Aarey Fights back with its Citizen Warriors

By Nirali Vaidya

Please note that the public hearing is supposed to be for only listening to the grievances of the public and noting them down, the tree authority members are given no chance or authority to respond, the format has not been designed to handle the question answer method.

Unfortunately the MMRDA and MMRCL is using reputed members from scientific and conservation community and voting them out with corporators and political position people who are 5:1 more than experts. So any decision when it goes to vote can easily be voted out. With 4 experts and 12-13 political party persons who have no real qualifications are in the tree authority. Sadly, even the experts have to face the public ire because of the lack of will of the BMC to face questions of the public.

Please note that the public hearing is supposed to be for only listening to the greivances of the public and noting them down, the tree authority members are given no chance or authority to respond, the format has not been designed to handle the question answer method.

Unfortunately the MMRDA and MMRCL is using reputed members from scientific and conservation community and voting them out with corporators and political position people who are 5:1 more than experts. So any decision when it goes to vote can easily be voted out. With 4 experts and 12-13 political party persons who have no real qualifications are in the tree authority. Sadly, even the experts have to face the public ire because of the lack of will of the BMC to face questions of the public.

Mumbai’s only surviving green lungs at Aarey Colony is fighting a long battle to save its pristine trees, biodiversity, and ecology from the prying eyes of greed, infrastructure, and commercialisation. The greatest and the most immediate threat to the Aarey ecosystem is the proposal by MMRCL to build a car shed for Mumbai Metro 3 project. In a public notice on 30th June, 2019, the tree authority asked the citizens to send their objections against felling of 2703 trees in Aarey colony due to the construction work of Metro 3 car shed.  It also invited the citizens for a public hearing on 8th July, 2019 to allow citizens to express their objections against the felling of the trees. Till 8th July, the tree authority received more than 115000 objections on email.

As per the provisions of the Maharashtra Act, No. XLIV of 1975, the Tree Authority was constituted in the year 1976, by the Corporation. The Tree Authority helps in regulating the felling of trees and providing for the planting of an adequate number of new trees through Garden Department.

The citizens thronged the MMRDA building auditorium in Bandra Kurla Complex in thousands to participate for the public hearing. There were professionals, teachers and students who missed their offices and schools to come for the hearing.

The indigenous tribes who have been inhabiting Aarey forest for centuries and now have been displaced due to the Metro 3 car shed too came for the public hearing. A tribal woman with a wound on her hand due to a recent leopard attack reprimanded the officials saying that “Though the leopard attacked us, we consider them our god. Forest is not just a means of our livelihood but our life itself. We cannot let the government ruin our centuries-old ancestral forest for metro car shed.”

Another tribal woman complained that MMRDA officials came to their house and started cutting their trees. “My land is left with pits and ravines, their children have to walk in deep puddles risking their safety. Who will be responsible for my wretched condition due to the construction for metro 3 car shed happening in the area?”

A concerned gentleman asked where will MMRCL get tonnes of water to wash the car shed in times of water crisis? Are they going to compromise on the groundwater level of the forest and leave the tribals and wildlife dry?

The citizens thanked the tree authority for their time and appreciated that they are willing to hear their concerns. As citizens bombarded with their questions, concerns, and fears, the tree authority chose to remain silent on maximum issues. Even after umpteen requests by the citizens pleading the officials to express their stance on the matter, all they said was just thanking the audience for their time. When the officials cannot protect themselves from the storm of the citizens’ opinions, how will they protect the trees from the diplomacy of the development? The fact that no member out of the respected five-member team spoke about environment, crisis, opportunities, or threats re-established the fact that tree authority is merely the puppet at the hands of BMC with no real powers or expertise to stop or initiate any action that is detrimental to the trees of Mumbai. This needs to change. We need to have two way communication with the officers and experts. A professor from Xavier college teaching environmental studies questioned the tree authority what type of forest was Aarey? When there was no response from them, she answered that Aarey was a deciduous forest. She further questioned to name any three trees that make up a deciduous forest. There was still no response. No wonder, on October 24, 2018, the Bombay High Court had stayed the functioning of the Tree Authority for not having any tree experts in the committee. We are now thankful to have specialists like Shashirekha ma’am on board, hope the other members learn a thing or two from them.

Points raised by citizens before Tree Authority raised by citizens against car shed:

1.            Loss of 2703 trees amount to the loss of vital ecosystem, biodiveristy, and ecology of Aarey forest.

2.            Loss of flood plains of Mithi river by the construction of car shed will result in increased floods in Mumbai.

3.            Transplantation or new plantation cannot be a substitute for deforestation. Proposal for replantation is unviable, unsustainable and unscientific. Firstly, in the scenario of the water crisis, where will tonnes of water come for plantation of new 20000 plantations. The new plantations are not capable of carbon sequestration like the fully grown trees. The survival rate of transplanted trees is marginal.

4.            First, maintain the existing thriving forest of hundreds of years then think of developing mini new urban forest.

5.            Car shed will lead to penetration of harmful chemicals into the soil thus poisoning the groundwater level & ecosystem of Aarey colony.

6.            When other viable sites are available within the city then why not shift car shed out of Aarey.

7.            Car shed will displace the indigenous tribes of Aarey from their ancestral lands and livelihood.

8.            When & how is Tree Authority making MMRCL accountable for illegal cutting of trees in Aarey inspite of the court stay order.

9.            What legal rights Tree Authority has to conduct a public hearing when it has a stay order from the court?

10.          What were MMRCL members doing on stage when this was a public hearing was by Tree Authority of India?

11.          What is the further course of action after this public hearing?

12.          Why no member representing tree authority gave their comments on the issue of car shed?

13.          What will tree authority do of more than 1 lakh signatures it received in response to 30.06.19 public notice?

14.          What has tree authority done of nearly 40000 signatures it received last year?

15.          Why did tree authority choose MMRDA auditorium where not more than 200 people can be accommodated when it receives thousands of objection letters?

16.          There needs to be Social Impact Analysis & Environment Impact Analysis before undertaking any infrastructure project.

17.          The public hearing should be made available in the form of the white paper.      

18.          There should be scientists, experts, environmentalists, tribal representatives, citizen representatives, and qualified professionals on the tree authority panel.

19.          There shouldn’t be any further public hearings whereby the productivity of citizens is stake.

20.          Unanimously all the points lead to the fact that  Mumbai Metro 3 car shed should go out of Aarey forest.

 The public hearing that took place on 8th July, 2019 was a great display of people’s power, expertise, and their determination towards conserving their environment, forest, and sovereignty

About the author:

Nirali Vaidya is a multifaceted writer, speaker, and counselor who has been an active supporter of environment & climate change.
As a brand consultant she is helping her clients ranging from Fortune 100 companies to new entrepreneurs create their brand stories, define the brand’s tone of voice, develop written communications and strategize brand’s campaigns.

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