19, Sep 2019 | Sushmita
The battle to preserve the last green cover, popularly known as the “lungs” of Mumbai city has becomes uglier with the targeting of Save Aarey activists on social media. Several suspicious looking handles published residential addresses of activists involved in the struggle on twitter. This was a barely veiled attempt at intimidation.
Aarey protests picked up spontaneously when the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation Tree Authority gave its approval on felling around 2,700 trees in what experts say is a forested area. People from all over the city came together for peaceful protests.
However, the Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has maintained the stand that Aarey isn’t a forest and MMRCL ran full-page ads in as many as 16 newspapers titled ‘The truth you should know’.
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Several petitions were filed by activists challenging the order permitting the tree authority to cut trees.
One petition by activist Zoru Bhathena asserts that the destruction of the critical floodplain will worsen floods in Mumbai. Bhathena says, “Mithi river has thrice overflowed, causing widespread destruction” as he recalls the July 2005 deluge- one of the three incidents. Bhathena’s contention is that despite several steps recommended by the authorities “to prevent flooding, the situation has only deteriorated year after year because the authorities have been negligent in protecting Mithi from further destruction”.
Bhathena earlier filed a petition against the BMC Tree Authority’s nod to the cutting of trees at Aarey for the car shed.
The Maharashtra State water Policy was notified on September 5, 2019 wherein economic activity or construction is prohibited on floodplains. Bhathena’s latest PIL states that despite being aware of the dangers of downstream flooding, BMC in June 6, 2018 allowed Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRC) to “tamper” with a natural stormwater course on the condition that in future, if MMRC fails to control floods in the vicinity, BMC will not be responsible. The PIL added, “This unique permission letter whereby BMC has washed its hands off the issue was attached to the tree removal permission proposal for the plot.” Bhathena has referred to two reports, including a 2018 one by experts appointed by Supreme Court that warn about the perils of downstream flooding if the floodplain of the Mithi is filled up.
Another line of argument asserts the fact also that the state’s claim that Aarey is not a forest is erroneous. In the ongoing hearings in the Bombay High Court, a PIL has also been filed to declare Aarey a forest.
Activists believe that a ‘survey’ to determine the area’s ‘forest status’ was conducted through a view form a hillock in 1997 and was not completed due to insufficient maps and inaccessibility during the monsoon. The same activists have been hounded on social media allegedly aby stooges of a vindictive state:
@MumbaiPolice Please take strict action against the admins of Nation with Namo page. They are trying to do harm to me by making my address public on their FB page and also spreading propaganda pic.twitter.com/HAzFqxjwkP
— Amrita Bhattacharjee (@amrita_02) September 18, 2019
Senior Counsel Gayatri Singh even argued that “no earnest effort was made by Maharashtra government to physically survey the city and identify its forests. Singh is appearing on behalf of the NGO Vanshakti, and she cited a letter by the District Collector (Mumbai Suburban) to the Principal Secretary to the Revenue Department in 1997.
On this, Chief Justice Pradeep Nandrajog commented, “If a country cant survey itself for 20 years then what can I say.” The court further noted that dictionary meanings are being used as a ‘forest’ is not defined udner the Indian Forest Act. 1927 or Forest Conservation Act 1980.
A third contention of the petitoners is also that the area required for Metro shed is 41 hectares and that the state is already in possession of close to 1668 hectares land in Kanjurmarg and only 242 hectares is under litigation. On this too, the CJ asked, “ So the maximum you can lose is 242 hectares, right?”
In the ongoing hearings, renowned Botanist Dr. Rajendra Shinde highlighted that of the list of 80 species of trees in the forest, 30 are ingenious and typical forest species. He also said that it wasn’t just about trees, as every tree with all the organisms on it, is an ecosystem in itself.
Aarey has been a ‘No Development Zone’ till 2018, but the status was reversed by the Maharashtra government. In the same year a petition challenging this decision was filed in the Bombay High Court. The Court held that while Maharashtra government has the right to change the use of public land, it is still bound to meet conditions to ensure the safety of the environment. For example, the government is expected to institute committees to look into the impact on flora and fauna, as well as groundwater, etc.
