that the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress government has decided to move the proposed car-shed for the underground Metro 3 rail out of Aarey. This has long been a contentious issue between environmental activists and the government.
Why has it been contentious?
The tussle has been ongoing since 2014. While the 33.5-km underground Metro 3 is an ambitious project connecting Colaba-Bandra-SEEPZ, the location for the car-shed was identified as Aarey — 1,800-plus acres of green space in suburban Goregaon, which is home to 290 species wild of flora and fauna, and surrounded on many sides by concrete structures.
On October 4 last year, the Bombay High Court dismissed four petitions challenging the decision to cut trees at Aarey. The petitioners had questioned the propriety and legality of the BMC Tree Authority’s permission, and asked for Aarey to be declared a flood plain and a forest. Within hours of the court’s decision, the MMRCL (an SPV executing the underground project) axed 2,135 trees in 24 hours. This led to activists and Aarey locals pouring out on the street, protesting under the ‘Save Aarey’ banner. The then BJP-led government (the Shiv Sena was part of it but opposed to the tree-felling) invoked Section 144 in Aarey, which is home to about 10,000 people living in its 27 tribal hamlets, and deployed about 500 policemen. Twenty-nine protesters were arrested, but released on bail following directions of the Supreme Court.
Activists argue that Aarey is an extension of Sanjay Gandhi National Park, and that the car-shed would pave the way for greater commercial exploitation of the area.
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So, what has the CM announced now?
Thackeray announced on Sunday that the government had decided to move the car-shed out of Aarey to Kanjurmarg, an eastern suburb. He said the car-shed will be relocated to a plot of government land for which the government will incur no extra cost, a claim senior BJP leader Kirit Somaiya has contested.
On September 1, Thackeray had said the government would designate a 600-acre parcel of land in the heart of urban Mumbai as a reserve forest. On Sunday, he said the government had decided to expand the reserve forest in Aarey from 600 acres to 800 acres.
Third, he said the government would withdraw the criminal cases registered against the 29 protesters arrested last October.
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What does this mean for the Shiv Sena politically?
Even as an alliance partner in the erstwhile BJP-led government, the Shiv Sena had opposed the felling of trees in Aarey with Yuva Sena leader Aaditya Thackeray in the lead. Having bitterly parted ways with the BJP after the Assembly polls last November, Thackeray is now making an assertion of prevailing over his former saffron ally. This is being seen as Thackeray further distancing the Shiv Sena from the BJP by allowing the car-shed to be shifted out of Aarey, a move the previous Devendra Fadnavis government had fought in court.
On November 29 last year, a day after being sworn in as the Chief Minister, Thackeray had stayed the car-shed construction work and ordered a review of the feasibility of relocating it elsewhere.
“Biodiversity in Aarey needs to be conserved and protected. Nowhere is there an 800-acre jungle in an urban set up. Mumbai has natural forest cover. We know that jungles are converted to cities, but here, a city is converted to a jungle,” Thackeray said in his online address to the state on Sunday.
He described his son Aaditya Thackeray, now the Environment Minister, as having worked very hard for this and thanked his Cabinet colleagues from NCP and Congress, Ajit Pawar and Balasaheb Thorat respectively, for their role in making this possible.
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