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While The SC Has Restricted Further Felling Of Trees, Is It Enough To Save Aarey?

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Image: Metro construction in progress at Cuffe Parade, Mumbai

“It is the beginning of the end,” lamented Abhay Azad, a citizen activist who has been involved with the “Save Aarey” community for the past four years. He hints at something much more sinister in the works when speaking about the MMRC’s (Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation) plan to build a metro shed by felling approximately 2,700 hundred trees in the Aarey Milk Colony. A similar sentiment was also expressed by Stalin Dayanand, director of the NGO Vanashakti, who in an interview to NDTV said that allowing the metro shed to be built in Aarey will open the doors for further construction, and the eventual destruction of the entire Aarey region.

Aarey Milk Colony has about 3,000 acres of green cover. It has a rich diversity of flora and fauna. It is an important ecosystem with different kinds of trees, wildflowers, butterflies and animals such as leopards, monkeys, and deer. Apart from its biodiversity, Aarey is and has been home to Warli tribals for many generations. The cool climate, lush greenery and scenic views of Aarey have made it popular among nature and fitness enthusiasts alike. I believe that in a city like Mumbai, which has a burgeoning population and is, therefore, bursting at the seams, Aarey needs to protected, now more than ever. Development can’t be used as an excuse to deprive megacities of essential tree cover. Cleaner and greener alternatives are the need of the hour.

Image: Illustration by Arun Kale (Instagram)

The Bombay High Court (HC) dismissed the petitions demanding that Aarey be classified as a forest and a floodplain, not on the basis of merit, but by quoting the “principle of commonality”. It said that the matter is pending before the Supreme Court (SC) and the National Green Tribunal (NGT). It directed the petitioners to approach the SC and the NGT for relief in the said matter. While this was a disappointing blow, I feel that the Supreme Court’s move to take suo motu cognizance of the tree felling in Aarey and constitute a special bench for hearing the matter was a heartening indicator of things to come.

After the Bombay HC’s go-ahead, the BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation) started chopping down trees that very night. Ideally, it should have posted a notice on its website first, followed by the cooling-off period of a fortnight to pass, before choosing to act on the go-ahead. It chose not to follow due procedure, possibly because it anticipated that the swelling ground support for the trees of Aarey wouldn’t allow for it to happen in broad daylight. When citizens and activists got a hold of what was happening on the sly, they turned up in Aarey to object to it.

Mumbai Police, which tweeted in support of environmental conservation when the Amazon rainforests were burning, started cracking down on the protesters by arresting the protesters and detaining them. Vaishnavi Puranik, a student and a citizen activist who was present at the scene, described the high-handed approach of the police by saying that “they were indiscriminately shoving people and refused to tell us on what grounds they were arresting some of us.” Section 144 was imposed and under curfew-like conditions, people were actively prevented from entering Aarey. I think that the unabashed hypocrisy on the part of the administration is angering people and forcing them to voice out their frustration.

Yash Marwah, a citizen activist and the founder of “Let India Breathe“, who spearheaded the youth outreach around “Save Aarey” spoke about the importance of getting others on board. He shed light on the initial stages of the movement, where he and others like him went to schools and colleges across the city to spread the word about the citizens’ movement. He also credits the role of new media in the success of “Save Aarey” as a campaign. “Instagram helped make Aarey more accessible. We would post pictures of Aarey, and many couldn’t believe that such a place existed right here in Mumbai.”

I have been to Aarey Milk Colony several times to visit a friend, but I came to know about the movement only through social media. I believe social media has completely revolutionized how people can reach out to others for seeking solidarity and building support networks. I think it was one of the major factors which propelled the movement towards the masses. Large swathes of public opinion swung in favour of Aarey because of the innovative use of new media.

Marwah also traces its effectiveness to the fact that it is a decentralized, leaderless movement. Groups were formed based on skill sets, and people had the freedom to interact with the movement according to their personal preferences. Marwah said that “our call to action always involved asking people to come to see Aarey. It was as simple as that. After that, people would realize for themselves how vital a role Aarey plays in the maximum city.” I believe that citizens have come together because of a common objective: to save Mumbai’s last standing green lung. “The heat and humidity, the lack of trees and open spaces in Mumbai… make Aarey a unique place. You enter Aarey, and there is a discernible temperature drop of two degrees. There is a tangible difference,” added Marwah.

The BMC and MMRC have managed to chop 2,141 trees regardless of widespread protests from citizens and notes of discord from within the government (it may be noted that the Uddhav Thackeray-led Shiv Sena, a coalition partner of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government in Maharashtra, has voiced its vehement disapproval of the tree felling in Aarey but has done little beyond offering lip service). The SC restricted any further chopping. The MMRC tweeted that it would follow the SC’s order. It also tweeted that it hoped to complete the metro shed project on time. Further, it emphasized the green initiatives undertaken by it in Aarey and other places in Mumbai, such as planting trees and distributing saplings. But the question remains: has it done enough to save Aarey?

Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program.

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