Metro III hits deadlock as government bargains with Save Aarey activists

Already late in releasing the final report on the Metro III project, the CM’s expert panel is now making last-ditch attempts to negotiate with activists so they consent to the controversial car shed being built in Aarey Colony; environmentalists put their foot down, say they will not allow even a single tree to be chopped

Months have gone by since Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis had asked for a detailed report on the proposed Metro car shed at Aarey Colony, after activists and citizens carried out sustained protests against the project’s environmental cost.

School children climb a tree to support the Save Aarey movement. File pic
School children climb a tree to support the Save Aarey movement. File pic

Also read: Find other sites for Metro car depot, CM tells experts

However, the expert panel formed to review the issue, seems to have developed cold feet, and is yet to release the final report even though it is believed to be ready. The CM had appointed the expert panel early in March, but they are yet to reach a decision about the location of the Metro yard.

Activists and citizens had launched a sustained protest against the controversial Metro car shed, pushing the CM to form the expert panel to review the issue. Environmentalists have warned that if the authorities  insist on building the Metro yard in Aarey itself, they will carry out even bigger agitations. File picActivists and citizens had launched a sustained protest against the controversial Metro car shed, pushing the CM to form the expert panel to review the issue. Environmentalists have warned that if the authorities insist on building the Metro yard in Aarey itself, they will carry out even bigger agitations. File pic

According to sources, this is because the panel fears a backlash. Even as citizens are beginning to question why the final report hasn’t been made public yet, the committee seems to be making last-minute efforts to reach a compromise with activists, reportedly bargaining on the number of trees that are to be cut.

In a high-level meeting that took place on Thursday, UPS Madan, who is both the committee chief as well as the commissioner of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), discussed the issue with environmentalist Rishi Aggarwal (from the Save Aarey Milk Colony group).

Also read: Study finds evidence of robust leopard activity in SGNP, Aarey Colony

According to a senior MMRDA official, instead of recommending that the controversial Metro yard be moved elsewhere, the panel’s pitch to the activists was: “What if we reduce the number of trees to be cut for the car depot at Aarey?”

“I was called by UPS Madan for a discussion on Thursday. I have, once again, made it very clear that if the government decides to come up with the car depot on Aarey land, then we will hold even bigger agitations against it.

It is not just the issue of cutting down trees; we are concerned about the biodiversity of the entire area where the car depot is proposed to come up,” Aggarwal confirmed to mid-day.

Stalemate
Sources claimed that the panel had prepared their report and had even sent the CM an unofficial version, but are yet to make the final version public, as they are still trying to reach an amicable compromise with activists. In fact, the meeting seems to be an attempt to test the waters and see how people will react if the panel were to stick to Aarey as the location for the car shed.

“The committee has already prepared a final report after verifying all the citizens’ suggestions and objections, but the problem is that no decision has been taken on where the car depot should be located, because Aarey seems to be the only suitable option,” said an MMRDA official, adding that the panel was also willing to make changes to the car depot’s design if that pacifies upset environmentalists.

This approach has raised the hackles of activists, who are already upset that the expert panel is taking so long to submit the report. While sources within the MMRDA said that it was unlikely that the car depot would be shifted out of Aarey Colony, environmentalists argued they would not compromise on this.

“There are many NGOs, political parties, and individuals who have been opposing the car depot at Aarey, and all of them should have been called for discussion rather than calling one person. The committee was given a specific period to submit the report. Months have passed, but it has not submitted the report yet; there needs to be answerability for this as well,” said activist Anand Pendharkar from the NGO SPROUTS.

Activists also insist that the panel look at other locations, namely the salt pan land at Kanjurmarg, Dharavi, or even Mahalaxmi racecourse. They said it was not just about the 2,000-3,000 trees that stood to be axed for the car shed in Aarey, but was also about the rich local biodiversity that would be sacrificed, and the tribal communities displaced, as a result of this.

Also read: Did MMRC lie to get Rs 5,000 cr from Japan for Metro?

As things stand, the fate of Metro III seems shrouded in uncertainty. However, just a few days ago, the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRC) had announced that it would award the civil contracts for the R23,000 crore Metro III (Colaba-Bandra-Seepz corridor) project by mid-September.

At that time, Metro chief Madan had told the press that the panel would soon send its report to the CM so he could take the final call. Despite several attempts to contact the CM and MMRDA chief UPS Madan, neither was available for comment.

Put on the spot
According to an MMRDA official, matters were complicated further after a recent Wildlife Institute of India report revealed that there was indeed a healthy presence of leopards in both Sanjay Gandhi National Park, and at least two of the big cats frequented Aarey Colony.

“ If the government decides to construct the car depot in Aarey, then it is possible there will be much more opposition from all corners because of the recently released information about two leopards residing in Aarey,” said the official.

This is in direct contradiction to the Metro authorities’ Environmental Impact Assessment report, which claimed there was “no wildlife” at the Metro site in Aarey.

Activist speak

Manish Sethi member, Save Aarey group
We have been very clear from the start that we are opposed to even a single tree being cut in Aarey. We are okay if the government comes up with an alternate plan to build the car shed in the area near JVLR, which has slums where trees will not be affected. The government should come up with the options first and the people can collectively take a decision about the alternatives then

Stalin Dayanand environmentalist, NGO Vanashakti
We will oppose the plan to build the yard in Aarey tooth and nail. MMRDA has not been honest in its approach to finding a solution. We, from the Save Aarey movement, have given alternate suggestions, though it was not our job. We have extended cooperation, but MMRDA should not test our resolve to protect Aarey. We hope better counsel prevails and a messy situation is avoided. Aarey is non-negotiable

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