Mumbai protests: The controversial trees

Reading time: 6-8 minutes.

In 2015 the Mumbai City Authorities announced its plan for clearing about 70 acres of land in Aarey Colony to make a car parking area for the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRC).

This resulted in multiple challenges, protests and court cases, finally coming to a concluding on August 30 of 2019 when Mumbai’s Tree Authority Committee approved a proposal to cut down 2,702 trees.

Large-scale protests started as early as September 1st 2019. The first day featured next to a thousand people armed with placards, expressing their disagreement by forming a human chain near the proposed car shed site.

Later, the number of protestors swelled despite the heavy rains and additional protest marches were organized in the city. The decision of Tree Authority was challenged in the Bombay High Court, which upheld it on October 4th.

The MMRC began to cut the trees in the barricaded portion of Aarey colony almost soon afterwards. Eventually, the activists managed to break into the barricaded portion, resulting in lathi-charge by the police.

Section 144 of the CrPC (preventing unlawful assembly, and allowing the police to arrest and charge groups of four or more people) was imposed on the area from the night of October 4th. By the next day, 38 protestors were booked under various sections of the IPC and 60 people were detained by the police.

What are the key arguments by both protesters and the government?

Aarey Colony is a forested area in the eastern part of Mumbai, in stunning contrast to the busy highway running around its’ edges. The 3000-acre green cover houses a unique ecosystem, with nearly 300 identified species and multiple Adivasi villages.

Notably, a new species of spider was discovered in the colony as late as 2016. Aarey colony is also adjacent to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, a designated protected area.

The arguments of the activists and the citizens focus on the importance of conservation, especially in an era where the effects of climate change are becoming rapidly evident. Both of India’s coastlines have experienced extreme weather conditions over the past few years.

There is also the argument that the forest cover near Mumbai is very low when compared to the population of the city, and reducing existing cover will not help. The Aarey Colony, activists argue, also forms the river basin for the local water bodies, and depleting it is likely to result in future floods.

The arguments of the government and the MMRC focus on two separate points. Firstly, they assert that Mumbai is in dire need of a mass rapid transit system- the city still uses a decades-old train system dating back to British times. In addition to stressing on the suitability of the location, this side of the aisle has also submitted that the disputed area is very much not an ecologically sensitive zone.

The project proposes to use about 75 acres of a 3000-acre area in the southernmost part of the colony, and court documents submitted to the NGT argue that parts of the Aarey Colony land have already been used for non-forestry purposes. As an additional measure, the government has promised to plant more trees than it is planning to cut- although allegations abound that these new trees are limited in both health and numbers.

What are the legal principles and customs involved?

Two court cases may be focused on in the light of the Aarey controversy. The first is a 2017 petition to the Bombay High Court asking the court to prohibit the clearing of the disputed area.

The court declined to do so, as the argument relied upon asserted that the disputed area was protected as it was “a forest or on forest land.” Noting that the area in question had not been officially designated as forested land, the Court allowed the construction of the car parking area. 

Subsequently, a petition was filed in the National Green Tribunal (2018) asking the NGT to officially designate the disputed area as a reserved forest, thus bringing it into the purview of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.

The Tribunal noted that Maharashtra did not have parameters for the size and percentage green cover which would allow a given section of land to be declared as a forest and that in the absence of such guidelines the Supreme Court was the appropriate forum to rule on the petition.

Section 144 of the CrPC gives any Executive Magistrate the power issue directions which in their opinion is likely “to prevent, or tends to prevent, obstruction … or a disturbance of the public tranquility, or a riot, of an affray.”

Following the rapid cutting down of the trees in the disputed area, accomplished in a short two days after literal years of protests, tensions were running high in Aarey Colony.

Following the protests, the Supreme Court on October 7th ordered the government to maintain the status quo in the disputed area till October 21, when the matter is scheduled to be heard again. This means no construction, and no further cutting of trees.

Implications and public outrage:

While The Environment (Protection) Act 1986 requires that every large-scale project be subjected to both an Environmental Impact Assessment and a Social Impact Assessment, the fact remains that the final authority to stop or go ahead with the proposed construction remains with the government.

The public hearing portion of the EIA reportedly included nearly 500 people voicing their objections to the project. More significantly, about 82,000 people have written objections to the BMC concerning the project.

Public reaction has been stronger than what would generally have been expected from Mumbai- traditionally a city with minimal levels of overt activism.

It has been suggested that this response is a result of recent world events, such as the recent and disquieting forest fires in the Amazon and the impassioned speech given by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg at the United Nations Climate Action Summit.

It may be noted that a large proportion of the activists are young people concerned with the state of the world they are building for their future. The actions of the BMC in proceeding to rapidly mow down the trees in the disputed area as soon as the objections were dismissed by the High Court perhaps speaks of impatience over a project long-delayed.

A delayed construction project usually has far-reaching implications, with costs tending to build up exponentially over time- materials and labour cost only increase over time, after all. The move, while arguably legal, may not have been strictly above-board when looked from the lens of public trust in the government.

The political angles are probably relevant here as well- the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly elections are due to be held in late October, and parties tend to lean in on issues the people are passionate about.  

Conclusion: Way forward…

In a city of millions of souls and a country of nearly 1.5 billion, individual voices may get lost in a crowd of enraged shouting, however, justified it might be. Reasoned dialogue and factual discussions are time-worn pieces of advice which likely apply here as well. We are all angry, but then delaying or miring in controversy of a project that’s projected to decrease carbon emissions might have ended up being a win for nobody.

-This article is brought to you in collaboration with Varsha Valsaraj from Rajiv Gandhi School of Intellectual Property Law, I.I.T Kharagpur.

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