New Delhi: Since its establishment as a milk colony in 1949, Mumbais Aarey area has undergone many changes but has succeeded in maintaining its biodiversity.
The same Aarey colony has been in news lately over the felling of trees for construction related to Mumbai Metro rail, triggering a development-versus- environment debate.
There were protests over cutting of trees, with those opposing the Metro authorities' step arguing that it is a forest area.
Construction of Film City in 1977, then a zoo and now a Metro rail car shed in Aarey, environmentalists say and add that continuation of these activities would lead to extensive alteration of its landscape.
The dispute on the contention continues and the matter is now before the Supreme Court for adjudication.
A Special Vacation Bench of Supreme Court on Monday agreed to examine the pleas of activists who sought protection of the unclassified forest from various construction activities. The top court directed the Maharashtra government to maintain status quo and not cut any trees further till October 21, the next date fixed for hearing.
The special bench was constituted after consideration of a letter written by a law student Rishav Ranjan to Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, requesting him to intervene in the matter.
The Bombay High Court on October 4 gave green signal to Maharashtra government to cut the trees for Metro-related construction, while dismissing a plea filed by conservationist Zoru Darius Bathena.
The dispute dates back to March 2015 when the Maharashtra government appointed a technical committee of six members to look into the issue of setting up of Metro Car Depot at Aarey Colony from the ecological point of view.
On June 12, 2015, the dissenting notes from environmental experts stated that "trees and open spaces at Aarey Colony must be saved without any compromise as it is a much desirable ecological endowment of the Mumbai. The Aarey land is certainly not suitable due to its ecological significance.
In July 2015, some environment experts suggested alternate site at Kanjurmarg as a better option for construction of the Metro car shed in comparison to the site at Aarey Colony.
On August 29 this year, the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL) got permission from the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation's Tree Authority to cut 2,185 trees and transplant 460 for its projects.
According to Bathena, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation Tree Authority allowed MMRC to cut trees without following the procedure for deciding tree cutting proposals laid down by the High Court earlier this year.
The Tree Authority had on June 30 called for suggestions and objections from members of the public on the proposal by the MMRC and on July 8, the Tree officer conducted a public hearing, where approximately 500 citizens once again raised their objections, but none of the objections was taken into consideration by the tree authority, Bathena complained.
One of the petitions filed by Vanshakti has challenged the destructive activities in the form of constructions as well as other commercial activities in Aarey as it has been earmarked as 'green zone' as per the sanctioned development plan, 2014-2034.
The NGO has also sought to declare it as "reserved forests" or "protected forests" under the Indian Forest Act, 1927.
Various documents were cited, which said that Aarey has been recognized and identified as a ‘forest' by the authorities but no declaration or notification of the same has been issued under the Indian Forest Act, 1927 for reasons best known to them.
The Ministry of Environment and Forest had included Aarey under the Eco-Sensitive Zone (ESZ) of Sanjay Gandhi National Park vide notification dated December 5, 2016. But, it has left out more than 165 hectares of natural forest area in Aarey outside the ambit of ESZ for commercial exploitation, according to the activists.
Aarey is situated in Goregaon (East), Mumbai abutting on the southwestern side of Sanjay Gandhi National Park.
There are vast grasslands in Aarey, which is also home to at least 27 tribal hamlets. This land is also home of various species of homogenous birds and butterflies, endemic species of scorpions, spiders and other insects, a natural habitat of a large number of animals including leopards, endangered reptile species including Indian Rock Python.
According to Vanshakti-authorized representative Stalin Dayanand, Aarey was carved out in 1949 for supplying better quality milk to the citizens with good maintenance of livestock and on March 4, 1951, it was inaugurated by the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. In 1980, when the Forest (Conservation) Act was enacted, the area was covered with dense forests. Hence, no developmental activities could have been carried out within the 3160 acres of Aarey.