On a sweltering October afternoon, Mumbaikars erupted in anger against the authorities’ move to deprive them of precious green cover in the name of the Metro.
Hundreds of people from all walks of life — citizens, tribals, environmentalists, activists, students, and members of the Aam Aadmi Party and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena — crammed a hall inside the Byculla Zoo office at a public hearing on Wednesday organised by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation to hear objections to the removal of 2,702 trees from the carshed site inside Aarey Colony, Goregaon.
From the word go, the event was marked by chaos. The hearing was being held in a large hall on the office’s ground floor, with barely 50 to 60 seats. At around 2 p.m., people started gathering at the zoo’s gates and as the crowds swelled, police decided to let in only 100 people at a time. Angry protesters began to claim they were being prevented from attending the hearing. Eventually, everyone was let in. BMC and Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL) officials were supposed to hear each objection, but sloganeering drowned most voices out. Decibel levels were almost deafening, with every protester shouting to make himself or herself heard. Police had a tough time controlling the crowd, while protesters complained of police presence at a public hearing. Despite the chaos, 25 to 30 people managed to speak on the platform. Many protesters were streaming the hearing from their phones.
Prakash Bhoir, an adivasi leader and resident of Aarey colony’s Keltipada said, “We have been living in this forest before Aarey Colony got its name. Many of these trees are planted by our ancestors. If we even cut a branch, the Forest Department arrests us. Then why should officers not be arrested for cutting these trees?” There are 27 adivasi ‘padas’ or hamlets inside Aarey.
Tasneem Shaikh, a member of Aarey Conservation Group said, “This hearing is illegal as the matter is sub judice. We want the hearing to be scrapped and no work to be undertaken in Aarey.”
Environmentalist Zoru Bathena, said it is the Tree Authority’s duty to save trees, and it has no right to cut them. “In 2014, the original proposal was for cutting around 2,200 trees inside Aarey; now the number has increased instead of decreasing. And tomorrow, if the court rules in our favour, will the cut trees come back? Let a decision come.”
French tourists Celine Maes and Paul-Eric Moons also attended the hearing. “Back in France, a large wooded area was cut off to build houses. Trees are being cut rampantly across the world and we can feel the consequences. We felt strongly about the cause and that’s why decided to attend,” Ms. Maes said.
Amid the chaos, BMC officials addressed the gathering briefly and left. “We have made note of every objection that came. We will send it to MMRCL. If they choose not to amend their proposal, it, along with the objections, will be tabled before the Tree Authority, which will take a final call,” said Deputy Municipal Commissioner Dr. Kishor Kshirsagar.
Aarey Colony had been marked as a green zone in the new Development Plan with the specific exception of the carshed. With the National Green Tribunal (NGT) providing no relief to those opposing the Metro car shed inside the colony, the BMC had started the process of removing trees from the site. It put out a public notice on September 26 for removing 2,702 trees, including cutting 2,238 trees and transplanting 464. People had time till October 10 to register their opposition. Till Wednesday, the BMC received almost 40,000 suggestions and objections to the proposal in the form of emails and letters.
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