Explained | The Aarey conundrum

The Aarey Milk Colony is back in the spotlight, as the fight to preserve this green space in the heart of Mumbai continues

July 10, 2022 01:57 pm | Updated July 12, 2022 01:39 pm IST

The Aarey Milk Colony is one of the few green patches left in Mumbai. 

The Aarey Milk Colony is one of the few green patches left in Mumbai.  | Photo Credit: The Hindu File

The story so far: The climax of an intense political drama in Maharashtra, leading to the collapse of the Uddhav Thackeray-led Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government, saw rebel Shiv Sena leader Eknath Shinde taking oath as the Chief Minister with BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis as his deputy. After this turnaround in State politics, one of the first decisions of the new Cabinet was to reverse the previous government’s 2020 decision to relocate a proposed Mumbai Metro shed project from Aarey Colony, bringing the almost decade-long battle back inthe spotlight.

Stretched over 1,300 hectares of forest land in the northern suburb of Goregaon, Aarey is located near the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP). Termed the metropolis’ green lung, Aarey or Aarey Milk Colony is home to several indigenous species of trees and varied flora and fauna.

Understanding the Aarey controversy: A timeline

The Aarey Milk Colony

The story of Aarey goes back to the time when India gained Independence and Mumbai was emerging as a dream destination for business and for building a life. To support its growing population and economy, the fast-growingcity needed easily accessible agricultural produce. It was this requirement that gave birth to the Aarey Milk Colony.

In 1949, around 1,300 acres were allotted to the State Department of Dairy Development. The vision was to develop a separate area to streamline Mumbai’s unhygienic and unorganised cattle sheds and give impetus to the production and supply of dairy products. The man behind this idea was the then Bombay milk commissioner Dara N Khurody. He won the Ramon Magsaysay Award along with Verghese Kurien in 1963. In 1951, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru formally inaugurated the milk colony by planting a sapling.

Over the years, as the jungle of concrete around the woody area exploded, Aarey emerged as a haven for biodiversity, a home for the Adivasis inhabiting its villages and the ‘last green lungs’ of Mumbai — one of the most polluted cities of the world.  

A photograph of former PM Jawaharlal Nehru planting a sapling in the Aarey forest in 1951.

A photograph of former PM Jawaharlal Nehru planting a sapling in the Aarey forest in 1951. | Photo Credit: Twitter

The Metro project

The ongoing controversy has its origins in 2014. The then Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan proposed a plan to build a facility for washing and maintaining Metro coaches for the 33.5-km underground Colaba-Bandra-SEEPZ Metro project at Aarey Milk Colony.

A patch of 30 hectares — the land use of which was later changed to ‘development zone’ — was handed over for the Mumbai Metro Line-3 project. The project is being executed by the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL) -- a joint venture of the Government of India and the Maharashtra government. Later that year, BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis took over as the Maharashtra CM. He proceeded with his predecessor’s plan.

The proposed car depot will have an administrative building, operation control, inspection and maintenance workshops and stabling lines for parking of trains, according to the MMRCL.

The controversy

Since the project involved felling of trees for car shed construction, the State government’s proposal got a massive push back from environmentalists and citizens, intensifying the ‘Save Aarey’ movement. Local NGO ‘Vanashakti’ approached the High Court with a plea to prevent the felling of trees in Aarey. In response to protests, the State government constituted a technical committee in 2015 to look into the environmental impact of the proposed project.

The committee recommended relocating the car depot project to Kanjurmarg in Mumbai, with a small stabilising unit at Aarey. A few months later, Vanashakti filed a petition with the National Green Tribunal (NGT),claiming that the MMRCL was engaged in illegal construction in Aarey. Meanwhile, residents of the Aarey Milk Colony also moved the Bombay High Court, alleging that their land had been illegally acquired for the car shed.

(Courtesy: The Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation)

(Courtesy: The Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation)

In August 2019, Mumbai civic body’s Tree Authority (TA) approved a proposal to cut 2,185 trees from Aarey for the construction of the car shed. The proposal included transplanting 461 trees. This led to widespread protests. Soon, a series of pleas were filed before the Bombay HC to challenge the decision of the Tree Authority, but all were dismissed. NGO Vanashakti again approached the HC to declare Aarey Colony a forest, but this plea was also dismissed.

Meanwhile, despite protests, the MMRCL began cutting down trees in Aarey on October 4, 2019.

The Bombay HC was approached the following day, but the court refused to issue a stay. Overnight felling of trees and no respite from the judiciary triggered anger and dismay among Aarey residents, activists and other protesters. Hundreds of policemen were deployed and Section 144 was invoked. A clash between protesters and police followed. Around 30 people were arrested for “obstructing and assaulting” police personnel during the felling of trees, leading to an uproar. It was a letter from a law student to the then Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi that was instrumental in stopping the felling of trees.

A bird’s-eye view of the tree-cutting site in Aarey.

A bird’s-eye view of the tree-cutting site in Aarey.

