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Key Takeaways

  • Mumbai’s Aarey forest, in Goregaon, has taken center stage regarding a previously contested development project.
  • Previously, this development project was shut down, owing to environmental reasons.
  • However, the new cabinet in Maharashtra has overturned this decision.
  • The development project involves rowing down over 2700 trees from the Aarey region to build a 33.5 km long underground Colaba-Bandra-SEEPZ Metro project.

Introduction

The State of Maharashtra can't seem to catch a break. After the huge turn-around in state politics, which ended in Eknath Shinde claiming the power of the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly, his first decision of the new cabinet has caused quite a stir. Shinde’s resolution to reverse the previous government’s decisions regarding the Aarey Forest Metro Project has brought the decade-long battle, back into the spotlight. With the government backing this development project and the environmental activists expressing their disapproval of the same, the State has yet again gone into a plight of upheaval.

Aarey Forest

Mumbai's Aarey forest, a 1,800-acre area, is often termed the megalopolis's 'green lung'. Situated in Goregaon, The Aarey Colony forests are spread over 13,000 hectares and are home to over 20 Adivasi villages. It is also inhabited by various animal species.

The foundation of the Aarey Colony was laid in 1951 by former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru with the vision to advance the dairy sector in Mumbai. Dara NusserwanjiKhurody, who is regarded as the father of the dairy industry in Mumbai, was the initial source of the concept. Pandit Nehru planted saplings on this occasion. Following Nehru's footsteps, many inhabitants planted trees nearby and the region quickly transformed into a forest.

Issue

This political storm began in September 2019, when Mumbai’s Civic Body approved a proposal by Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRC) to row down over 2700 trees from the Aarey region. This area would then be substituted to build a 33.5 km underground Colaba-Bandra-SEEPZ Metro project at the Aarey Milk Colony.

The project was initiated by Devendra Fadnavis, former CM of Maharashtra. However, when Shiv Sena’sUddhav Thackrey took over the reins in 2019, this project was scrapped due to resistance from environmental activists. The Uddhav Thackeray-led Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government thus shifted the proposed car shed site to Kanjurmarg from Aarey Colony citing grounds of environmental protection. The government also directed the withdrawal of cases against some of the protesters, who’d been booked during orchestrations against the move. However, this “scrapping” of the project was merely bureaucratic and mostly futile because, by the time the new changes were doled out, metro authorities had already axed 2,135 trees out of the proposed 2,700 trees. According to various environmental activists, the forest not only purifies the polluted Mumbai air but is also a key habitat for multiple species of flora and fauna, including some endemic sorts. The forest has some five lakh trees, and also has a couple of rivers and some lakes flowing through it.

The issue resurfaced recently, after the Eknath Shinde-led alliance government with the BJP came into power. The new regime proposed to shift the Metro-3 car project back to Mumbai's Aarey forest. Environmental activists and functionaries of some political parties, including the Uddhav Thackeray-led Shiv Sena and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), staged a protest at the Aarey Colony, against the government’s undertaking to undo the previous decision.

Fadnavis and Shinde justified their decision by stating that work paused only after 25 percent of construction had been completed. They mentioned that the cost has already escalated by ₹10,000 crores, and any further delay would only add to this increment.

Government’s Developmental Pitch

While the ongoing protests continue taking shape and increasing in intensity, the government hasn’t deterred from its former stance and pitched the project as a solution to the city's congestion problem by advertising it as a "necessity for development".

Fadnavis has now asked Advocate General Ashutosh Kumbhakoni to present the government’s original proposal, in accordance with the 2019 plan, at the Bombay High Court on the state’s decision to relocate the metro car shed to Aarey Colony. Fadnavis sat on the fence when it came to questions regarding overturning the former CM’s decision due to purely ulterior motives. "It wasn’t a matter of destruction of the jungles. The matter was in court. It went to the high court, the Green tribunal, and the Supreme Court, and there was a go-ahead from all. I want to ask how it is that these people have given clearance to some hotels in the area," Devendra Fadnavis asked the media. He diplomatically navigated the waters and expressed that Thackrey’s interests will be acknowledged. He hasn't although, specified how.

Fadnavis has frivolously propounded that the Metro 3A line can't operate without a car shed.

