SC stays felling of trees in Aarey colony. Here's the story so far

The apex court has set October 21 as the next date of hearing in the case. It has also asked the environment ministry to be made a party to the case

Swati SubhedarSwati Subhedar   9 Oct 2019 5:40 AM GMT

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SC stays felling of trees in Aarey colony. Heres the story so far

The Supreme Court on Monday restrained authorities from cutting any more trees in Mumbai's Aarey to set up a Metro car shed. A special bench comprising justices Arun Mishra and Ashok Bhushan said it will have to examine the entire thing and posted the matter for hearing on October 21 before its forest bench.

The apex court directed that if anybody is still under arrest for protesting the cutting of trees, they should be released forthwith on furnishing of personal bonds.

The top court was hearing the case after a group of students wrote to Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi. A special bench of Justices Arun Mishra and Ashok Bhushan was set up after a group of law students wrote to the Chief Justice requesting that the top court intervene to stop the cutting of trees immediately.

On Sunday, 29 activists arrested during protests on Friday night as trees were pulled down following a court go-ahead were released on bail.

The ban on any gathering of four or more people that was imposed at Aarey when the protest broke out last week was briefly relaxed on Sunday night before it was re-imposed on Monday morning, ahead of the top court hearing. Only the residents are allowed to move in and out of Aarey.

The beginning:

Earlier this year, the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRC) asked Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) for permission to cut trees 2,700 plus trees in the Aarey colony.

A 20-member BMC Tree Authority approved it on August 29. The committee included members from the Congress, BJP, Shiv Sena and NCP and also tree experts. The activists soon started petitions to prevent the cutting of trees. Environmentalists fear the massive felling of trees will disturb the ecological balance and lead to flooding.

The state government has allotted 90 acres of land within Aarey forest to rehabilitate tribals and slum dwellers living in the area. The construction of the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) projects unlocks prime land and could open up the possibility for developers to further build projects in the area, fear environmentalists.

The Supreme Court restrained authorities from cutting any more trees in Mumbai's Aarey to set up a Metro car shed. Pic: ANI

'Save Aarey' movement launched

Activists filed various petitions and celebrities, including Bollywood stars, joined the 'Save Aarey' movement. On September 17, Amitabh Bachchan got embroiled in controversy after he came out in support of the Metro project. 22 students protested outside his house and they were detained by the police.

The MMRC chief launched counter-campaign

Activists wrote a long letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi telling him about the importance of saving Aarey forest. "As such Aarey has all the traits and attributes which qualifies it to be preserved as reserved/protected forest and at no cost any further development should be allowed which will create an imbalance in the present delicate ecosystem," the letter said.

In response to these protests, the MMRC chief Ashwini Bhide launched a counter campaign 'Aarey Aika Na'. "Environmental benefits of @MumbaiMetro3 as assessed by @OfficialDMRC and validated by #UNFCC auditors. 2.61 lakh metric ton of CO2 will be reduced every year as the comprehensive public transport connectivity improves and modal shift happens. #AareyAikaNa @CMOMaharashtra," she tweeted on September 6.

"No alternatives," says the BMC chief

On September 14, Maharashtra's Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis said, "The proposed site is the government's land and it neither comes under bio-diversity nor is it a forest land. Why we save trees because we want to reduce the carbon footprint. So, we need to understand one thing that how much carbon footprint is going to be reduced due to the underground Metro."

Shiv Sena, which is part of the ruling alliance in Maharashtra, has opposed the felling of trees in Aarey. "The vigour with which the Mumbai Metro 3 is slyly and swiftly cutting down an ecosystem in Aarey is shameful and disgusting. How about posting these officials in POK giving them charge to destroy terror camps rather than trees," said President of Yuva Sena Aaditya Thackeray.

On September 18, the Bombay High Court considered the plea of petitioners and asked the state government if relocating the car shed to Kanjurmarg was a viable option. The proposal was turned down.

"The Kanjurmarg land is owned by some private party and if we want to acquire it, then Rs 5,000 crore will have to be spent. Also, since the matter is in court, it will take at least two-three years for (land) acquisition and the Metro 3 project will be severely affected since most of the work has been completed," BMC chief Praveen Pardeshi said at the Standing Committee meeting.

Bombay HC clears the cutting of trees, Section 144 imposed

On October 4, the Bombay High Court passed an order clearing the cutting of the trees. The court refused to declare the Aarey colony as forest land.

Within hours of the verdict, the authorities started cutting the trees and it was met with stiff resistance from around 100 concerned citizens. Following which, the Mumbai Police imposed Section 144 (banning unlawful assembly) in the area. Dilip Sawant, additional commissioner of police (North) told reporters: "To maintain the law and order situation in the area, we have detained several people from the intervening night of October 4 and 5. We have also released most of them and rest will be released soon. And to prevent activist from getting into Aarey colony we have cordoned off the area. An FIR registered under sections 332, 353, 143 and 149 of Indian Penal code."

The present situation

Section 144 has been lifted from the area around the Aarey forest. All 29 protesters, arrested for allegedly obstructing and assaulting police personnel during felling of trees at the Aarey Colony here, have been released from jail after being granted bail, officials said on Monday.

Mumbai Police have also relaxed prohibitor orders imposed in the Aarey Colony and its surrounding areas.

On Monday, Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar refused to comment on Aarey. "The Supreme Court has given a decision on it, so I will not comment on the matter," he told a press conference at the ministry.

The environment minister, however, said, "If you cut one tree, you plant and ensure the growth of five trees."

Asked if afforestation has worked, Javadekar replied, "In the past four years, the green cover of the country has increased by 15,000 square kilometres. There are only a few countries in the world whose green cover has increased and those include India."

The Supreme Court's forest bench will be hearing a plea regarding felling of trees in Mumbai's Aarey forest on October 21.

Activists and leaders of the opposition Congress and NCP on Monday welcomed the Supreme Court's order restraining authorities from cutting anymore trees in Aarey Colony here to make way for a Metro car shed.

Former Maharashtra chief minister Ashok Chavan and NCP leader Supriya Sule hit out at the BJP-led state government for "haste" in cutting trees and "suppressing" the voice of activists and the common man.

The Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Ltd (MMRCL) started hacking trees from Friday night to make way for the car shed, hours after the Bombay High Court dismissed four petitions filed by NGOs and activists, challenging the decision to allow felling of trees in the prime green lung of the city.

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