Hearing a PIL on October 7, a special bench of the Supreme Court had ordered a “status quo” on the cutting of trees in Aarey for construction of a car shed for the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation. The special bench of Justices Arun Mishra and Ashok Bhushan was set up after the court converted a letter sent to the then Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi by some law students into a Public Interest Litigation.
Taking it up for hearing again on October 21, an SC bench of Justices Arun Mishra and Deepak Gupta observed that “we have made it clear that we are not staying the project”.
Appearing for the state of Maharashtra and Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC), Solicitor General Tushar Mehta told the bench on the first day of hearing 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 court recorded in its order. The court on October 7 also decided to examine in detail the question whether the said area was in the eco-sensitive zone and “unclassified forest” and referred this to the special bench of Justices Mishra and Gupta which hears forest and environment- related matters.
Senior advocate Gopal Sankaranarayanan, who had also approached the top court against the Bombay HC order, cited a document —- Management Plan for Sanjay Gandhi National Park —- and said the entire Aarey land had been termed “unclassified forest” in it. Sankaranarayanan said the SC had in 1996 asked states to come up with guidelines on what constitutes a forest but Maharashtra had not done this so far.
One of the petitioners also claimed before the forest bench that there was a plan to use the land for purposes other than construction of the Metro shed.
The Corporation denied this but the bench of Justices Mishra and Gupta asked Mehta to submit a report on the number of trees cut and apprise it whether the colony was being used for any other purpose. “We want to know in black and white,” the bench said.
The court also sought to know the afforestation efforts of the Metro Corporation.
Mehta told the bench that the Corporation had planted 20,900 trees in various parts as part of its green initiative.
The court, however, asked the Corporation to inform it about the status of the planted trees. The Corporation replied that they were in a “healthy position”, but the bench directed that photos of the trees as well as measurements of their girth and height be submitted.
The felling of trees at the Aarey forests began amid protests on October 4 night after the Bombay High Court earlier that day dismissed a petition challenging the Corporation’s decision to allow felling of 2,185 trees and transplantation of 460 trees for the project. The issue had also taken a political turn, with then BJP ally Shiv Sena opposing the Metro move. The Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Ltd (MMRCL) had said that only 2 per cent of Aarey land would be used.