The Aarey struggle: A metro wakes up to protect its trees

Aarey-protest-pti The two causes that campaigners are insisting on are the ecological damage felling of tress will cause and the displacement of a considerable number of tribal community members | PTI

A girl stands alone in the middle of the hustle and bustle of Churchgate Station, Mumbai, holding a placard with a message on saving trees. Kilometres away, near the western express highway, in a viral Brut India video that is being screened, two girls from a tribal community make a plea to not cut down trees.

Last week, 1500 people formed a 3km long human chain. Despite the continuous downpour in the city that lasted a week, people gathered in large numbers at Marine Drive, Goregaon East and at several other places, to protest the felling of tress to save Aarey forest, called the last green patch in Mumbai.

The campaign to save Aarey, the forest area adjacent to Sanjay Gandhi National Park, has been going on for a while. Over the last few months, the plea by residents, campaigners and NGOs, has been to stop building of a Metro car shed in the Aarey Colony area after cutting down around 2,700 trees. Additionally, the Mumbai Metro authorities are seeking another 30,000sqft of land in the area for the sixth line.

The two causes that campaigners are insisting on are the ecological damage felling of tress will cause and the displacement of a considerable number of tribal community members for whom Aarey has been home.

On Monday, a town hall was held at SNDT, Juhu. Led by Zoru Bhathena, who has been filing public interest litigation (PIL) to conserve nature since 2014, and Stalin D. from the Save Aarey Foundation, the event was attended by officials of the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRC), including MD Ashwini Bhide, and BMC Commissioner Praveen Pardeshi. The environmental cost of metro rail was discussed at the town hall.

Bhathena, a businessman who is into manufacturing medical equipment, said at least the authorities and the campaigners got on the same platform. “That is a huge achievement,” he said, adding, “for the first time ever in a five-year fight, an open, free, fair discussion was held.”

He pointed out that all this while it was just a monologue of sorts. “They say something, we say something. This is the first time that there has been a dialogue.”

The dialogue did not end up in an argument, and that may be an indication that there is a hope of voices being heard.

The appeal is that instead of building the metro shed at Aarey, which will lead to destroying of so many trees in a city that is already being called a concrete jungle, it be shifted to any other location, possibly Kanjurmarg.

The authorities, however, believe that it is not possible to shift it to any other location. “We still believe that the government is falsely claiming that there is no other option. There are all options available, but Aarey. Somebody needs to have the desire to change or move,” said Bhathena, who admitted that even after being born and brought up in Mumbai he was unaware of the existence of Aarey for the longest time. “It was in 2016 that I discovered this green haven with streams and trees, flowers, plants, cattle, everything intact—something for which we travel long distances and abroad. It was just a landmark for me.”

A resident of Khar and who travels for work to Kandivali, Bhathena’s interest in conservation of trees grew in 2015 when, during his commute, he noticed the alarming number of rain trees getting destroyed without any attention from the authorities concerned. He had independently approached the court and managed to help the cause.

His incessant fight was noticed by others, who were putting up similar fights including Stalin, one of the many members leading the Save Aarey initiative. Over time, Bhathena has become one of the leading voices for the cause. Bhathena's PIL took the issue to the apex court. In the wake of the PIL, the Bombay HC declared BMC's Tree Authority illegal and restrained the civic chief from allowing the cutting of trees (apart from cases where human life or property is at risk).

Nikita Aggarwal, one of the founding members of the Save Aarey Foundation, who runs an advisory firm for start-ups, said the five-year battle to save Aarey has brought many people together to bring the campaign to a point that is now being noticed by all, and Aarey as a green patch in a concrete city is being recognised. “Otherwise, people overlooked it. It was more like a conduit,” she said.

She recalled how earlier it was merely a single man’s fight. The now departed Vinay Athalye, a resident of the Aarey neighbourhood like Aggarwal, had started a crusade with planting trees and later fighting to save trees. “He was inspirational to a lot of us,” said Aggarwal, who along with many other residents from the area, joined Athalye when a piece of land at Aarey was given to the Commando forces. “He started handing out pamphlets to the residents in the area as he fought against the decision.”

Amrita Bbhattacharya, a management consultant, who has been a participant in the campaign since the beginning, recalled how in 2014, the first human chain was formed at Marine Drive as a part of the crusade. In November 2014, notices were put up, announcing that 2,298 trees in Aarey would be felled for construction of the car shed for Metro 3. “Citizens had come together to fight this.”

In February 2015, close to 1,200 people created a human chain along the Marine Drive. Post this event, the chief minister of Maharashtra announced appointment of an expert committee to explore other options for location of the Metro3 car shed.

In the same year, Vanashakti, an NGO, along with citizens, had filed a petition in National Green Tribunal (NGT) pleading that Aarey be declared a forest and an eco-sensitive zone. NGT on August 19, 2015, ordered status quo in Aarey, pending final decision on the case.

MMRCL, in August 2017, started dumping debris in the Metro 3 car shed area in Aarey, along with excavation. The NGT advised the MMRCL against it.

In October 2017, another petition was filed in the Mumbai High Court by Amrita and Biju Augustine, challenging the denotification of 33 hectares of land in Aarey from NDZ for Metro 3 car shed. In October 2018, Justice C. Dharmadhikari pronounced his verdict in the High Court and allowed denotification of the land, stating that Aarey is not a forest. Petitioners moved to the Supreme Court with a Special Leave Petition (SLP).

Throughout the years, the campaign has gained momentum. Celebrities, political leaders from opposition parties and hoardes of youngsters have joined in. Aggarwal said a word of support from someone like Lata Mageshkar, a respectable voice who has put up a long battle against the building of a bridge at the Peddar Road, counts a lot in this unwinding fight. “Then there are others like Dia Mirza, Shradha Kapoor, Randeep Hooda who have been speaking for the preservation of trees. It helps a lot in getting heard,” she said, and pointed that while some politicians from opposition parties have shown support, the campaigners don’t want to give the issue a political colour.

The setback is that on August 30, the BMC’s Tree Authority has cleared MMRCL’s proposal to cut the 2,700 odd trees. The fight, however, continues. The PILs will continue to be filed and fought. Bhattacharya said most of these cases are self-funded and is a result of the love that citizens have towards the environment.

Bhathena, who has often noticed most of the discrepancies in the functioning of the authorities as far as nature is concerned during his commute, said he has now stopped driving. He takes the train and is mostly glued to his mobile phone. “Awareness is a curse,” he concurred, and added, “Being aware about things mean that you will keep noticing the wrongs and try to make it right.” He isn’t going to give up the fights he has picked up, but wouldn’t disagree that it has brought with it a lot of problems that he hadn’t anticipated. Aggarwal, however, noted, “Life is about a stand you take, and how far are you willing to go for that. And if we have come thus far, we are willing to go further.”