It’s being presented as the classic face-off: development that will upgrade the city’s quality of life versus damage to the environment. And Mumbai, no stranger to it, is in the midst of its latest iteration: a depot for metro rakes that will boost public transport and drastically cut its carbon footprint versus the felling of 2,646 trees in a green lung of the city.
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi participated in the ground-breaking ceremony of three more metro lines in Mumbai last week, the unmentioned simmering background was the stand-off between the state government, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and Mumbai Metro Rail Company Ltd (MMRCL) on one side, and on the other, sections of Mumbai residents, including environmentalist activists.
The battleground: Aarey Milk Colony in Goregaon East, the site for the metro depot. Established in 1949 under the Bombay Milk Scheme, the central dairy is spread over 1278 hectares of green in the heart of the city.
For officials, the benefits are unambiguous: the area needed, 30 hectares, is barely 2 per cent of the total green belt; the number of trees to be felled is a fraction of the 4.8 lakh trees; the tree cover is in just 17% of this land. And the green benefits of the Metro itself — seven days of Metro operation will cut an amount of CO2 equivalent to that absorbed by 2700 trees in a single year.
Indeed, last October, the Bombay High Court cleared the land-use conversion allowing the project. It acknowledged that no commercial user would be permitted and that a “monitoring and supervising mechanism” would be in place to ensure that the conditions imposed on MMRCL are met; the National Green Tribunal, too, rejected a plea to name the area a forest.
The battle came to a head in the last week of August, when the Mumbai Tree Authority, a body set up by the BMC in 1976 to regulate the felling of trees in the city, cleared the proposal to fell 2,646 trees — 2185 for cutting, and the remaining for transplanting — for the proposed car shed for the city’s Metro 3 line (Colaba-Bandra-SEEPZ).
Of the 18 members of the authority, eight voted for the proposal, six against, two abstained, two were absent. The day after, two who had voted for the proposal declared they were not aware what the vote was for, and sent in their resignations. The resignations have not been accepted yet.
A four-year-old “Save Aarey” campaign has gathered steam. City-based environmental activist Zoru Bathena challenged the decision in the Bombay High Court. The Shiv Sena, which controls the BMC, has also filed a separate petition. These petitions are due to be heard on September 17.
For the campaigners, Aarey is an extension of Sanjay Gandhi National Park and the depot will turn the “pristine forest which is full of biodiversity and wildlife into a commercial hub.”
They also claim that the depot will flood Mumbai airport and Chakala as it may affect Mithi river’s catchment area. That’s why they want the proposed car shed shifted to a site 7.5 km away to the eastern side of the city, in Kanjur Marg near the Jogeshwari-Vikhroli Link Road. They claim there the car shed will do the least environment damage.
That’s impractical, said officials.
For one, the Aarey plot is at the optimum distance to ensure operations according to schedule and that minimum time is taken to introduce or withdraw trains on the 33.5-km Metro 3 line. It is bound on three sides by roads – the Jogeshwari-Vikhroli Link Road, Marol-Maroshi road and Goregaon-Mulund link road which makes it easily accessible, and insulates the rest of Aarey from it.
According to MMRCL, the Aarey land is easily available and not assigned or allotted to anyone. It is with state’s Dairy Development Department. Therefore it will place zero additional cost on citizens as no compensation has to be paid by the state government.
Ashwani Bhide, MMRCL managing director, explained that Kanjur Marg is no longer an option for the car shed. “The land is under litigation and there is a stay from Bombay High court, since 1997. Another problem is Kanjur Marg is nearly 10 km away from the ending of the Metro Line 3.”
She added: “Despite this, we still tried our best to take over the land. We had filed an affidavit in Bombay High court citing the importance of the project and pleaded to revoke the stay only for 41 ha of (the Kanjur Marg) land. The High Court asked us to pay the value of the land as per the ready-reckoner rate, which is nearly Rs 2600 crore. That amount of money was not available, and also the construction of 10 km lines would add to the cost. From 2015 to next 18 months, the matter did not clear up, so we moved to our modified plan of having the carshed in Aarey.”
MMRCL also says for every tree cut in Aarey, it will plant six trees to compensate. It has a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with SGNP for planting 23,846 trees. MMRCL says it will also take care of transplanted trees for five years to make sure that they survive. Municipal Commissioner Praveen Pardeshi, a Director of MMRCL, said Metro 3, which will be used daily by 17 lakh commuters, would help reduce CO2 emissions.
“A report prepared by United Nations Framework for Climate Change (UNFCC) has found that about 2.61 metric tonnes of CO2 will be reduced once Metro 3 operation starts. Moreover, seven days of Metro operation will cut an amount of CO2 equivalent to that absorbed by 2,700 trees in a single year. Also, one day delay on Metro 3 will costs Rs 4.2 crore to public exchequer,” Pardeshi told The Indian Express.
“Aarey is spread over 1200 hectares and the metro car shed requires 33 hectares. This means only 2% of the land will be used for Metro car shed. Also, trees affected due to car shed project are of 60% non-native and exotic species and they will be compensated by young ones and native species when transplantation will take place,” said Pardeshi.
Officials believe that, in principle, the government’s first choice should be land that is available without any additional cost. “It is not right to choose private land over available government land and spend taxpayers money,” said Pardeshi.
But green activist Bathena is sceptical. “MMRCL claims they will transplant trees but their previous record clearly shows that they are not serious. Most of the trees transplanted by them are dying… We are not against the Metro 3 project but development should not be at the cost of environment,” Bathena said.
Aarey is already the site of a Rs 900-crore Metro Bhawan on a 2.03-hectare plot. This will serve as a control room for all the metro lines in Mumbai. The state government had invited members of the public to send in their objections and suggestions to the plan by September 5.