Countering Uddhav Thackeray's proposal to shift all constructions to a 102-acre plot in Kanjumarg which is a disputed property, Fadnavis said “Even if the work starts, it will take four years to complete,". He further clarified that said construction won’t hurt the environment and the Supreme Court had also approved the site for the work which is 25% complete, after taking pre-emptive environmental reports into consideration.

BJP leader Shaina NC, said back in 2019 that myopic views of microscopic minorities shouldn't be allowed to hinder the process of development which would allow greener alternatives to the public and further curb traffic and greenhouse pollution. Fadnavis has since built on her argument and propounded that only 2 percent of the land is being put to use, which would further be compensated by the plantation of 20,000 trees.

The irony is that EkanathShide, the incumbent CM, was then Maharashtra’s Urban Development Minister. Back during the 2019 debacle, he vociferously supported the Uddhav Thackeray government’s decision to shift the project to Kanjumarg. However, soon after seizing power as the CM with the BJP’s help, he overturned the decision and moved the project back to the Aaarey Colony.

Activists’ Opinion

Environmentalists have protested this move, perceiving it as an offensive against biodiversity and forest cover. In 2019, Mumbai-based environment organization Vanshakti appealed to the Bombay High Court to pass an order granting the Aarey Colony the status of a ‘Reserved Forest’ or a ‘Protected Forest’ under the Indian Forest Act, 1927 (which the article will further discuss). In October 2019, the Supreme Court passed an interim order that the status quo be maintained with respect to the cutting of trees in Aarey, as the petitioner had pointed out and proved instances of illegal tree cuttings. However, no response from the local civic bodies was observed, even after the apex court’s stay.

Vanashakti was further constrained to file an application for urgent directions which brought the court's attention to several various incidents of forest fires, illegal tree cuttings, and encroachments in the region. Later, the petitioner also submitted additional documents exhibiting how construction near the Mithi river would potentially block out water supply for the wild animals who depend on the Mithi river.

These findings, especially the felling of trees in the area resulted in widespread protests with hundreds descending onto the streets to oppose the responsible authorities, some even hugging the stress to prevent them from being axed down. Section 144 had to be imposed to curb these protests and around 30 had to be placed under arrest.

Indian Forest Act, 1927

The first Indian Forest Act was enacted in 1865, by The Imperial Forest department (established in 1864). This act attempted to enforce British control over Indian forests. It was however amended twice after, once in 1878 and then finally in 1927.

The contemporary version of this act, i.e. Indian Forest Act, of 1927 aims to regulate the movement of forest produce, and duty leviable forest produces. It also lays down the procedure to be followed for declaring an area as Reserved Forest, Protected Forest, or a Village Forest.

The Degree of protection is as follows:

  • Reserved forests > Protected forests > Village forests

This act also has details of what a forest offense is, what acts are prohibited inside a Reserved Forest, and penalties leviable on violation of the provisions of the Act.

For the intents and purposes of this article, the legal section will solely focus on the aforementioned forests and their details.

  1. Reserved Forests: Reserved forests are the most protected and restricted forests constituted by the State Government on any forest land or wasteland which is the property of the Government. Access to reserved forests is prohibited unless specifically allowed by a Forest Officer in the course of the settlement.
  2. Protected Forests: The State Government is empowered to constitute any land (barring reserved forests) as protected forests over which the Government has proprietary rights and the power to issue guidelines regarding the use of such forests. This power has been used to establish State control over trees, whose timber, fruit, or other non-wood products have revenue-raising potential.
  3. Village forest: Village forests are the ones in which the State Government may assign to ‘any village community the rights of Government to or over any land which has been constituted a reserved forest’.

Conclusion

The area between sustainable forests and livelihoods while also keeping up with novel demands of development is becoming increasingly gray. Because while Forests have a central role to play as the world confronts the challenges of climate change, food shortages, and improved livelihoods for a growing population, the proposed developments too, seek to further these agendas, in a more tangible form. There needs to be a demarcation between perceived development and exploitation. The mismanagement of forest lands and forest resources, under the garb of “development,” has led to a situation where the forest is now in rapid retreat, leaving less margin for error. Socially inclusive and highly aspirational socio-economic development goals can only be attained when there is absolute transparency between parties involved, i.e. the government and the public, represented by the environmentalists. The only way forward in establishing this “line” for long-term security is the consonance of dissent, dialogue, and resolution.


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