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Aarey! What’s going on? Trees felled in the dead of the night, why is this forest a thorn in the government's flesh?

05, Oct 2019 | CJP Team

On Friday night trees in Aarey Milk Colony, a region regarded as Mumbai’s “green lungs”, were felled, purportedly with full blessings of the ruling dispensation. This, just hours after the Bombay High Court shockingly disposed of all petitions against the felling of over 2,700 trees to make way for a car shed for the Mumbai Metro project. CJP has been following all developments closely and here we try to explain the Aarey issue and how the Save Aarey movement has been struggling to protect the forest.

Different civil society and environmental action groups, Adivasis and forest dwellers, as well as dedicated individuals have been fighting this uphill battle against an apathetic state administration, hoping that common sense would prevail. But overpowering greed, and perhaps even arrogance, led to trees being cut in Aarey the same day they got the nod from the High Court. Though the fact that the operation took place under the cover of the dark suggests cowardice. Perhaps they thought they could get away with it, but many activists and locals caught them in the act on camera. See for yourself!

Adivasis and other activists numbering close to 200 began gathering even as news of tree cutting equipment being brought to the site spread from about 8 PM. A posse of policemen and BMC officials numbering about 80 were seen forcefully trying to stop the assembly. Protests continued, and twice the police resorted to a violent lathi charge.

CJP supports the struggle of Aarey Adivasis, and stands in solidarity with these defenders who are preserving our forests. This is part of CJP’s efforts to deepen the understanding of the Forest Rights Act and support Adivasis’ struggles across India. Help support our human rights-related coverage on this, and other pressing rights issues, by donating here.

The protesters continued to gather at Birsa Munda Chowk. Until late in the night when CJP was closely monitoring the situation, the grossly unwarranted, hasty and even illegal felling, continued. Unconfirmed reports say that close to 400 trees were felled in just a few hours. The question remains, why this brute hurry?

The Save Aarey movement has been fighting the good fight for forest conservation for 5 years now, despite a variety of intimidation tactics being used against some of their key members. The impact of this movement has been significant given how it drew people from all walks of life to come and defend Aarey. Let us now try to understand the bigger picture; the significance of the Aarey forest, who lives there, ‘development’in the region, the Metro project and most importantly… what transpired between the protests and the October 4 Bombay High Court judgment.

What is Aarey?

The Aarey forest, located in the Northern suburbs of Mumbai, is the only green cover in the region. It is known for its diverse flora and fauna. Apart from lakhs of trees, Aarey is also home to 76 species of birds, 80 species of butterflies, 16 species of mammals, 38 species of reptiles and a variety of big cats such as leopards and panthers. Aarey is also home to around 27 Adivasi settlements called  padas’ that are home to over thousands of indigenous people and forest dwelling communities. They have been living in the area since before the Aarey Dairy farm was set up in 1951. In the past, Adivasis have, despite vociferous protests, lost chunks of the land to projects such as National Security Guard (NSG) training centre, Film City, and housing complexes, among others.

Is Aarey a Forest?

During the hearing of the PIL filed by Vanashakti, to declare Aarey as a forest, before the Bombay High Court, petitioner activists told the Hon’ble High Court that a ‘survey’ to determine the area’s ‘forest status’ was conducted through a view from a hillock in 1997. Since the term “forest has not been defined in the Indian Forest Act (1980) and Forest Conservation Act (1927), one cannot be certain. There are no specific parameters to determine a forest area in Maharashtra despite of a 1997 Supreme Court order directing states to identify forests within their territory. During the hearing, a renowned botanist, Dr. Rajendra Shinde said that out of the list of 80 species of trees in Aarey 30 are indigenous and typical forest species and also added that as every tree has different varieties of organisms on it, every tree is an ecosystem in itself.

Aarey and the Metro III project

Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Ltd (MMRCL) is a joint venture of Government of India and Government of Maharashtra, which is implementing Mumbai’s first fully underground Metro. The proposed car shed at Aarey is a part of the ambitious Rs. 23,316 crore Metro III project. The government wants to build a car shed on 34 hectares of Aarey land for which they want to cut down 2,700 trees!

Adivasis and Forest Dwellers will be the worst affected

Aarey is home to Adivasis, majorly members of the Warli tribe, who have been living in 27 hamlets for generations. These Adivasis live in harmony with nature, and have traditionally been the guardians of biodiversity in this forest area. They are also completely dependent on the forest for their survival. Naturally, they have a staunch opinion against the construction of the Metro shed.

In May 2019, these Adivasi residents of Aarey hit the streets demanding rights to their traditional land, access to facilities and the implementation of Forest Rights Act 2006. Around 500 Adivasis were present at the protest where they expressed their stand using traditional songs, dancing and placards. The protest was organised under the auspices of Adivasi Hakk Savardhan Samiti.

At a recent public hearing of the Tree Authority, they voiced their strong dissent against the government’s proposal to cut trees.

Prakash Bhoir, a key Adivasi rights activist from Aarey, whose consistent initiatives have helped shed light on the condition of Adivasis in this forest, says that the multiple development projects in the area have impacted Adivasis’ farming, their cattle, as well as the wildlife. Bhoir remarks that any time one talks about the supposed development projects, it is the Adivasis who are sacrificed at the altar of this development. He also pokes holes in the government’s afforestation strategy saying, “The way most of these afforestation drives work is illogical and unscientific. How can you plant twenty-five trees at mere spacing of a foot or less. What happens to the trees when they grow up? This proves that the approach is incorrect. Most of the saplings planted during afforestation projects die in this manner.” On the subject of transfer and replantation of existing trees Bhoir says, “They dig out trees from one place and plant them to another. So many trees have died like this.”

