The Mumbai Police arrested 29 people and imposed prohibitory orders in and around Aarey Colony Saturday, where protesters camped for 24 hours to prevent the felling of trees for a metro car shed.
The felling began Friday night, hours after the Bombay High Court dismissed four petitions challenging the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation permission to cut 2,646 trees on 33 hectares of land at Aarey for the construction of a Metro Line 3 rake depot.
Police said between 100 and 200 protesters gathered at the Picnic Point in Aarey Colony between 8.30 pm and 11 pm Saturday after news spread that trees were being cut at the site acquired by the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL).
In the melee that followed, several protesters entered the site and allegedly assaulted Aarey police station senior inspector Nutan Pawar and a male constable, according to police. Soon after, police personnel from across the northern suburbs were rushed to the site to round up protesters, some of whom claimed they were assaulted in the process of being detained.
Police said more than a hundred protesters were put in vans and taken to seven different police stations. While most were released late Friday and early Saturday, 29 people detained at Aarey police station were booked for unlawful assembly and using criminal force to deter public servants from carrying out their duties under the Indian Penal Code.
On Saturday afternoon, the arrested protesters — 23 men and six women — were produced before a magistrate in Borivali. The public prosecutor sought police remand of four of the arrested. “We need to investigate their role in the case and verify whether they have links to any other organisations,” the prosecutor told court.
However, the magistrate dismissed the police’s plea and remanded the protesters to judicial custody for 14 days. The offences for which the protesters have been booked carry prisons terms ranging between six months and three years.
Lawyers for the protesters also told court that among those arrested were two law students who have exams in a few days. The magistrate directed the students to file applications and attach their hall tickets and assured them that they would be escorted to the exam centres from jail by the police.
Earlier, the HC refused to stay the ongoing felling of trees. Activists had sought the stay so they could approach the Supreme Court.
While the felling of trees drew criticism from the BJP’s Maharashtra ally, Shiv Sena, Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar Saturday cited the Bombay High Court order to defend the move to fell the trees, saying it was “not a forest” and said development and environment protection need to go together.
Speaking in Lucknow, the Union Minister said, “You can’t call anything a forest. I will give you an example. The Delhi Metro, which is one of the best in the world. when the first metro station was built in Delhi, 20-25 tress needed to be cut for the station.”
“People protested against it the same way. For one tree cut, five saplings were planted. They have all become trees today — after 15-17 years. 271 stations were built in Delhi. In Delhi, the forest cover increased and arrangements were made for public transport for 30 lakh people. This is the policy of protection of environment and development together.”
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The issue took a political turn too just weeks before the assembly polls in Maharashtra, when the Shiv Sena appeared to disagree with the BJP, its alliance partner. Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray said Saturday, “Aarey is the most important issue for me right now. Whatever is happening today, whatever was happening yesterday and whatever will happen in future, I’ll take detailed, in-depth information of what the situation is and will speak firmly and directly on the issue. The upcoming government will be ours and once it comes into power, we will deal with the murderers of Aarey Forest in the best possible way we can.”
The issue has widespread resonance in Mumbai, and the Shiv Sena, Congress and AAP have declared their support for the “save Aarey” campaign.
The Shiv Sena chief’s son Aaditya Thackeray, who is contesting the election from Worli constituency in Mumbai, tweeted: “The use of a large number of police personnel. Hacking trees in the dead of the night, even after winning in court (then why not broad daylight) and detention of peaceful protesters and citizens. Who is authorising this? During Code of Conduct? All these powers handed to MMRC?”
However, the Shiv Sena is also facing criticism for not pulling its weight with the government in the Centre or state to prevent the cutting. The BMC, which gave the go-ahead for the cutting through its Tree Authority, is ruled by the Sena.