In a setback to environmental activists, the Bombay High Court on Friday refused to declare Aarey colony a forest and also declined to quash the BMC tree authority's decision allowing felling of over 2,600 trees in the suburban green zone to pave way for a metro car shed. A division bench of Chief Justice Pradeep Nandrajog and Justice Bharati Dangre dismissed four petitions filed by NGOs and environmental activists on issues related to the Aarey Colony in Goregaon, a major green lung of the metropolis.
One of the pleas filed by the city-based NGO Vanshakti sought that Aarey is declared a forest and ecologically sensitive zone, while another petition by green activist Zoru Bathena pleaded the area be given the status of a floodplain. Two separate petitions were filed by Bathena and Shiv Sena corporator Yashwant Jadhav, challenging the decision of the BMC tree authority permitting the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Ltd (MMRCL) to cut 2,656 trees to construct a metro car shed in Aarey colony.
The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation had given the tree hacking approval on August 29, 2019, triggering protests by green activists and common citizens who launched a "Save Aarey" campaign. On the Vanshakti petition, the court said, "The remedy is before the Supreme Court or the National Green Tribunal. We have applied the principle of commonality and not decided on merit."
The HC said it was also dismissing the petitions filed by Bathena and Jadhav against the approval for cutting trees. The bench imposed a fine of Rs 50,000 on Jadhav, a member of the BMC tree authority, a body whose approval is mandatory for cutting any tree in the city for infrastructure or other projects. "We gave you (Jadhav) a choice to withdraw the petition but you chose to pursue it," the court said. Vanshakti, in its plea, claimed Aarey colony, measuring 1,287 hectares, had several exotic flora and fauna.
The Maharashtra government has claimed the Aarey colony cannot be termed a forest and that the issue has been already decided by another HC bench. Advocate General Ashutosh Kumbhakoni, appearing for the state earlier, had said an appeal against the HC order refusing to declare Aarey a forest is currently pending before the Supreme Court.
Bathena, in his plea, challenged the decision taken by the tree authority granting permission to cut trees. The proposed car shed, part of the metro 3 project, will occupy 33 hectares in the southern part of the Aarey colony. The authority has approved the felling of 2,185 trees and transplanting (uprooting from the original spot and replanting them at an alternate spot) 461 trees from the area. The authority's approval is mandatory for the felling of more than 20 trees at a time at any place in the city. Bathena's counsel Janak Dwarkadas had argued earlier that the authority's decision was taken in "haste and without proper application of mind".
The MMRCL and the BMC, in their affidavits in response to Bathena's plea, said the petition was stalling a public transport project which is in larger public interest and vital public infrastructure. The affidavits claimed that the metro project was environment-friendly and needs to be completed expeditiously.
"The metro project is expected to wean people away from using cars, taxis, and two-wheelers and hence will result in a sharp reduction in atmospheric pollution and environmental hazards caused by automobile exhaust gas," the MMRCL and BMC affidavits said. The MMRCL, in its affidavit, said Aarey is not a pristine area of land or has a dense tree cover or a naturally forested area as claimed by the petitioner. It said the delay in construction of the car shed will cause a Rs 4.23-crore loss per day to the company and the state government.