'Cutting trees at Aarey will be environmental suicide'

Mumbai has historically been India’s commercial capital, contributing significant tax revenues to both the state and the Centre. However, over the past two decades, the city has been declining rapidly on the dimensions of both economic growth and quality of life.

The quality of life in Mumbai has also worsened and the decline is quite steep. All of this has resulted in a slip in rankings on the international stage. Mumbai ranks a poor 163 (out of 218 cities world-wide in the Forbes quality of life survey).

The situation is likely to worsen over the next decade with an expected population increase of over two million. Aarey Milk Colony came in the existence in the year 1949 and is spread over an area of 3,160 acres of land, out of which more than 50 per cent is allotted for various commercial purposes.

The recent decision of the MMRDA to construct a Metro car shed at Aarey by cutting 2,298 trees would be environmentally suicidal. It is the last green, open space in Mumbai. The Aarey Milk Colony is contiguously touching the boundary of Sanjay Gandhi National Park, which is a protected area.

This park has unique distinction of being located amidst India’s most populous city. It is known as one of the major national parks existing within a metropolis’ limit and is one of the most visited parks in the world. The park is home to a number of endangered species of flora and fauna.

The forest area of the park houses over 1,000 plant species, 251 species of migratory, land and water birds, 50,000 species of insects and 40 species of mammals. In addition, the park also provides shelter to 38 species of reptiles, 9 species of amphibians, 150 species of butterflies and a large variety of fish.

The recent decision of the state government, reeling under a debt of R3,00,000 crore, is trying its level best to exploit the real estate potential of Aarey Milk Colony in the garb of developing a so-called business hub at Aarey, at the cost and at the detriment of the environment. A large number of trees which are the habitat of the wildlife, as well as, the nesting ground of many endangered species of birds, will be felled.

I have personally experienced the area as a child since I live in the vicinity of the Aarey Milk Colony that four decades ago was a thick forest; which has now been taken over by various commercial establishments, and a few remaining trees which are more than seven to eight decades old are on the verge of being destroyed.

There are a few baobab trees next to the proposed Metro car shed which are more than 500 years old. These trees which are medicinal were planted by Jesuit Priests from Portugal.

Any development on Aarey land would require prior Environmental Clearance from Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), including prior clearance under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, which should be obtained from the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife, since the project falls within a 10 km radius of the National Park.

This radius forms a buffer zone for the protection of wildlife as laid down by the Supreme Court. However, this buffer zone may differ for an area less than 10 km which the state government has to get approved from MoEF, which, to my mind, has not been done.

As such any construction work would be unlawful and liable to be proceeded against, in terms of Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. Under Maharashtra (Urban Areas) Protection & Preservation of Trees Act, 1975, the permission of Tree Authority is a must.

Even if the said authority were to grant permission to MMRDA for felling trees, the permission cannot be implemented unless and until the Environmental Clearance and clearance under the Wildlife Protection Act is obtained from the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife.

In fact, a Bench headed by National Green Tribunal (NGT) Chairperson Swatanter Kumar recently stayed the operation of two communications dated August 8, 2014, and January 15, 2015 of the Centre, which relaxed forest clearance for felling of trees for linear projects, allowing the felling and commencement of work right after in-principle clearance.

The NGT was hearing a petition filed by wildlife biologist Milind Pariwakam, who contended that the said relaxation given by MoEF is contrary to the procedure prescribed in the Forest Conservation Act, which clearly states that ‘in-principle approval is not an approval as contemplated in law’.

In case the MMRDA proceeds with the felling of trees there are many options available to a common man by filing a petition before NGT or Public Interest Litigation before the High Court.

- The writer is an advocate and founder trustee, Watchdog Foundation

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