On October 7, the SC took cognisance of the letter and ordered the Maharashtra government not to cut any more trees in Aarey. The State government agreed to comply and told the court that whatever was required for the Metro car shed had been cut; in a statement, the MMRC stated that 2,141 trees had been cut. With this , the project was halted.

Around a month later, the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress coalition came to power. Sena’s Uddhav Thackeray took oath as the Maharashtra CM. In his first decision, the Shiv Sena chief announced the scrapping of the construction of the Metro car shed at Aarey. He said the car shed project would be moved to the 102-acre Kanjurmarg plot. The Metro car shed project was a major point of contention between the BJP and Shiv Sena when their alliance was in power.

In 2020, the CM declared 800 acres of Aarey Colony as reserved forest. “Aarey Saved!” Maharashtra minister Aditya Thackeray wrote on Twitter.

Present status of the car shed project

The Colaba-Bandra-SEEPZ corridor, with 27 underground stations, will be Mumbai’s first underground Metro once ready. Work on all stations is underway, except Aarey. Work on the Metro-3 car shed, meanwhile, remains embroiled in a legal battle. The proposed car shed site in Kanjurmarg was part of the land, the ownership of which has been claimed by the Maharashtra government, the Centre, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and other government and private entities.

The situation, however, changed with the change in guard at the top. CM Eknath Shinde and Deputy CM Devendra Fadnavis, in their first Cabinet meeting on July 1, directed the Advocate General of Maharashtra to submit an application before the Bombay HC, stating that the Metro car shed will be moved back to Aarey from Kanjurmarg.

Who is saying what?

Following the recent political upheaval in the State, the Aarey issue has resurfaced and so have the protests. Earlier this week, activists and political parties like the Shiv Sena and the AAP staged a protest at the Aarey Colony to oppose the Eknath Shinde-led Government’s decision.

Saving Aarey

Over the years, Aarey Milk Colony has become a crucial part of the Mumbai ecosystem. There are about 4.5 lakh trees in Aarey, according to the BMC. In a 2013 poster, researchers Zeeshan Mirza and Shardul Bajikar highlight that there are 86 butterfly species, 90 spider species, 46 reptile species, 126 bird species and more than 400 different types of plants. The forest is also home to a small population of leopards. The colony hosts over 10,000 people in 27 tribal villages, also called padas.

The Tree Authority’s decision has drawn ire. File photo

The Tree Authority’s decision has drawn ire. File photo

The researchers highlight how the “veritable green lung” acts as a buffer for the national park, and forms a catchment for the Vihar lake which is a source of drinking water and offers flood and pollution control. . . 

But now, the 3,000 acres of forest have been whittled down to 1,300 acres. Projects such as the Film City and the Byculla zoo have cut into Aarey forest and impacted its inhabitants.

Environmental activists say Aarey is crucial for Mumbai’s future. They argue that the forest not only provides fresh air to the people of the city at a time when pollution levels are dangerous, but its ecosystem protects the diverse habitat which harbourssome endemic species. Also, there is an increasing threat of man-animal conflict if the Aarey cover is reduced. Activists have been calling for peaceful protests, saying that development and urbanisation can’t be at the cost of the environment

Former CM Uddhav Thackeray, a professional wildlife photographer, has made a fervent appeal to the successive Government not to build the car shed in the Aarey Milk Colony. “If you are angry with me, then vent out your anger, but don’t stab Mumbai in the heart,” he said. His son and former Maharashtra environment minister Aaditya Thackeray shared similar sentiments on Twitter.

The development pitch

The car shed is proposed to be set up on 33 hectares — 2 per cent of the 1,278 hectares of Aarey land. The MMRCL has said that beyond this 33-hectare plot, no other part of Aarey will be disturbed, as the site is accessible by road from three sides. The MMRCL lists the benefits: “The corridor will connect important residential, business, educational, health and recreational centres along with major transport hubs including domestic and international airports. The corridor will ultimately cater to 17 lakh commuters daily, once fully commissioned. The corridor will not only reduce CO2 emission to the tune of 10,000 metric tonne per year but will also help Mumbaikars cope with the deteriorating travel conditions on public transport and traffic congestion on roads.” The MMRCL further says that the car depot is “mandatory and essential.”

“A car depot serves Metro trains akin to a “home” for any human being,” it notes.

The new State Government also maintains that the project is important for Mumbai’s development. “Metro service is the right of a Mumbai citizen,” Maharashtra Deputy CM Devendra Fadnavis said and added that 25 per cent of the work on the Metro-3 car shed project is already completed. Mr. Fadnavis also assured that no more trees will be cut for the project while saying that environmentalists have the right to express their opinion, but they should not ignore the facts.

“There are some genuine environmental activists, while some are pseudo ones. Their opposition to the car shed is likely to be sponsored. Hence, they continue to oppose the construction of the car shed for the Metro-3 line,” he said. 

CM Eknath Shinde, meanwhile, has said the ball would be in the court of his deputy. Notably, Shinde had not only supported the move to shift the car shed from Aarey but also attacked the BJP for “playing politics” by blocking the move to Kanjurmarg.

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