“The Journey to Save the ’Lungs’ of Mumbai Metropolis”:
December 2, 2019
How A Student Delegation led by Rishav Ranjan, Lloyd Law College, succeeded in getting a Stay Order from The Supreme Court of India ?
The struggle for sustainable development has been an on-going one. The struggle between environmental activists and government organizations contesting against the clearance of forests have been numerous and robust. Movements motivated and organized by heedful individuals have been able to bring about revolutionary transformations in public policies. Be it the endeavors of Amrita Devi in bringing about a mass movement to prevent the felling of trees in Bishnoi village, Rajasthan, or Sundar Lal Bahuguna’s momentous Chipko movement and Tehri dam dissention; individual interventions have proved instrumental in contesting the state in relation to ecological considerations. The recent public outcry appertaining the felling of trees in Mumbai’s Aarey forest is yet another example of the community stepping in to make every effort to uphold the objectives of sustainable development.
Knowing Aarey Better
Known as the “lungs of Mumbai”, Aarey forest came about as Aarey milk colony, back in 1949 where Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, as an inaugural gesture, planted the first sapling in 1951. Dara N Khurody, who shared the Magsaysay Award with his colleague Varghese Kurien, was the visionary behind the endeavor. In view of the massive economic progress that Mumbai saw post-independence, it became a necessity to ensure the unhindered provision of agricultural products, and hence the Aarey milk colony was established. The enterprise resulted in plots of forestlands being transformed to grasslands and marshes, in due course. These burgeoning grasslands and marshes, covering the area between Powai and Western Express Highway in Goregaon, contributed to the enrichment of a generous diversity of fauna and flora in the region. A land, neighboring and adjoining the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Aarey colony has myriad species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, wildflowers, butterflies, and arachnids; making it a thriving ecosystem. Its ecological relevance can be measured against the fact that it has been home to more than a few newly discovered species of scorpion and spiders. Moreover, apart from the vast environmental diversity, Aarey forest is the home to around 27 tribal communities, subsisting in the ecological zone.
a large number of trees were cut in the Aarey colony for the construction of Metro rail car-shed image credit: indiatimes.com
The Mêlée over Aarey Forest and stepping in of the Law Student’s Delegation
The burning issue of mass felling of trees in the forest in the contemporary scenario is not the only instance where the green cover was compromised in the name of development. Mumbai’s famous Film City covers nearly 200 acre of land within the premises of Aarey forest that was cleared of trees in 1977. Earlier this year, about 40 hectares of the forestland was cleared so that the Byculla zoo could be expanded as per the government’s 2010 plan. The present furor around the Aarey forest arose when the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Ltd (MMRCL) decided to clear 2700 tress (about 33 hectares of land) to build a metro car-shed for the Mumbai metro line 3 project, back in 2014. Since then a lot of environmental activists have risen in protest against this ecologically unsustainable decision of the government and numerous petitions and Public Interest Litigations (PIL) have been filed towards the same effect, but to no avail. At the crux of the entire conflict lies the disputed legal status of Aarey as a “forest” and the same has been questioned by the campaigners who demand the trees to be prevented from being felled. The same concern was stated by Rishav Ranjan, a fourth-year student of Lloyd Law College, Greater Noida, in his letter-cum-petition to the Chief Justice of India and the President of India on behalf of a student delegation, which included Aman Banka, Amrender Singh, Amit Kumar, Himanshu Gupta, Saurav Karmarkar and Vaibhav Shahi of Lloyd Law College. He mentioned that Aarey forest “has 5 lakh trees on it. There is ample wildlife, ample birds, and flora fauna-everything that is needed for a forest is present in Aarey.” The Mumbai High Court had rejected all the PILs against the building of the metro rail car-shed. Immediately after this, the MMRCL started felling the trees overnight. When people rose in dissent, twenty-eight activists were unlawfully detained and arrested, without any complaint, FIR or notice issued against them. The students’ letter-cum-petition was filed immediately after these events, imploring the Supreme Court to take cognizance of the aforementioned issues and intervene.
Students of Lloyd Law College with the petition, waiting to meet the CJI of India. image credit: Swaraj Express
The letter stated that, “The ‘Car Shed’ is sought to be located in 33 hectare land at Aarey. This is on the banks of the ‘Mitthi River’ and which has tributaries and channels flowing to it and emptying in the river. Its absence can flood Mumbai and it has more than 3500 trees in it out of which 2238 is proposed to be cut down.” The loss would be an irreparable one, as the trees that took years to come to their present state cannot be substituted by a forestation somewhere else. Moreover, relocation of the trees would not accomplish re-creation of the ecological diversity that would suffer a huge blow at the cost of the construction venture. Hence, the threat of soil erosion and the consequential hazard of floods loom large in the wake of the unsolicited felling of trees. Located within a radius of 3km, lies the Mumbai airport, which is at the largest risk of being submerged in such a scenario. Mumbaikars already have to bear the setbacks of water-logging, each successive monsoon. Given such state of affairs, the potential danger of floods is something that the authorities cannot and should not overlook.
