Mumbai: BMC chief overrides NGT stay, authorises chopping of 23 trees for Metro
Activists protest after Ajoy Mehta uses discretionary powers to authorise chopping of 23 trees for Metro
MMRCL wants to hack over 3,000 trees in Aarey Milk colony. File pic
Months after it was revealed that thousands of trees would be mercilessly felled for the Metro car shed, activists and Save Aarey movement campaigners are now hacking away at BMC chief Ajoy Mehta for allegedly 'misusing' his discretionary powers to sanction tree-cutting at the site, despite a status quo order from the National Green Tribunal (NGT). Mehta, meanwhile, has denied the allegation, saying the activists are spreading misinformation.
Over 3,000 trees are to be cut for the Metro car shed. File pic
Documents accessed by Zoru Bhathena, an activist and petitioner against Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited's (MMRCL) proposed car depot at Aarey, allegedly show Mehta has 'misused' his powers and on December 7, 2017, sanctioned the removal of 23 trees at Aarey for the launching shaft of the Metro car depot. Following the approval, BMC had also written a letter to MMRCL on December 29, 2017, asking them to go ahead with the tree cutting.
Grossly misused powers
Apart from allegations against Mehta, it also seems like MMRCL has used a law limiting felling of trees to their advantage. Last year, the Maharashtra government had amended the Maharashtra (Urban Areas) Protection and Preservation of Trees Act, 1975, under which the permission of the Tree Authority is not required if the number of trees to be cut is 25 or less. The head of a municipal corporation or a local body (commissioner, chief officer) can approve the proposal without sending it to the Tree Authority.
Bhathena told mid-day, "The matter is in the NGT and there is stay on any activity in Aarey, but the civic chief granted permission to MMRCL [to cut the trees]. If this trend continues, then by the time the hearing concludes in NGT, no trees will be left for saving."
"BMC chief has grossly misused his powers and personally sanctioned removal of 23 trees for the launching shaft for project. MMRCL has broken the proposals into five smaller ones for the removal of 3,184 trees at Aarey for the depot and sent it to BMC for approval," said Bhathena. The suburban collector had earlier given MMRCL permission to excavate the site on the condition that no trees are cut.
No stay order, no harm?
Documents accessed by Bhathena under Right To Information Act (RTI) also show BMC's response to another proposal of cutting 49 trees for JVLR casting yard. The deputy municipal commissioner of the garden department remarked on the proposal on November 28, 2017, "Since the matter is sub judice before the honourable green tribunal, this proposal may be kept pending, if approved."
Replying to this, Mehta has stated, "If there is no stay order from NGT, what is the harm in putting this up before the Tree Authority immediately?" Bhathena called this remark unfortunate. "NGT has given a status quo order in the matter, which means the trees cannot be cut. Further, BMC can't decide on cutting trees themselves, it must go to NGT. MMRCL had proposed felling 3,184 trees one and a half years ago before NGT but there hasn't been a decision on this yet. Why didn't NGT give permission? It is a technical issue and they will raise this issue before the tree committee appointed by the Bombay High Court," he said. The committee consists of two sitting HC judges, who are its only members.
Bhathena is also angry with the Shiv Sena for allowing this. "It's such a shame that Shiv Sena, who controls BMC, and had promised not to permit the cutting of a single tree at Aarey is not doing anything." He said he'd messaged Yuva Sena chief Aaditya Thackeray about BMC's move, but received no response.
NGT had, in fact, put a stay on all kinds of construction activities in Aarey, after NGO Vanashakti and people associated with Aarey Conservation Group (ACG) moved a petition in 2016 there seeking long-term protection for Aarey and to maintain it no-development zone status. Following the plea, NGT had put the stay, until final orders.
Speaking to mid-day, Stalin D of NGO Vanashakti said, "The municipal commissioner is working at the behest of the state government. He is setting an example on how to subvert the law and he is mocking the system. When the matter is in court, BMC should behave more responsibly and not like mafia."
He added, "Shiv Sena leaders had promised they will do everything to save Aarey but there was nothing beyond empty words. They could have easily stopped this destruction." mid-day reached out to Shiv Sena's group leader in BMC, Yashvant Jadhav, but he remained unavailable for comment.
BMC chief speaks
Meanwhile, Ajoy Mehta has completely denied any such stay from NGT on cutting trees in Aarey and labelled the allegations as complete misinformation. "There is no stay from NGT. It has not said anywhere that we can't even consider the proposals. It's the Tree Authority's discretion to take a decision. How can you take away the right of the Authority? They [activists] can go to court and appeal. What is wrong with this order?"
Responding to allegations of disobeying the NGT order, Mehta said, "This is a clear cut case of misinformation, which does not serve any purpose. This does not serve the good of the city. You fight a battle, but fight a clean one. No one can stop us from considering the proposal. The law has given me powers and the court has not stopped me from considering them [proposals]."
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