Among the first moves of the Eknath Shinde-led government was to reverse the previous Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi government’s decision to shift the Metro car shed project from Aarey Colony to Kanjur Marg. The government also brought back Ashwini Bhide, 52, the IAS officer who helmed the Metro project under the previous Devendra Fadnavis-led BJP government.
Bhide’s return as Managing Director (of the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRCL) is a sign that the government intends to double down on the Metro project, especially the Metro 3 Corridor, a 33.5-km underground stretch from Colaba to Seepz. The government hopes to complete this stretch – high on its infrastructure agenda – by 2024.
The Metro 3 project had turned into a prestige battle between Fadnavis and the Sena’s Aaditya Thackeray, who, even while his party was part of the BJP-led coalition, had been critical of the decision to cut down trees in Aarey Colony, a forested area in central Mumbai, to build a car shed.
As Metro chief during the BJP-Sena government’s tenure, the outspoken Bhide had been the face of the controversial Colaba-Seepz Metro-3 project until she was removed in January 2020, soon after the MVA came to power.
The 1995-batch IAS officer has rarely shied away from the spotlight. As chief of the Metro project, she would often carry out work inspections well past midnight. Considering the high-profile nature of the project, she is also known to have spent long hours on sites to personally monitor work.
The most controversial point of her five-year-stint as Metro chief was when around 2,700 trees were felled for the Metro car shed at Aarey Colony in October 2019. As environmentalists, citizen groups, the Opposition and the Sena, then the BJP’s ally, came down heavily for the alleged stealth with which the trees were felled, Bhide fought back, arguing there had been no violation of rules.
In the midst of the controversy, Bhide even tweeted, “Sometimes to construct something new, destruction becomes inevitable but it also paves the way for new life and new creation.”
Bhide, however, never quite had a convincing explanation for why such a large number of trees had to be felled at night.
In January 2020, weeks into the MVA government headed by Uddhav Thackeray, Bhide faced the axe. She was then shifted as Additional Municipal Commissioner in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, where she handled the eastern suburbs of Mumbai amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Bhide, a post-graduate in English literature from Pune University, started her career in the civil services as Assistant Collector of Kolhapur district in 1997-99. She also worked as CEO of Sindhudurg district in Konkan before being transferred to Nagpur as CEO of the zilla parishad.
It was between 2008 and 2014, during her tenure as Additional Metropolitan Commissioner of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority that Bhide worked on some of the big-ticket infrastructure projects, including the Eastern Freeway, Sahar Elevated Access Road, Mithi River cleaning and Mumbai monorail. These projects involved the challenging task of rehabilitating over 5,000 people.