Looking at the entire construction issue from the point of view of environmental pollution, the construction of car-shed would lead to the worsening of air pollution as it is a place where the rakes would be washed and serviced, releasing all kinds of chemicals into the environment. The locomotive industry is categorized as a red category industry, which requires a high degree of infrastructure to protect the neighboring areas and the ground water from pollution. Given the fact that the air quality measurement by System of the Air Quality Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR) rated Mumbai’s Air Quality Index at 244 (‘poor’), even higher than Delhi, the need to conserve the Aaray forest is all the more dire.
The Order of the Apex Court
Taking suo moto cognizance, this letter-cum-petition filed by the students’ delegation, headed by Rishav Ranjan on the 6th of October, 2019, the Supreme Court constituted a special bench to hear the matter the very next day (7th of October, 2019), registering it as a Public Interest Litigation (PIL); despite the court being closed for the Dussehra Vacations. The case was heard by a two-judge division bench, which was headed by Justice Arun Mishra and comprised of Justice Alok Bhushan; Senior advocates Sanjay Hegde and Gopal Shankarnarayanana appeared on the behalf of the students and rest of the petitioners. The apex court ordered the authorities to maintain the status quo until the next hearing, scheduled for 21 October 2019.
To read the order of the apex court, dated 07.10.2019.,
Rishav Ranjan addressing the press after the Supreme Court order . image credit: NDTV 24X7
The Solicitor general Tushar Mehta appeared for the Maharashtra government and said the required number of trees (2,141) had already been cut and respecting the orders of the court, no further felling of the trees will be undertaken. Subsequent to this, MMRCL spokesperson also issued a statement saying, “Following the decision of the hon’ble high court on 4/10/19.” It was also informed to the apex court, by the Solicitor general, that more than 20,000 had been planted by the authorities in Sanjay Gandhi National Park, the surviving rate of which was stated as 95%. As for the detained and arrested protesters, he said that they had been duly released. But according to a statement issued by the Law Student’s Delegation on the 8th of October, 2019, in an appeal sent to the MMRC to immediately stop “all activities in the Aarey forest, he “didn’t give any no. of trees being fell by the Mumbai authorities. Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation through its Twitter Handle informed that 2141 trees were cut which is yet to be examined.” Challenging the interpretation of the MMRC and the Maharashtra government of the status quo, the student’s delegation has sent a letter to them, requesting complete annulment of the construction project as well as further felling of trees in the area. In this context Rishav Ranjan said, “It’s a big relief momentarily, but a long haul ahead. Even if one tree is saved by this stay order, then one can say it is a constructive intervention of ours. It’s not only about trees but also about the ecology and the whole public discourse on Climate Change.”
What Lies Ahead
The interpretation based on which the delegation of students has sent the letter to MMRC, considers the ambit of the term ‘status quo to be maintained’ much wider than only limiting it to the further felling of trees in the area. According to them, as mentioned in the letter sent by them to the MMRC, “every geographical location has its ecological implications. It is not just about the trees but also about the flora & fauna and decades of environmental investment around the trees. The cost cannot be calculated and its loss is irrecoverable.” Re-echoing the concern of Aarey Conservation Group, principal disquiet of the students, as per the letter, is regarding a sustainable development. Their contestation is not against expansion, as they nowhere denied the need for a metro with the last mile connectivity, but the apathy shown by the government towards the ecological implication of destroying such a pulsating bio-diversity. The demand is not for the complete ban on any developmental activity or the construction of the Metro car shed altogether, but for the re-consideration of the site where it can be built. There are plenty of viable options that the government has been provided with, in the same respect.
Amrender Singh, Lloyd Law College student expressing his opinion on Aarey forest on national debate held by NDTV. image credit: NDTV
The request to MMRC to refrain from carrying out any activity in that area invokes Article 144 of the Indian Constitution that “directs the civil authorities to act in aid of the Supreme Court”, as quoted in the same letter of appeal to the MMRC. The request of the student’s delegation is regarding the consideration of declaring Aarey forest as Ecologically Sensitive Zone “or anything of that sort by the Forest Bench in upcoming Hearings.”
Environmental degradation and ecological implications resulting from human interventions have become a glaring reality that the entire world has been catastrophically exposed to. Countries like Indonesia are forced to shift their capital from Jakarta to a palace more viable and suitable for a sustainable development model. Mumbai being India’s bustling economic capital, we do not have this option.
Similar opinions have been voiced out by a large number of people throughout the country, including many celebrities. Coming forward in support of the resistance against the felling of trees and construction of the Metro rail car-shed, celebrities like Diya Mirza, Karan Johar, Alia Bhatt, Anupan Kher, and many others have highlighted the ecological significance of Aarey forest and re-echoed the same sentiments. The world today is faced with serious environmental challenges and a suitable approach to development is the only way ahead. Hence, it is better to adopt a precautionary approach rather than desperately trying to find a cure for the destruction, brought upon by apathy and plain ignorance
Lloyd Law College