Save Aarey Milk Colony: The fight to protect Mumbai’s lungs

The Bombay High Court has said that no trees will be cut down in Aarey Milk Colony until the court hears a petition challenging the proposal on September 30. Citizens across the city have been protesting the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation Tree Authority’s plan to cut down or transplant around 2,700 trees to make way for the Metro-III car shed at the proposed site in Aarey Milk Colony.

Over the past few weeks, the save Aarey Milk Colony movement has been gaining momentum as citizens, celebrities and politicians have been joining hands in a bid to protect one of the city’s last standing tree covers. Three members of the Tree Authority have also come forward claiming that there are discrepancies in the tree inventory data. Conservationist Zoru Darius Bathena had filed a petition challenging the Tree Authority’s resolution to fell the trees.

While it has not been officially recognised as a forest and is under the jurisdiction of the dairy department, Aarey is ecologically important as it is one of the last few remaining green patches in the city, and is the city’s lungs.

Development vs ecology

Aarey Milk Colony, one of the city's last remaining green patches is home to vast biodiversity. Image credit: By Dinesh Valke from Thane, India - P1040060, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51605811

Established in 1949, the Aarey Milk Colony was carved out of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, to house a milk factory, cattle grazing grounds, and residential units for those who worked at the dairy. It once occupied an area of over 3,000 acres in the northern parts of Mumbai. Over the decades the area that it covers has drastically been reduced to 1,300 acres. Around 1,000 acres of the Aarey Milk Colony have been allocated to various state and central government establishments. In 1977, 490 acres of land was carved out of the Colony to establish the Film City.

However, the rest of the land is mostly filled with dense vegetation, different kinds of fauna and has the Mithi river flowing through it. It is also home to several tribal communities who co-exist peacefully with the land, the forest and the animals that inhabit it.

In November 2014, the state government proposed a 30-hectare car shed for Metro III to be built in Aarey Milk Colony. Protests started and peaked when the BMC Tree Authority issued a letter to the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL) to fell 2,702 trees, out of which 2,238 were proposed to be cut, while the rest were to be transplanted. This prompted NGO Vanashakti and the Aarey Conservation Group to file a petition to declare Aarey into a forest and an eco-sensitive zone. However, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) had stated that it does not have any jurisdiction to declare the Aarey a forest.

Activists now fear that, if a chunk of Aarey milk Colony is given away for development, it will open it for commercial exploitation and will also clear the way for projects to slowly encroach upon the Sanjay Gandhi National Park as well. which has been going enthusiastic in its efforts of declaring that since

In its defense, MMRCL, the body that is looking after the execution of the Metro III line connecting Colaba-Bandra and SEEPZ, has claimed that Aarey Milk Colony is not a forest land, hence, it can continue with its development efforts. In an affidavit submitted to the National Green Tribunal (NGT), MMRC had stated that the Aarey Milk Colony has not been “been recognised, notified and/or identified and demarcated” as a forest. It has also stated that the delay in constructing the car shed will cause losses of Rs. 4.23 crore per day.

However, it is this lack of clarity in the designation that the MMRCL and the Government have been exploiting in its bid to usurp the land for development. In fact, MMRCL has even taken out full page advertisements in newspapers declaring that it is a myth that Aarey Milk Colony is a forest and that there is wildlife in the area demarcated for the car shed.

The destruction of an ecological haven

Environmentalists argue that the whole issue is not just about cutting down of trees or transplanting them somewhere else. Ecologists Rajesh Sanap and Zeeshan Mirza had found that the colony is home to 76 species of birds, 86 species of butterflies, 13 species of amphibians, 38 different types of reptiles, 19 spider species and 34 different types of wildflowers. It is also home to around 7-8 leopards, who for years have been coexisting peacefully with humans, but are now becoming victims to human-animal conflict, with their land slowly being taken away from them.

While authorities are trying to convert chunks of Aarey forest into development land, Mumbai is battling with floods and severe air pollution, the consequences of the gradual destruction of the city’s green cover. While this year’s monsoons have seen heavy waterlogging in various parts of the city, in 2018, Mumbai was the second-most polluted megacity in the country, as per Greenpeace’s report titled Global SO2 Emission Hotspot Database.

The MMRCL and state government are justifying the metro as the environment friendly mode of transport of the future. While this remains true, Mumbaikars have every right to fight for clean air and conservation of the city’s flora and fauna.