Aaditya Thackeray exclusive interview! How 800 acres in Mumbai's Aarey Milk Colony was declared reserve forest

Updated: 15 October, 2020 10:06 IST | Ranjeet Jadhav | Mumbai

In first interview after landmark decisions, Aaditya Thackeray explains how the Maharashtra government declared Aarey as protected forest and moved the Metro carshed to Kanjurmarg.

Aaditya Thackeray says he is proud that his government took the landmark decision of shifting the carshed to Kanjurmarg. Pics/Ashish Rane
Aaditya Thackeray says he is proud that his government took the landmark decision of shifting the carshed to Kanjurmarg. Pics/Ashish Rane

For the first time since the government's decision declaring 800 acres in Aarey Milk Colony as a forest and shifting the car shed of Metro - 3 to Kanjurmarg, Environment and Tourism Minister Aaditya Thackeray talks exclusively to mid-day. He also credits a leopardess called Luna from Aarey, as one of the inspirations to protect the area. While praising the efforts of Mumbaikars who supported the Save Aarey cause along with wildlife researchers, Thackeray said there will be a drone survey of the area, to prevent encroachments.

He also said that more than 16,000 acres of ecologically important mangroves in the state will soon be declared a forest.

Aaditya Thackeray says 16,000 acres of mangroves will soon be declared mangroves forest in the state
Aaditya Thackeray says 16,000 acres of mangroves will soon be declared mangroves forest in the state

Before elections the Shiv Sena had promised that if it comes to power it would declare Aarey a forest. What you have to say about this?
There are two primary things, one is, this proves Shiv Sena as a party and Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray ji as a person, fulfill their promises. If you see the campaign 'karun daakhavla,' or the recent one, 'Did you know?' for BMC, you will see that we are heading the state government to fulfill our promises. What some people don't realise is that this issue of the car shed in Aarey was never about one party against another, and it was never politics. It was about the right to life and clean living. By shifting the car depot to Kanjurmarg we have saved the last green lung of Mumbai.

Declaring a huge chunk of the area as a forest, that too in a city like Mumbai where the land value is so high, must not have been an easy task.
When we say environment and nature, we forget that we are part of it and need to coexist and stay within the same nature. What happens in nature affects us. COVID-19 is said to be a zoonotic disease and in future, there might be many such zoonotic diseases. The glaciers are melting and climate change is having an impact on everyone. If we look at our summers they have become more severe, similarly, the droughts have become more intense and more rapid. Cyclones and hurricanes have become more common. Rainfall has increased in few days that had led to flooding and all these things are impacting human life. So the government took the important decision to protect Aarey Milk Colony which is one of the last surviving green lungs of Mumbai. Declaring 800 acres as a forest in Mumbai is unthinkable but I am proud that our government took this landmark decision.

The new car shed site at Kanjurmarg. Pic/Sameer Markande
The new car shed site at Kanjurmarg. Pic/Sameer Markande

Some people are spreading rumours among the tribals staying in Aarey that once the area becomes a forest, they will be thrown out.
Right from day one of the announcement, CM Uddvaji Thackeray has made it very that all the rights of the tribals will be protected and they should not worry about anything. The Indian Forest Act preserves and protects all the rights of the Adivasi living there, and so within a few minutes of the declaration, the adivasis started celebrating. There is a temple of Bhagdev in Aarey where these people performed puja after hearing the positive step taken by the government. The adivasis have understood the fact that the government motive is good. But some people are spreading rumours and they will never understand what life is in co-existence with nature.

Chief minister Uddhav Thackeray, while addressing the people of Maharashtra on Sunday praised the efforts you took to declare the area in Aarey as a forest.
I think Uddhav saheb was very kind to mention me. My role in this entire decision was very small and limited and I just co-ordinated the movement and the whole issue. There are of course activists who I feel are not just activists but people who love the city. This is a success for all those nature and wildlife loving Mumbaikars who have been fighting to protect Aarey including several NGOs and activists like Zoru Bhathena, Stalin D and city planner Pankaj Joshi and many others. The officials in the Forest Department, Revenue Department, MMRDA, MMRCL and Urban Development Department and all the ministers and my colleagues in the government played a very important role in taking the decision.