As the hearing was going on a Bombay HC judge made a passing remark that Aarey is not a forest. This activists claim, the government took this remark completely “out of context” to justify its proposal in the area.
Mass felling of trees in Aarey
An order passed by the principal bench of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in New Delhi had cleared the “decks for the construction of a car depot for Metro III project in Aarey,” The Wire reported. The Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL) expedited the felling of trees in the Aarey region following this order. In September 2018, in a matter of two days, the MMRCL felled more than 200 trees. In fact, it claimed that it had permission to clear 2,700 trees in the region.
Four years after a city based NGO, Vanshakti, approached the NGT protesting against the Metro shed/depot for the 33km line between South and North Mumbai, the petition was disposed off. Reportedly, the NGT had asked the petitioner to approach the High Court or the Supreme Court, saying that it did not have the jurisdiction to decide whether Aarey is a forest.
However, the Bombay High Court (HC) passed an order on October 24, 2018 preventing the Tree Authority (TA) from granting permission for the felling of trees in the city. The Court observed that the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) Commissioner may grant permission in some urgent cases where the trees pose a danger to property or life. However, it said that panels of experts must be constituted as laid down by the law. The petition in the case was filed by Zoru Bathena, an activist who sought to restrain the authority from adjudicating applications seeking permission to cut trees.
This massive tree felling is dangerous, because it interferes with the delicate natural balance between the forests and the atmosphere. Studies show that tropical forests contribute to regulating river flows, regulating both dry seasons and high rainfall events, and hence minimise risks associated with water scarcity and floods. Trees in the process of growing take water from the soil and release it into the atmosphere. They also act as interceptors, catching falling rain that eventually evaporates and results in rain precipitation elsewhere.
About the Metro III project
The Metro III project is going to cost around Rs. 23,316 crore, and the depot is planned to be built on 34 hectares of land. Despite activists’ claims of alternate land being available, the authorities have gone ahead with felling trees. In a petition filed in 2018, Preeti Menon of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) had alleged that this is illegal, “since the purpose of entering Aarey or extending the Metro 3 line up to Aarey is to create a Metro Station and Car Shed inside it.”
Moreover, not only are the Aarey forests the only green cover Mumbai has, but they are also home to Adivasis, mainly Warlis, who have been living in the area for generations, building slums and cowsheds that supply milk to a government-run dairy situated in the middle of forest. D. Stalin of Vanshakti, which is active in the area, had argued that Aarey is actually a forest and therefore cannot be touched.
Each time the tree authorities grant permission to cut trees, the order has to be put up on the BMC’s website in order to invite opposition and suggestions.
Constantly in survival mode
The Aarey forest dwellers have had to wage several struggles simply to assert their existence on the land. One of the earlier protests that firebrand leader Prakash Bhoir remembers is one in 1982. In June 2017, around 1,000 Adivasis gathered in the Aarey Milk Colony to protest against the proposal of a zoo, an extension of Byculla Zoo, and the state government’s plan to demolish the existing tribal houses and transform them into a Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) building.
In June 2017, Prakash Bhoir, the leader of Shramik Adivasi Sangathana, when speaking to The Afternoon Dispatch & Courier, said, “Every now and then, they are coming with infrastructure and recreation projects,” and alleged that the authorities were continuously cutting the forest trees for development projects.
Around 27 Adivasis settlements are spread across Aarey. The Adivasis in 2017 alleged that more than 60 hutments near Navshad Pada lack electricity and water supply.
The civic authorities come down to the settlements without any prior notice. The Adivasis who are the native residents of the area have revealed that they have even been paying taxes at the rate of Rs. 1 per guntha (1/40th of an acre) of land. At the time of the protest against the zoo, they even questioned where they would rehabilitate their cattle, and what would become of their farms.
Per the Adivasis in the region, earlier, a major area of the green cover was already lost to an NSG training centre, Film City, and housing complexes. The Adivasis have been living in the area since before the dairy was set up in 1951.
As of today, there is a need for an urgent intervention by environment also human rights groups in order to protect the rights of Warli Adivasis who stand to be displaced and are at risk of losing their livelihood because of the Metro project.
In December 2018, there was also a mysterious fire in the Aarey forest that CJP had investigated and found the cause of fire as seemingly deliberate.