The intervention comes a little late as 1,500 trees have already been felled but at least it’s a conscience call
The development versus conservation debate is essentially one of defining the extent of human desire, and in our country, of convenience and growth. But given the alarmist scenarios of climate change, there is no luxury of even considering that choice. So a proposed Metro car shed in the Aarey forest area at the cost of over 2,000 trees, in what is considered as Mumbai’s life support system, doesn’t hold water. Urban planners all over the world have to face up to this new challenge of devising a difficult yet alternative model of development. The Supreme Court, realising the larger green concern than the legality of Aarey’s status as a forest or not, has justifiably now ruled that no more trees should be cut there. It has even recorded the Maharashtra Government’s assurance that it would not do so and released all activists and citizenry, who have welded together in a Chipko-style agitation, to save Aarey. However, the damage has been done as the authorities have lopped down most of the trees in question, taking advantage of a legality. In fact, it was the tussle for the legal definition of Aarey, for which even the top court has sought documents, that had led the Bombay High Court to overrule activists. Of course, campaigners claim that a 2012 management plan for Sanjay Gandhi National Park describes Aarey as an unclassified forest. But in the absence of a codified status, even the National Green Tribunal (NGT) couldn’t intervene. It withdrew an interim order staying debris dumping, tree felling and land reclamation at Aarey, thereby permitting all construction activity. It is taking advantage of the hazy demarcation that the Metro authorities, with no effort made by the Devendra Fadnavis Government either, clandestinely cut over a thousand of Aarey trees since the High Court ruling. Of course, one cannot really hide behind technicalities in a case whose impact is felt in a larger community and the environment. Over 40,000 suggestions and objections were submitted by citizens and activists last October against the proposal to cut trees in Aarey, which was once part of the deciduous stretch of forests, now restricted to the adjacent Sanjay Gandhi National Park and hillocks. Once the Aarey Dairy Co-operative came up with locals in the area, some parts were cleared to make space for grasslands, scrubs, marshes and water bodies. Over time it became a biodiversity hotspot for a whole host of species. It is now the home of avifauna, hosting a whole range of munias, drongos and egrets. The water channels criss-crossing the greens host native fish species, crabs, shrimps and Checkered Keelback water snakes that are protected under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. The green belt is the holding ground of the Mithi River, which overflows in the monsoon, creating havoc. With the creeks taken up for land reclamation, the annual floods remind all Mumbaikars of the need to redesign the way they live in a coastal city. Besides, Aarey has its own tribal inhabitants, who have lived in synchronicity with nature. Depleting cover means squeezing their existence, too. Activists have quoted experts from NEERI and IIT as suggesting seven other alternate sites as options.
Of course, politicians have jumped into the fray, finding an issue to be touted before the Assembly elections. While the Opposition Congress, NCP and even Prakash Ambedkar have made common cause with the activists, it is the Shiv Sena, which has been embarrassed because of its association with the ruling BJP. But now its young leader Aaditya Thackeray, under fire for being a “fake environmentalist”, has joined the citizens’ campaign. And in a weak defence of the Government, has accused the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRC) instead, of cutting 1,500 trees in the dead of night. But MMRC wouldn’t have been ambitious without official endorsement. It is the citizens who made saving Aarey a movement and even suggested solutions unlike politicians who don’t have the will to follow through. Aarey is a micro ecosystem with its own biodynamics that has evolved over a hundred years and cannot be created overnight. Trees even if relocated do not survive in new topography. But surely the new Metro shed can be shifted.