On Wednesday, the Bombay High Court stayed further implementation of an October 1 order by the Mumbai (Suburbs) Collector that had transferred 102 acres in Kanjurmarg for the 33.5-km underground Colaba-Bandra-Seepz Metro car-shed. The High Court admitted the Centre’s petition that the land was an erstwhile salt pan land belonging to it, and took on record claims on the plot staked by two private parties. The relocation to Kanjurmarg had been announced by Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray.
In October, Thackeray overturned his former ally and predecessor Devendra Fadnavis’s contentious decision of building the project’s car shed at Aarey Milk Colony. Thackeray relocated it to Kanjurmarg, where an integrated two-deck car-shed for the underground Metro and three other Metro line routes was proposed. The Collector allotted the land to the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) at zero cost for the car shed.
Before the court order on Wednesday, MMRDA had already initiated the soil testing work at the site. The MMRDA has argued in court that an integrated car shed for four Metro lines at the site would bring down the cost of Metro projects by Rs 4,656 crore.
State vs Centre
The Collector’s order reignited a four-decade-old dispute between the state government and the Centre over the ownership of erstwhile salt pan lands, where operations for salt manufacture have ceased long ago. In 1981, the state had mutated all such lands in Mumbai in its name, which the Centre has since disputed. According to records, the car shed land is also part of larger parcel, measuring 1668.24 acres, where salt cultivation was being carried out once.
Objecting to the Collector’s order, the Centre, through the Deputy Salt Commissioner (Mumbai), has contended that the allotted land was part of land owned by it, which was leased for 99 years to Arthur Salt Works. The lease expired in 2016.
The state’s counter is that it owns the plot, mutated in its name on January 31, 1965 itself. Of the 1668.24 acres, it has contended, the Salt Department had originally been in possession of barely 11 acres and 6 gunthas, the Indian Railways and the erstwhile Andhra Power Transmission had possessed a part, and 23.5 acres was used for building the Eastern Expressway. It said the state government owned the remaining 1619 acres and that the plot allotted for the car-shed was part of it.
On November 1, 2018, then Revenue Minister Chandrakant Patil, acting in quasi-judicial capacity, had dismissed the Salt Department’s claim on the land, which was cited in the Collector’s order. The Salt Commissioner filed an application in court against the minister’s order just before the land was allotted to the MMRDA.
Two private parties have also approached the court in the matter. One Sumermal Bafna has contended that the plot is a part of a 200-acre parcel he bought in January 1969 from successors of the erstwhile khot of Kanjur village, Mohammad Yusuf, and that a suit regarding his claim was pending in another court.
Mahesh Garodia, another claimant, has argued that he is the lease holder of the Salt Department, and had interests in the entire land parcel.📣 Follow Express Explained on Telegram
Thackeray vs Fadnavis
The order is also a major setback for the Thackeray-led Shiv Sena ahead of the 2022 elections to the Mumbai municipality, which it has controlled for over two decades. The relocation to Kanjurmarg from Aarey, one of Mumbai’s last vestiges of greenery, has been a major bone of contention between the Shiv Sena and the BJP, its former ally. Thackeray had overturned Fadnavis’s decision the very day after taking oath. Before that, when the two parties were together in government, Thackeray’s son Aditya, now Environment Minister, had spearheaded protests against Fadnavis’s decision to allow overnight chopping of 2,500 trees at the Aarey site.
Since the relocation, Fadnavis has repeatedly labelled Thackeray’s move as one taken to merely satisfy “someone’s ego”. He has contended that his government, too, had considered Kanjurmarg but settled for Aarey as the viable alternative due to legal hurdles and cost implications. After the latest court order, Fadnavis said, “At least now they should set their ego aside and resume work at Aarey.”
Options before govt
The stay will be applicable until the next hearing, scheduled in February, 2021. It will lead to further uncertainty over the completion of the Metro line, the first phase of which was originally scheduled for completion by September 2022, and the full phase by March 2023. The Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRCL) has so far completed 85% of tunnelling work and 61% of the civil work for the line. The government has argued that it has already invested Rs 15,994 crore on the Metro project.
On Thursday, Uddhav Thackeray also asked officials to explore whether alternative locations are available for the relocation of the car shed.
Sources said that the government will in all likelihood appeal in the Supreme Court for withdrawal of the High Court stay. But with the MMRCL already running behind schedule, officials agreed that the legal battle is threatening to delay the project and escalate its cost.
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