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Anger in Mumbai as trees make way for metro

Anshul Maudar Mumbai | Updated on January 11, 2018 Published on July 04, 2017

bl04_save trees

With trees being felled to make way for the Mumbai metro, angry voices are concerned whether the urban transportation drive in the ‘maximum city’ can be achieved with minimum pain.

Decades-old trees are being cut to lower tunnel-boring machines at 10 locations and the plan is to build a car depot at the lush green Aarey Colony near the protected Sanjay Gandhi National Park on the fringes of Mumbai.

Line-3 connects Colaba in South Mumbai to SEEPZ in the western suburbs and is overseen by the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRCL). But it faces a three-month delay as citizens have sought legal intervention over environmental concerns. As Ashwini Bhide, Managing Director, MMRCL says, “Even a day’s delay costs us ₹4 crore but we can certainly make up for that.”

Sudhir Badami, a transportation analyst, feels with an estimated capacity of 98,000 pphpd (people per hour per direction), the metro falls far short of the requisite capacity. He also believes the project could face major problems if it runs into financial trouble.

The biggest challenge, however, is sticking to the deadline. “Line 1 took 8 years. Commute in Mumbai is already arduous and could get worse if the project slows down,” says Badami.

“BRTS would have cost just five per cent of the metro’s outlay and used the existing highways more effectively while ensuring a minimal loss of tree cover,” says Badami. Likewise, a Skybus system can be built at a fourth of the metro’s cost. A 1.6-km test track had been built in Goa but an accident during a test in 2004 had caused the death of an employee and the idea was shelved.

Citizen groups and NGOs are alarmed by the cutting of 5,000 trees for a single underground metro. A writ petition in the Bombay High Court led to a stay on the felling but this was lifted and eventually upheld by the Supreme Court.

MMRCL told the Court that trees, equivalent to the number cut, would be planted at the affected areas once the construction was complete. Compensatory forestation at a 3:1 ratio, coupled with transplantation of 1,727 trees is being carried out at a 30-hectare plot in Aarey Colony.

“The responsibility of the compensatory forestation lies with the contractors who have to pay a few thousand rupees as deposit to the tree authority for cutting a tree. Is this the cost of a 70-year-old tree’s life?” asks Stalin Dayanand of the NGO Vanashakti. He thinks trees transplanted for past projects are dead with MMRCL refusing to promise that land for compensatory forestation will be left untouched.

The flashpoint in this tug-of-war is Aarey Colony where the car depot is slated to come up against the recommendations of two environmental experts who were part of a six-member panel to examine alternative sites. “The Aarey land is certainly not suitable due to its ecological significance,” said a joint dissent note by Shyam Asolekar of IIT Bombay and Rakesh Kumar of the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute. The panel had earlier recommended that the main car depot be built at Kanjurmarg, a few kilometres away, and a smaller facility at Aarey.

However, if acquiring land at Kanjurmarg was an issue, a double decker depot at Aarey could be built on 20.82 hectares with a loss of 446 trees. Today, 3,184 trees are to be cut as stated in a tender floated for the depot at costs ranging from ₹940-28,548. The two experts said Backbay in South Mumbai should be the designated car depot as per the 1991 Development Plan as well as Kanjurmarg but their views were clearly ignored.

In 2015, the National Green Tribunal ordered a stay on non-forestry activities and a ban on tree felling in Aarey. Subsequently, the NGT allowed MMRCL to acquire 3.5 hectares for a casting yard to make linings for tunnels. The NGO, Vanashakti, alleges that MMRCL has cut nearly 300 trees and has not got the go-ahead either from the Municipal Corporation or Pollution Control Board.

In a Central Government notification last December, Aarey was declared an ecologically sensitive zone but 165 hectares were excluded for the metro. Vanashakti alleges this is part of a wider plan to destroy Aarey while Badami says the government plans to set up a zoo and botanical garden here.

Bhide, in turn, reiterates that the land has been acquired from the Dairy Development Department which Vanashakti’s Dayanand refutes while saying it always belonged to the Forest Department.

A forest expert, who prefers to stay anonymous, says a notification in 1897 paved the way for transfer of large tracts of pasture forest to the Revenue Department for maintenance and upkeep. This was then transferred to different parties without the principal owner’s consent.

Bhide insists MMRCL is not rattled by these controverises and is prioritising timely completion.

The writer is an intern with BusinessLine Mumbai

Published on July 04, 2017
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