Aarey Colony is a neighbourhood in Goregaon (East). It was established as Aarey milk colony, in 1949, to revolutionize the processing and marketing of dairy products in the city. It is a ‘forest’ area, which begins in Powai, and goes all the way till Western Express Highway, Goregaon. The establishment of Aarey dairy led to patches of forest-lands being eventually converted to grasslands and marshes. These nascent grasslands and marshes enhanced the variety of wildlife of the forest.
Aarey colony is known for its massive variety of flora and fauna. It has 77 species of birds, 34 species of wildflowers, 86 species of butterflies, 13 species of amphibians, 46 species of reptiles, 16 species of mammals and 90 different types of spiders. Several newly discovered species of scorpions and spiders have been found here. Two of these are even named after Aarey- Heterophrictus aareyeneis (tarantula) and Lychas aareyensis (scorpion). In spite of the vast variety of wildlife, the leopards are the most famous residents of Aarey. Any developmental activity could endanger the different species, especially the ones unique to Aarey.
Aarey is home to not only the aforementioned plants and animals but also to 27 tribal communities. These tribes face a constant pressure of relocating from their homes.
Today, Aarey has a major concern. 2700 trees are being cut, in a 33 hectare area, for the construction of a car shed for Mumbai metro line 3 (Colaba-Bandra-SEEPZ).
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 metro corridor will directly connect South Bombay and Bandra to the domestic and international airports. It will cater to an estimated 17 Lakh commuters daily, once fully commissioned.
A car shed or car depot is a mandatory and essential facility for smooth operation of any Metro system. It’s a place where all Metro trains will rest during non-working hours. It is in the car depot that the trains can be washed, cleaned, repaired and maintained. A Car Depot, according to MMRCL, serves Metro trains akin to a “home” for any human being. The MMRCL ensured conscious attempt to be made to retain the green cover in 5 Ha area within the car depot.
The station near the Car Depot has been included in the Metro plan, which will connect to the Swami Samarth Nagar-Jogeshwari-Kanjurmarg-Vikhroli Metro-6 corridor. This way JVLR and Powai will also get connected to South Bombay.
The facilities that will be available in the Car Depot include-
· 35 stabling lines for parking trains
· Operation Control Centre
· Administrative Building
· Inspection and maintenance workshops
The Tree Authority of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) gave its nod to cut 2700 trees for the Metro car shed in Aarey Colony. The MMRCL says that it’s not damaging the environment because it is going to occupy only 33 hectares (Ha), that is about 2% of Aarey forest land. But isn’t this precisely how entire forests are diverted?
They say “the corridor will not only reduce CO2 emission to the tune of 10,000 Metric ton per year but will also help Mumbaikars cope with the deteriorating travel conditions on public transport and traffic congestion on roads.” Basically, the metro project will reduce congestion on the roads- the same roads that were once made by clearing a forest. Maybe next time they’ll cut more trees to make another road, to reduce the stress on the metro line. It’s a cycle. More trees will be cut for maintenance and repair of the trains and the shed. Cutting trees is like lying. You have to keep lying to maintain one lie. Similarly, you have to keep cutting trees to maintain products that have been made by cutting trees.
There is reasonable evidence to show that the car shed project will open up the developmental possibilities in the forestland. Land space is gold in Mumbai. Builders are ready to pounce at every possible opportunity of developing the vast open grasslands of Aarey. The MMRCL has promised to compensate by planting three times as many trees elsewhere in the city. They are cutting a forest, and promising a few new gardens- it is not the same. The governing bodies say that no other developmental activities will take place in this area. But that is exactly what is said before destroying every other forest.
As seen in development plan 2034 (DP2034), the State changed land use rules, so that the MMRCL can legally use 33 hectares in the previously “no development zone” of Aarey.
Petitions were raised in the High Court against the felling of trees in Aarey. After being rejected, the petitioners took the case to the Supreme Court. In April 2019, the Supreme Court bench, headed by the Chief Justice of India, asked the MMRCL why were sites other than the Aarey Colony not chosen for the Metro-3 car shed. The MMRCL said that they had checked the feasibility of alternate sites and rejected them based on the reports of a technical committee. On hearing this, the Supreme Court immediately dismissed the petition.
The petitioners pointed out that Mumbai’s DP2034 had opened up sites such as Bandra reclamation, Backbay reclamation, Colaba, Bandra Kurla Complex and Kanjurmarg. In spite of that the MMRCL chose the green lungs of Mumbai.
MMRCL’s technical committee had found out that constructing the shed in Kanjurmarg could also be feasible. It had recommended with a “majority opinion” that the car depot should be at Kanjurmarg with a small stabling unit at Aarey. The depot could be built at Aarey only if the land in Kanjurmarg was not made available. And guess what? The MMRCL stuck with Aarey on the pretext of “non-availability of land” in Kanjurmarg. It seems tougher for governing bodies to get land in Mumbai than to get permission to cut thousands of trees. The technical committee had also said that only 20 Ha of land in Aarey should be used for the car shed. The MMRCL is now using 33 Ha.
