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Cutting of trees in Mumbai’s Aarey Colony (Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper III; Environment)

The SC has stopped further cutting of trees on a plot where the Mumbai Metro wants to build a car shed. Government says the site is the most convenient for construction. Even before SC order, Bombay HC has rejected the arguments of activists and allowed cutting of trees.

Where do things stand in the Aarey Milk Colony tree-felling case matter?
A special Vacation Bench of the Supreme Court ordered “status quo [to] be maintained till the next date of hearing with respect to cutting of trees”. This means that while the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL) cannot cut any more trees at the site of the proposed car shed, it can go ahead with construction activity related to the project.

The court also directed that everyone arrested for protesting the felling of the trees should be released. All 29 individuals who had been arrested were released on bail on Sunday night.

Background
The MMRCL had proposed — and had been permitted by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s Tree Authority — to cut 2,185 trees, and transplant 460. The trees were cut to prepare car parking shed for people taking metro services.

How did the case reach the Supreme Court? What is the core issue?
A 21-year old Greater Noida-based law student, Rishav Ranjan, wrote to Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi , seeking a stay on the cutting of trees for the MMRCL’s car shed located on 33 hectares land in Mumbai’s Aarey Colony. The site is on the bank of the Mithi River, with several channels and tributaries flowing into it — and construction for the “polluting industry” could flood Mumbai, he argued. The court accepted the letter as Public Interest Litigation (PIL) and set up the special Bench.

The tussle between environmental activists and the government over the Metro car shed has been ongoing since 2014. On Friday, the Bombay High Court dismissed four petitions challenging the decision to cut trees at Aarey. The petitioners had questioned the propriety and legality of the BMC Tree Authority’s permission for the tree-felling, and asked for Aarey to be declared a flood plain and a forest. Activists argue that Aarey is an extension of Sanjay Gandhi National Park, and that the car shed would pave the way for greater commercial exploitation of the area.

Why does Metro want the car shed here?
MMRCL argues that this land belongs to the state — it is with the Dairy Development Department — and therefore, the long, messy, and expensive process of acquisition can be avoided, with zero additional cost to citizens. Similar, land size can be acquired at cost of around Rs. 5,000 crores.

What kind of facility is proposed to be built at the Aarey site?
The proposed car shed will house washing, maintenance, and repair works facilities. A railway car shed is a “Red Category” industry, which causes the highest level of pollution. Activists say activities at the shed will generate oil, grease, and electrical waste, besides hazardous materials such as acid and paints. Effluents will be discharged into the Mithi, and could pollute the groundwater, they say. Also, construction of the depot will increase exploitation of ground water resources, they say.

MMRCL says it will set up mechanisms to prevent any kind of pollution. An existing ban on the setting up of Red Category industries on river banks was revoked in 2015.

What is the argument about the environmental cost of the project?
According to a report on “Biodiversity of Aarey Milk Colony and Film City” prepared by researchers Zeeshan A Mirza and Rajesh Sanap, the area is home to 86 species of butterfly, 90 species of spider, 46 species of reptiles, 34 species of wildflower, and nine leopards.

As per the BMC’s tree census, there about 4.5 lakh trees in Aarey, which is described as Mumbai’s green lung. Activists says the Aarey depot plot is the sole surviving natural floodplain of the Mithi, whose reclamation through construction and felling of trees would lead to greater inundation during the monsoon.

However, the proposed car shed will be set up on only 33 hectares, which is barely 2% of the 1,278 hectares of the green belt. 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.

Source: The Indian Express



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