Mumbai: Tree panel under siege as Save Aarey warriors mount ambush
If Tree Authority officials expected rain would help keep the green army off a public hearing about cutting nearly 3,000 trees, they were mistaken. mid-day was on hand to capture all the drama as babus beat a hasty retreat
The mood matched the fire-engine red seats at the 250-seater Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) auditorium at Bandra Kurla Complex. The Tree Authority of Mumbai and green warriors, allied to citizen's groups and those working in individual capacity, had a fiery face-off at a public hearing on Monday on objections/suggestions about 2,238 trees to be cut for the construction of a Metro Car depot for the Metro III project at Aarey Milk Colony in K/East ward.
Yesterday afternoon, green warriors, allied to citizen's groups and those working in individual capacity, put aside their work to make their way to the new building at the upscale commercial-residential hub. Jitendra Pardeshi, tree officer, introduced the panel with, "we have received 82,000 emails to date," which earned applause.
An audience member
Zoru Bathena, green activist, led the charge, telling the panel, "This is a 225-seater auditorium, last time 1,000 people had attended. This time, due to the rain, attendance may be thinner." Bathena cited a number of court cases, and said as cheers rang out through the room about transplanting trees, "it is the duty of the tree authority to preserve old trees," even as a gentleman shouted, "yes, yes, yes." Then, Bhathena said, "any number of new trees you plant will not compensate for the old trees that have been cut. If I bring 10 babies [by which he meant new trees] will they do your work?" There were whistles and 'kya baat hai'.
A number of other speakers shouted, "move the car shed elsewhere." One audience member took the mike and asked, "what is a car shed? a yard to wash the Metro bogies. Take it elsewhere."
While the tree authority representatives repeatedly told those confronting them that this was only a hearing, they were shouted at to give answers. "Give a response, give an answer." Some in the hall shouted, "resign, resign."
Audience demands answers
A significant number of tribals from the Adivasi padas of Aarey were in the front rows. One of them took the mike and asked the panel, "you have cut the trees in Aarey that we have raised like children. Who did you ask for the same? Did you have permission? Why are all the projects at Aarey? You call us 100 people here and 10 of you cannot come to Aarey?" she asked, as the room erupted.
One gent shouted out, "look at their faces!" Another activist stated, "come to the site, do not sit in air-conditioned halls. Why have this hearing now, you do not care whether you get 40,000 mails or 80,000 mails."
When one speaker said to the panel, "every tree will curse you," another admonished him, "do not get personal." An audience member Nicolas A summed up the mood when he began saying, 'aata maazi satakli' (now I have lost it), as the hall rang out with laughs and cheers. He then told the panel, "You took our votes. You put labels on buildings terming them heritage and nothing can be altered. What about 100-year-old trees? Are they not heritage? They have life in them? Do you not have life in you? At least 4,000 trees have been cut for the T2 terminal. Where are they transplanted?" Another said, "this is merely the trailer, you have not seen the entire picture," as a huge cheer rocked the room.
Vikaas and vinaash
The panel was faithfully recording all objections even as the audience hounded them for answers. One tribal said, "have you lost your voice?" Another speaker said, "Come to Aarey for a day or two, you will regain your voice," to laughs.
Even as the panellists reassured the activists that they were "noting down points and objections," a shout went up, "the Tree Authority is the Tree Cutting Authority" and another said, "this is the initial spark, do not let it become an inferno."
A gent, Jamshed S, first pointed out this is not "vikaas" and chants of 'vikaas vikaas is vinaash vinaash' went up. (touting progress but in reality it is destruction). Then Jamshed S said, "the national debt is humongous, who will pay it?" To which another said, "Modi, Modi," and yet another quipped, "which Modi? Nirav Modi?" There was plenty of finger pointing, with "resign resign" and Aam Aadmi Party's (AAP) activists crowding the front raised objections about Mumbai Metropolitan Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL) officials on the dais, saying they were a "vested" party. When the Tree Authority members explained that MMRCL was part of the project, they were shouted down and MMRCL members left the stage to triumphant shouts of "bhago, bhago." As the 2.5 hour hearing wound down, one saw significant police presence outside and on the road. A youngster told the officials, "thank you for making me miss school." Pointing out the ill effects of environmental degradation for future generations, he said, 'I hope I do not have to miss college for some sh.. like this.'
With no answers since the pannellists were repeatedly told it was a "hearing", the voices rose, "make a decision. Move the Metro car shed elsewhere. Say it now," said some. Others said, "you need to quit, quit Mumbai, quit India, resign, resign." Then, it was over and though there was some despair, a feeling that the inevitable felling cannot be stopped, for an observer, there was a smidgeon of pride, too. For all those who claim the space for dissent is narrowing, here it was ordinary people who hurled questions, insults and demanded answers from those in the chair. We cannot say what may work right now. Several moments in this hearing were indication that the world's biggest democracy was speaking and cynics notwithstanding, it was immensely moving.
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No more trees to be axed in Aarey until October 21, says Supreme Court