The controversy surrounding the Aarey forest in Mumbai majorly revolves around how the removal of the forest would lead to a decrease in oxygen, loss of livelihood of the indigenous Adivasi community, and increased flooding. Major news outlets have been calling Aarey as Mumbai’s “green lungs” and so have the protesters. The Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRC) has claimed that it has taken up afforestation measures to compensate for the loss of trees, but is it that simple?
The Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar had drawn a parallel with the Delhi Metro, saying that citizens of Delhi initially protested against the felling of trees too, but that afforestation measures (5 for 1) resulted in the growth of the forest cover and development of a robust transport system.
Delhi’s forest cover has remained static for the past eight years. Despite annual sapling planting drives taken up by government agencies, the forest cover has hovered around 20% in Delhi. There are usually no follow-ups after the saplings have been planted and as a result, most of them die. A study by Indiana University found that unless early intervention is undertaken to ensure the survival of planted street trees, tree mortality would significantly nullify the benefits expected by afforestation.
Afforestation is usually not the answer to mitigate the negative effects of climate change, as found by researchers in Europe. Forests evolve over time into complex systems of interdependence among flora and fauna. A study of one of the largest afforestation programs in China found that it actually increased the carbon stock of the region as monoculturalism of pulpwood forests took over natural forests. Simply planting a single kind of tree and expecting it to compensate for the loss of an actual forest is hubris that can be expected only from politicians who have no actual knowledge of the field they work in.
The Aarey Forest also supports the indigenous Warli Adivasi communities who have been living here for generations. Adivasi communities already bear the brunt of relocation and displacement due to government projects. They make up 40% of the total families displaced by construction projects while only making up 8% of the population.
Relocation efforts are at best, barely sustainable and often end up pushing them into poverty. They also have a codependent relationship with the forest which should not be undervalued. Compensatory afforestation offsets and relocation of the indigenous forest communities have often been the playbook of governments past, who want to push through developmental projects with as little scrutiny as possible.
In its current state, the Mumbai Metro is producing more CO2 than it reduces because of increased ridership. This is primarily because “most of the commuters shifted from other forms of public transport like buses and trains which use less energy per capita as compared to the Metro.”
As opposed to Delhi, where the majority of people shifted from using private vehicles, 75% of the people in Mumbai were already dependent on public transport before the metro came along. Once the entire system develops though, the reductions in CO2 emissions will outweigh the emissions released by the metro.
A metro system can bring numerous advantages to a city like reduced pollution, time savings for the riders, and a drop in the number of accidents, both fatal and otherwise. In a country like India, where a person dies every 17 hours due to a fatal road accident, public transport systems like the metro can mitigate a significant amount of road fatalities. It also reaps economic benefits for the city as was estimated by a paper that estimated the economic rate of return on investments in just Phase I and Phase II of the Delhi Metro to be 24%.
Real sustainable development and not the government’s version of it can only be enacted when the concerns of all stakeholders are considered. Yes, a major metropolis like Mumbai would benefit greatly from a robust metro system. Also, the Aarey forest forms a vital part of Mumbai’s ecosystem, from supporting the Adivasi communities, to preventing flooding, and providing vital green cover. Only evaluating the forest on the basis of its CO2 absorbing capabilities represents a gross lack of understanding about the intricacies and benefits of a forest ecosystem.
Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program.