The battle to save Aarey

It isn’t everyday that people from all walks of life in a Metropolitan city come together to take a stand against demolition of its green cover. Over the past few months the protests have gained much traction and have been actively and prominently covered by news media as well. There are a lot of stakeholders who stand to being affected due to the felling of about 2,700 trees in Aarey.

In this interview to CJP secretary Teesta Setalvad, Amrita Bhattacharjee, founder of Aarey Conservation Group, which is one of the leading groups in the “Save Aarey” campaign, takes us through the movements five year journey.

How are people protesting?

People from many walks of life, concerned citizens formed a three kilometer long human chain, in September 2019 to protest against the felling of the trees. The human chain became a trend thereafter and people started gathering and forming a chain, every Sunday in the following weeks. The issue also inspired three young rappers to take up the cause and express their anguish and concern in this rap video:

The Mystery of the Tree Authority and its decision

In August 2019, MMRCL put its proposal for cutting down trees for the Metro III car shed before the Tree Authority which comprised of a panel of three experts. As per a news report by Outlook India, the Authority’s decision granted MMRCL permission for felling 2,702 trees of which 2,238 were proposed to be cut and the rest were to be transplanted. However, the manner in which this decision was taken is contentious since one of the experts claimed that due to there being a lot of commotion, hervote was misconstrued.According to a report by The Times of India, she stated “The was a lot of confusion. Some people were demanding more time. When the proposal was passed, I was under the impression that it was to take the decision later. But after some time, I realisedit was for the Metro proposal. We did not have any time to clarify as there was a lot of commotion.” Few other members of the Tree Authority alleged that there are discrepancies in the tree inventory data.

Legal Background of the issue

NGO Vanashakti had approached the National Green Tribunal (NGT) against the felling of trees by MMRCl for Metro III car shed. The NGT, however, asked the petitioner NGO to approach the High Court or the Supreme Court claiming it doesn’t have the jurisdiction to decide whether Aarey was a forest.

NGO Vanashakti had approached the Bombay High Court seeking a declaration that entire 1280 hectare area of Aarey Colony as ‘reserved Forest’ or a ‘Protected Forest’ as the case may be, under the Indian Forest Act, 1927.The decision of this petition would have proved to be extremely significant in the background of another petition with the Bombay High Court contending permission given by the Tree Authority’s to cut about more than 2,600 trees. The petition was, however, dismissed by the Bombay High Court citing that a petition raising the same question was decided in the negative by a Bench of the same Court and appeal is pending before the Supreme Court of India.

The judgment may be read here.

Two other petitions were filed by environmental activist Zoru Bathena as well as by a BMC Corporator one Mr. Yashwant Kamlakar Jadhav against the decision of the Tree Authority permitting cutting down of more than 2,600 trees. The Bombay High Court dismissed both petitions and it stated in its judgment that “the fact that the proposal of the project proponent was scaled down with reference to the number of the trees to be felled is itself proof of the decision making process being fair, transparent and based on reason.” The Court, in its judgment dismissing both petitions, concluded, “the Greens fail even in these two petitions, but not on account of sailing their boats in the wrong channel, but on merits.”

The judgment may be read here.

Is there no other land for the Metro project?

In 2016, the Save Aarey Group had identified land in Kanjurmarg, near Jai Ambe Nagar as an alternative site for the metro car shed and suggested the same to the government for consideration. Thereafter, it became known that this plot is free from litigation and can be used to locate the Metro 3 car shed. The occupier was trying to sell the land or create a third party interest on it. Kindly note that the said land falls under CRZ 1 and the same is shown in the DP maps.

The Hindustan Times, in its edition on January 17 had reported that city suburban collector in a first of its kind decision had taken back 66 acres of government land in Kanjurmarg that had been leased to a private company for industrial development in 1984, following violation of lease agreement. The estimated value of this land is now Rs 3,000 crore.

Before the Bombay High Court, activist and petitioner Zoru Bhathena had raised a contention that the MMRCL and BMC had the alternative of constructing the Metro car shed in Kanjurmarg and the government was in possession of close to 1,668 hectare land and only 242 hectare was under litigation, while Metro car shed required only 41 hectare.

NGO petitioners battling the issue in the courts thereafter urged government to accept this “win win” situation which would not just save trees but also allow the MMRCL to develop the metro rail corridor. Alas, the government refused to yield.

What happened on October 4 and what lies ahead

Before the Bombay High Court were three petitions, two of which were filed against the decision of the Tree Authority and one was concerned with declaration of Aarey as a “forest” in legal terms. With the Bombay High Court dismissing all petitions pertaining to Tree Authority’s decision to allow MMRCL to cut down more than 2,700 trees in Aarey Forest, the future of Aarey remains precarious.

Related:

Aarey: Mumbai’s struggle to save its lungs

Inside Aarey: Where the Adivasis are fighting another battle

How Adivasis in Aarey are at risk of losing their land and livelihood

Meet this Lover of the Aarey Forest, Prakash Bhoir

In Pictures: A Walk Through Aarey

The Mystery of the Aarey Fire and the Need for a Citizens’ Inquiry

Banjar Zameen: A Prayer to Save Aarey

Aarey Adivasi’s Roar at Public Hearing

 

 

 

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