We have observed that when you talk about Aarey, you mention 'Luna.' what is the story behind this?
I am perceived to be a hardcore wildlife enthusiast, but my father Udhhav Saheb is a wildlife enthusiast. My younger brother Tejas is a wildlife enthusiast and a wildlife researcher. I am simply someone who lives in the city and wants clean air, clean water and clean Energy, and that is my selfish motive. Of course, I love wildlife and the environment, but in balance with development. When I started hearing about Aarey and the car depot and when we started going deeper into the issue, we understood that it is not just about cutting trees. Cutting trees sometimes becomes inevitable to create a road or something but we do transplantation or planting more trees during compensatory plantation to maintain the balance. Aarey Milk Colony is more than that. There is a female leopard called Luna who till date has given birth to 8-9 cubs. Her story also inspired me to do something to protect her and the other leopards' home. The fascinating story is that Luna is also a classic example of coexistence. Teams carrying out camera trapping study have found her and other leopards moving close to the car depot site. My brother Tejas has also clicked some beautiful pictures of Luna. So have others including ace wildlife photographer Steve Winter and wildlife photographer Nayan Khanolkar. Luna's story is really fascinating and I am sure incoming years it will inspire others too. Aarey is a biodiversity rich area and many researchers including Rajesh Sanap who have done extensive research on spiders and scorpions in the area have proved that as species endemic to aarey have been discovered, protection of the area was a must. Aarey is also home to the rusty spotted cat and many other species, and I am happy about the fact that the home of these species is now safe and protected.

Are there any specific plans for Aarey Milk Colony? What will be done to the car depot plot?
We have certain plans in mind but the first thing that we plan to do is to clear the land filling that was done at the car depot site and scientifically restore it back to its original glory because the portion of the car shed area falls within the flood plains of the Mithi river. There are some half finished structures on the plot and we will see if they can be utilised to set up a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center or a taxidermy centre. We also have plans to plant native trees at the site and will talk to arborists and experts for the same. We are also preparing a DPR because we don't want to waste the money that has gone in making the tunnel and we will plan how to merge it with line 6.

The opposition has criticised the government's decision to move the car depot from Aarey to Kanjurmarg saying that it will cost the taxpayers and will also delay the project.
The fact of the matter is they said Aarey was never a jungle, it is now a jungle. They said Kanjurmarg wasn't possible, now it is possible. They said Kanjurmarg would be expensive, what we have learnt and we have done is we (state government) have handed over Kanjurmarg plot to MMRDA free of cost. The soil testing has also begun. Also there is no litigation at all on the plot which has been handed over to MMRDA. The most dangerous part was that Swami Samarth Nagar to Vikroli metro line - 6 was coming up without a car depot. So basically to create the whole controversial car depot of metro 3 at Aarey, metro 6 was denied a car depot for past four years when they were asking for car depot either at Kanjurmarg or at Pahadi Goregaon. Fcts were hidden from the people, such as that the Kanjurmarg plot was free of cost and free of litigation. Now moving forward, Kanjurmarg has been handed over. There will be no extra cost and the DPR is being made to merge line 3 and line 6technically and also the project won't get delayed. Now as we move forward let's bring positivity to the fact that we have saved the forest in Aarey and made metro 3 more viable, because with this line going to Kanjurmarg we are connecting the eastern suburbs to Central and South Mumbai.

Collection and disposal of garbage is an issue in Aarey along with littering. Any plans to address this?
In Aarey Milk Colony there are multiple agencies' offices, along with slum areas and adivasi padas. Now that we have declared this area as a forest excluding adivasi padas, slum areas, tabelas and built-up structures, we will prepare a plan for the solid waste management too.

It has been allegedly said that new encroachments are coming up in Aarey after the decision to declare the area as forest was taken. How do you plan to tackle this?
Using satellite imaginary the forest department will keep a tab on the new encroachments and soon an aerial survey of Aarey will be done using high-end drone cameras which will not just map the area on regular basis, but help maintain a data about the encroachments and also about any destruction being done to the forest cover.

What are your plans for protection of mangroves in Mumbai, MMR and Maharashtra?
We have already identified 16,000 acres of mangroves which will be declared mangroves forest in two to three months and the survey has also begun. I have myself spoken to the collectors of Mumbai, Thane, Palghar, Raigad and Ratnagiri regarding the same. We are also working towards protecting the wetlands in Navi Mumbai.

'What some people don't realise is that this issue of the car shed in Aarey was never about one party against another, and it was never politics. It was about the right to life and clean living'

'Basically to create the whole controversial car depot of metro 3 at Aarey, metro 6 was denied a car depot for past four years when they were asking for car depot either at Kanjurmarg or at Pahadi Goregaon. Facts were hidden from the people, such as that the Kanjurmarg plot was free of cost and free of litigation'
- Aaditya Thackeray, environment and tourism minister

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First Published: 15 October, 2020 05:47 IST

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