Restraining authorities from felling more trees in Mumbai’s Aarey area for a Metro car shed, the Supreme Court Monday ordered status quo even as the Maharashtra government told the court that trees that had to be cut have already been cut.
In a statement later, the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL) said 2,141 trees have been felled.
A special bench of Justices Arun Mishra and Ashok Bhushan said the court’s Forest Bench will hear the matter in
detail on October 21 to ascertain if the area in question falls in an eco-sensitive zone. It directed that no tree be cut until then.
The bench was constituted during the Dussehra break after the court took suo motu cognizance of a letter-petition addressed to Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi by Rishav Ranjan, a Greater Noida law college student, who sought a stay on the felling of trees in Aarey. He was representing a student delegation.
Last Friday, the Bombay High Court rejected petitions challenging the decision of the municipal authorities to allow the felling of 2,185 trees and transplantation of 460 for a car shed of the MMRCL. Within hours of the High Court order, the cutting of trees began.
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On Monday, the bench ordered status quo after Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the State of Maharashtra and the civic authorities, submitted that there will be no more cutting of trees. He said the court could record his statement that “whatever has to be cut is cut” and “nothing further is to be cut”.
“Shri Tushar Mehta, learned Solicitor General appearing for the State of Maharashtra, has stated that they are not going to cut any further trees till the next date of hearing. In the circumstances, the statement is quite fair,” the bench recorded in its order.
Following the order, the MMRCL, which maintains only two per cent of the Aarey land in question will be used for its project, said “no future tree felling activity at the car shed site” will be undertaken and “other works, including clearing of already felled trees, will continue at the site”.
It said “as on date 2,141 trees have been felled. These will be cleared from the site and subsequent construction activities will be carried out. As of today, MMRCL has already planted 23,846 trees and additionally distributed 25,000 saplings as part of its green initiatives. The work on the project has already been delayed by over 6 months on account of the legal and other impediments. We still expect to meet the deadline”.
Senior advocate Gopal Sankaranarayanan, who had also approached the Supreme Court against the Bombay High Court order, cited a document, Management Plan for Sanjay Gandhi National Park, and said the entire Aarey land had been described in it as “unclassed forest”.
This was contested by the Solicitor General.
Sankaranarayanan said the Supreme Court had in 1996 asked states to come up with guidelines on what constitutes a forest but Maharashtra had not done this so far.
Referring to the document, Justice Mishra said “it appears to be some kind of forest”.
“It appears to be not,” replied Mehta, citing previous court records which said it was not in the eco-sensitive zone.
The bench asked senior advocate Sanjay Hegde and Sankaranarayanan if they had documents which showed the area in contention as forest or as an eco-sensitive zone.
They replied that they did not have enough time to get all documents and will submit all relevant papers in the court on the next date of hearing. Hegde urged the court to order status quo with regard to the clearing too. The bench, however, ordered status quo on cutting of trees.
The bench also asked Mehta whether all those arrested in connection with the protests over the tree-cutting had been released. He replied in the affirmative. The bench said if anyone has not been released so far, “he/she be released immediately on furnishing personal bond”.
Mehta also told the bench that the project proponent (MMRCL) had planted 20,900 trees in various parts as part of its green initiative. But the bench said “planting them is one thing, how they are looked after is another” and asked “what is the condition of these samplings now”.
Mehta said they are all GPS-tagged and the “survival rate is 95 per cent”. Justice Mishra said “we don’t know” and sought details.
With the PIL, the court also tagged a petition filed by advocate Vineet Dhanda against the proposed car shed. Dhanda had filed his plea in the Supreme Court on September 3, but it was posted to a future date pending the decision of the Bombay High Court.