Despite CM's assurances, MMRC shifts the goal post, says Aarey no forest, just 'a piece of government land'
Metro officials tell green tribunal they want car shed only in Aarey and nowhere else; residents gear up for another round of bruising battle against the state's might
In its zeal to construct the car depot for Metro III in the ecologically sensitive Aarey Colony, the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRC) had in the past already made misleading claims that there is no wildlife there. Now, the Metro authority has gone a step further and claimed that Aarey does not even have woods.
This has raised the hackles of activists, who see the MMRC’s statement as another effort to underplay the environmental impact that the car depot will have on Aarey’s biodiversity. It was yesterday, in a National Green Tribunal (NGT) hearing in Pune that the MMRC presented a report that reads: ‘Aarey land is not forest land as per the dictionary meaning or otherwise’ (point number 29 on page 21 of the report, of which mid-day has a copy).
MMRC plans to use 20 hectares of land in Aarey Colony to build a car shed for Metro III. File Pic
The report was submitted to the NGT as part of the MMRC’s intervention application, asking for permission to proceed with the Metro III project in Aarey, where the tribunal had earlier forbidden all construction, as mid-day had reported. The tribunal was hearing a petition from the NGO Vanashakti and other applicants, who sought for Aarey to be declared a No Development Zone (NDZ). The Assistant Conservator of Forests Sanjay Laske had also filed an affidavit stating that all of Aarey Colony is an ecologically sensitive area (ESA).
On August 19, the NGT directed the BMC to withhold permission to any development there and also asked the civic body to take immediate action if any illegal construction still continued. This order was a major win for environmentalists who were fighting the state’s decision to build the car depot for the Colaba-Bandra-Seepz Metro line in Aarey at the cost of 2,298 trees.
Can't see the wood for the trees: Part of Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation's application which says Aarey land is not a forest by any definition
The same activists had raised a hue and cry when the MMRC claimed there was ‘no wildlife’ at the Metro site in Aarey. This claim was made in a report submitted to the Japan International Cooperation Agency, from which the MMRC sought Rs 5,000 crore in funding.
mid-day has been following the issue with sustained coverage, and along with environmentalists, has highlighted the rich ecology in Aarey Colony, which is home to leopards, rock pythons and other species that come under the Wildlife Protection Act (see Sustained Focus).
Environmentalist Anand Pendharkar from the NGO SPROUTS said, “Those who want to protect Aarey Colony and its biodiversity will have to come together and be prepared for a much bigger agitation. The intervention application filed by MMRC indicates that that they are bent upon constructing the car depot at Aarey itself. All land in the country belongs to the government, but that does not mean there is no biodiversity there.”
Insult to injury
To make matters worse, the next point in the report tries to project the car depot as an environment-friendly project. ‘Assuming — without admitting — that Aarey Colony land would be eco-sensitive, the interveners submit that the car depot activity cannot be construed as a prohibited activity. Railway has always been construed as the most eco-friendly mode of transport,’ reads the report.
The report also tries to play down recent leopard sightings in Aarey and states: It has recently been reported that the leopards are not coming out of Sanjay Gandhi National Park.’
But wildlife lover and Aarey resident, Kaushal Dubey has a different tale to tell. “There are frequent leopard sightings in Aarey; just five days ago I saw a leopard there. It seems the MMRC has made up its mind to destroy Aarey’s biodiversity.”
MMRC managing director Ashwini Bhide said, "I cannot comment, as the matter is with the NGT."