Forest- for real?
The State is defending the use of Aarey colony for the car shed project. It says that it is nowhere given that Aarey is a forest, even though you’ll find forest department officials all over Aarey colony. The Forest department, in an affidavit to the National Green Tribunal (NGT), specifically said that there is no forest in Aarey milk colony.
NGO Vanashakti told the Bombay High Court that the 2076 hectares of Aarey Colony, categorised as “unclassed forest in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park”, was transferred to the state’s forest department by the revenue department, in 1969. Vanashakti had obtained this piece of information through the Right To Information (RTI) Act.
Records revealed that on July 22, 1980, an official communication was sent from the office of the Forest Development Corporation of Maharashtra Limited (FDCM), Nagpur to the Regional Manager of FDCM, Thane. It stated that 2076.073 hectares of revenue land was transferred from Aarey Milk Scheme to be included in the Borivali National Park. “Out of 2076.073 Ha, 575 Ha of land shall be extracted for a recreational zone and the rest of the land (1501.073 Ha) will continue to remain a major part of the Borivali National Park,” the FDCM letter read. Another communication dated October 10, 1980, was sent to FDCM Thane to declare the area as reserved or protected forests. This would allow the forest department to have stricter legal control.
However, there are no documents show that the area comes under the forest department. The forest department simply told the NGT that the old records were not traceable.
Man v/s Wild
Environmentalists accuse the forest department of deliberately concealing information, hinting towards a possible scam. In the absence of demarcation records, it is very convenient for them to not take responsibility and/or action against indiscriminate felling of trees in the peripheral regions of the forest.
The forest department, on the other hand, still refuses to acknowledge Aarey as a forest. However, with its amount of biodiversity, Aarey colony has almost all characteristics of a forest.
The clearance to cut 2700 trees was given by the Tree Authority of the BMC. This decision was made by a majority vote by the members of the tree authority in a meeting held on August 29, 2019. 16 members had attended this meeting, while 18 were supposed to attend. This is where the negligence begins.
Breakdown of 18 members who were "supposed to" attend the meeting-
· 6 members from Shiv Sena
· 4 members from BJP
· 2 members from Congress
· 1 member from NCP
· 5 nominated experts (out of which 2 were absent)
Among the 16 that attended the meeting-
· 4 members of the BJP, 1 member of the NCP and 3 experts voted in favour of cutting the trees.
· 6 members of the Shiv Sena voted against cutting of trees.
· 2 members of the Congress who were against the felling of trees, walked out of the meeting without voting. Their reason was that their voices were not being heard and they didn’t know that the agenda would be put to vote.
Immediately after the announcement of the clearance to chop 2700 trees, 2 of the voting experts resigned. The reason they gave for their resignation, similar to the representatives of the Congress, was that their recommendations were not heard. They said that they were not given enough time to thoroughly study the situation and the decision was made in haste. There was a lot of commotion in the meeting, which misled these experts into voting in favour of cutting trees. It’s even more shocking to understand that these two experts were highly knowledgeable in the fields of botany and horticulture respectively. One of them also cited language barrier as a reason, which added to her confusion.
It is disappointing to know that a decision involving partial grazing of forestland was mismanaged so efficiently by an authority that was specially created to protect it. Today, the Tree Authority has shown us that they are not an authority to protect trees, but they seem to have an authority over trees.
Aarey is in danger. Its very own leopards are the biggest proof of this. Due to encroachment of humans and shortage of prey density in Aarey (and the adjacent SGNP), some leopards have turned into man-eaters. Powai is a township which is connected to both the SGNP and the Aarey colony. Leopards have been spotted (pun intended) in Powai quite a lot of times. One was trapped on the hill at Supreme Business Park while one had brutally killed a child in Raheja Vihar. IIT Bombay, being Powai’s closest connection to the forests, has seen multiple leopards. In fact, I have seen a leopard in IIT, trapped in a cage, twice.
Why are these leopards wandering to the urban forest, when it has a natural one of its own? It’s simply because what it already has is not sufficient, yet diminishing. The Tree authority gave a clearance to cut 2700 trees for the metro car shed. But how can we be sure that the leopard won’t enter the metro, travelling in search of another forest?
The problem is that it’s Aarey colony, not Aarey forest. And it is being treated just like a colony. It is being exploited to the maximum possible extent, and we are being fooled that only a small percentage is being taken. If you go back about 150 years, you’ll see that’s exactly what the British did. They just wanted a small part of India (Bengal), but they colonized the whole of it. That’s a highly magnified analogy, but I hope it gives you a perspective. We need to prevent Aarey from becoming a colony.