The Bombay High Court Friday dismissed a petition challenging the decision of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s Tree Authority to allow felling of 2,185 trees, and transplantation of 460, on a 33-hectare land at Aarey for the construction of a Metro Line 3 rake depot.
The bench of Chief Justice Pradeep Nandrajog and Justice Bharati H Dangre also dismissed a petition by NGO Vanashakti, seeking to declare Aarey a forest, and said the petitioner should file an application before the Supreme Court in view of the T N Godavarman case — the 1996 landmark ruling on defining forests and their protection.
Following the High Court order, the felling of trees began late Friday night. The Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Ltd (MMRCL) has said only 2 per cent of Aarey land is going to be used for the project.
Referring to environmentalists as “Davids” who “take on industrial Goliaths”, the bench said: “Their hearts are a temple of devotion to flora and fauna. In the instant case, the Davids row their boat with faith, courage and devotion in the storm of development; but directionless. The Greens fail in the instant petition because they have lost touch with the procedure to be followed as per law.”
Ruling on a PIL by Zoru Bhathena who challenged the decision of the Tree Authority to allow removal of trees, the bench, in a 27-page order, said the opinion of experts members on the team must be valued and should become an essential facet of decision-making. This decision, it said, must contain the reason why the objection is being overruled. A separate petition by Bhathena too was rejected.
The bench dismissed a fourth petition — that of Shiv Sena corporator and Standing Committee chairman Yashwant Jadhav who wanted the Tree Authority decision examined and quashed. Describing his plea as “sheer voyagerism”, the bench imposed a cost of Rs 50,000 on him.
In its order, the bench noted that the issue of the survival rate of transplanted Subabul trees was discussed by the Tree Authority. “…there is no merit in the contention that the one lakh objections received from the public were not placed before the Tree Authority. Surely, one lakh objections, most of which were repetitive, was not expected to be placed before the Tree Authority.”
“There are good reasons for taking the view that the trees would not survive if transplanted and thus it would be futile to spend good money to transplant the trees which ultimately would by and large die and therefore it made good sense with good reason to fell the trees.”
The bench rejected Bhathena’s argument that the Tree Authority did not get adequate time to deliberate on the proposal. “The deliberations of the Tree Authority have to be considered in light of the site visits held on 4th July 2019, 10th August 2019 and 20th August 2019,” it said.
“The fact that the proposal of the project proponent (MMRC) was scaled down with reference to the number of the trees to be felled is itself proof of the decision-making process being fair, transparent and based on reason,” the bench said.
On “issues of environmental concerns, it has to be noted that the project proponent has already planted 20,900 trees with GPS tagging on each plant in Sanjay Gandhi National Park and the survival rate is 95%, proved by the letter dated 27th September 2019, addressed by the Chief Conservator Forest and Director Sanjay Gandhi National Park to the Chief Project Manager of MMRCL,” it said.