The new chief minister of Maharashtra, Uddhav Thackeray may have granted interim stay pending review on the development of the Metro car shed inside the Aarey forest for now, but the battle to save Aarey – the 4.8 lakh trees that the forest is made up of — is far from over.
Though work on tree cutting and the Metro car shed inside Aarey was already under a stay ordered by the Supreme Court since the en masse overnight cutting of over 2141 trees on October 5th, the state support for Aarey comes as a huge boost for the Save Aarey Movement, which recently completed five years of fight and struggle by citizens to save the green forest facing threat from all sides.
Though the state claimed before the top court that it had already cut over 2141 trees, that is, over 98% of the trees sanctioned to make way for the Metro car shed, tree activist Zoru Bhathena, says that barely 500 trees have been cut so far and most of the 3000 trees on the plot thankfully continue to stay put even today.
However, often described as the lungs of Mumbai, the 3162-hectare Aarey forest is way beyond and much more than just the 33-hectare plot identified for the Metro car shed and the Metro Bhavan. Activists have, for long, been saying that the car shed was only the tip of the iceberg. This allotment marked just the beginning of a broader, more hideous plan to commercially develop (read concretize) the entire forest stretch for projects that enjoyed the strong backing of the earlier Devendra Fadnavis-led government, which incidentally was comprised of both the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiv Sena.
A real-estate game
Real estate commands a high price in Mumbai propelled by rapid urbanization and paucity of land pockets. The market rate in the suburb of Goregaon, where Aarey is located, is Rs 17,272 per sq m according to realty portal magicbricks.com. As tall skyscrapers inch closer to the Aarey, a long list of new individual projects continues to threaten to gulp up Aarey even today.
Ironically, it’s not as much the private commercial builders as the various departments of the state that appear to be at the forefront to grab a patch of Aarey for themselves, which threatens the very existence of Aarey.
The Fadnavis government had claimed that Aarey was never a forest since the 3162 acres had been handed over for dairy development to the Aarey Milk Colony by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1949. This was subsequently handed over piecemeal to various government and private bodies such as the Special Reserve Police Force (108 acres), commando unit Force One (98.6 acres), Konkan Agriculture University (145 acres) etc, along with allotments for cemeteries of various communities.
One of the entrants in the fray, the Film City is now eyeing a tourist hub that threatens to build further on 280 acres, within the 521 acres** that it currently occupies. Apart from developing studios, it plans a museum, food courts, dormitories and even five- and three-star residential hotel facilities.
| AAREY LAND ALLOTMENT FOR VARIOUS BODIES
Apart from these, land has also been granted for various purposes like petrol pumps, electric sub-stations, service roads, etc.
[As shared by Aarey authorities with the author in 2018]
Local legislator and Shiv Sena politician Ravindra Waikar has for long been demanding a slum rehabilitation project in this green land, to accommodate the tribals residing not just in the 27 padas or clusters around it, but also for those staying illegally inside the Sanjay Gandhi National Park.
Many projects in the fray
Bhathena also clarifies that even declaration of Aarey as forest land may just dissuade development and not entirely stall development in the green zone. For example, the project for the upcoming zoo that is expected to take up about 260 acres of land and is to be developed by the Shiv Sena-controlled Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, could be allowed by a simple change in terminology. While a zoo with cages may not be allowed within a forest, a wildlife conservation center, where animals are set free within a large sector, could definitely be a possibility.
“It’s a misconception, it’s not a zoo but a wildlife conservation center, the kind of Lion and Tiger Safari, that is already functional within the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP),” says Bhathena. Incidentally, the Lion and Tiger Safari at the SGNP were also supposed to be the pet projects developed by Uddhav Thackeray, when the Sena was earlier in power in 1998. The Maharashtra government on October 5th had sanctioned Rs 60 lakh to build a conservation wall around this upcoming international zoo.
In 2013, the current BMC commissioner and then forest secretary Praveen Pardeshi, had announced development of a zoo and safari park in addition to other tourism-related amenities like hotels, shops etc. to be developed then by the Forest Development Corporation of Maharashtra.
New hope for citizens
Buoyed by the supportive stance taken by the new CM of the state, activists are now reminding the Shiv Sena about its 2019 election manifesto promise to declare the entire Aarey patch as a forest. Tagging of Aarey as a forest may not necessarily stop the flush of projects planned in there, but it could definitely rein them in.
Aarey is a floodplain, an eco-sensitive zone and even a forest all rolled into one. “While the eco-sensitive zone falls under the purview of the Environment Protection Act, the forest patch falls under the Forest Act and the area under the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) falls under the Wildlife Act. The beauty of Aarey is that it comes under all the three different legislations and under different authorities,” explained Zoru Bhathena, the petitioner in the Aarey case.
For citizen groups, recent developments just provide a new boost to their struggle to save their green patch; however, their tussle remains an ongoing one and one which requires them to be ever-alert to fend off land grabbers, both private and government.
Meanwhile, as a leading tree-activist and a petitioner in the case, Zoru Bhathena shares that the Supreme Court has asked the Maharashtra government to state their plans for development in Aarey in writing. Currently, the state lawyers have maintained that they have no proposal apart from the Metro Car shed, and hence the SC wants them to submit this in writing. “We shall contest their claims based on the information we have subsequently. Our original petition is that entire Aarey needs to be protected and all the projects come within that purview,” said Bhathena.
** Errata: The area for further development of Film City was mistakenly mentioned in the initial draft as being outside the 521 acres.