The Supreme Court, making an urgent intervention into the Aarey colony deforestation row, asked the government to not cut any more trees in the area until the matter is heard in further detail. A Supreme Court Green Bench will hear the matter next on 21 October and the Union Environment Ministry will also be made a party in the case.
"Don't cut any more trees now. It appears to us that it was some kind of forest at some time," the Supreme Court said, in essence ordering a status quo by halting the felling of trees which was in progress since late hours of Friday night after Bombay High Court refused to declare the area a forest. However, the actual respite offered by this temporary halt appears to be negligible as the damage is already done.
According to NDTV, the Maharashtra government itself told Supreme Court that no more trees are required to be cut to make way for a car shed of the Mumbai Metro in Aarey Colony. In fact, Solicitor-General Tushar Mehta, appearing on behalf of the Maharashtra government, himself offered to undertake no more cutting of trees until the apex court heard the matter in detail.
An official statement by the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited said, "Following the decision of the honourable High Court on 4 October, 2019 upholding the permission of the Tree Authority, the felling of 2,185 trees was undertaken on 4 and 5 October, and as on date, 2,141 trees have been felled. These will be cleared from site and subsequent construction activities will be carried out."
We respect the order of the Hon'ble Supreme Court dated October 7, 2019. Following is our official statement. pic.twitter.com/o8CjSmHAB2
" MumbaiMetro3 (@MumbaiMetro3) October 7, 2019
And the court did not say anything on the over 2,100 trees already axed. The legality of the move will be decided by the environment bench but the environmental costs incurred already are unlikely to be neutralised immediately.
The Supreme Court bench comprising Justices Arun Mishra and Ashok Bhushan took note of this fact and observed that felling a full-grown tree and replacing it with a sapling was not the same thing. It sought a report from the Maharashtra government on compulsory afforestation efforts taken by it and the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRC).
"Tell us how many saplings you planted. How have they grown? What's the status of your forests?," the Supreme Court told Solicitor General Tushar Mehta who was appearing for the state government and other authorities.
"Planting saplings is a separate thing, looking after them is a separate thing," Justice Mishra said.
The Supreme Court also asked the government that activists who were arrested for violating prohibitory orders during the felling drive at Aarey Colony should be released. 'In case those are still not released shall be released immediately,' Mehta assured the court.
The hearing was held especially to intervene in the matter urgently as the activists accused Maharashtra government of clandestinely chopping off trees in the dead of the night, just hours after Bombay High Court's judgment so as not to give citizens the time to appeal. The Supreme Court is presently on a Dussehra break.
The apex court decided on Sunday to register as public interest litigation a letter addressed to Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi by a law student Rishav Ranjan seeking a stay on the cutting of trees.
The letter sent to the CJI by Ranjan on behalf a student delegation on Sunday comes two days after the Bombay High Court refused to declare Aarey Colony a forest and declined to quash the Mumbai municipal corporation's decision to allow felling of over 2,600 trees in the green zone to set up a metro car shed.
The letter states, "As we write this letter to you the Mumbai authorities continue to kill the lungs of Mumbai i.e Aarey forest by clearing of trees near Mithi river bank and according to news reports 1,500 trees have already been cleared by the authorities.
"Not only this but our friends are put in jail who were peacefully organising a vigil against the acts of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) with Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRC) at the site."
The students in their letter have requested the Supreme Court "to exercise its epistolary jurisdiction to protect Aarey without getting into technicalities as there was no time for preparation of a proper appeal petition and cover the scars of these young activists who are responsible citizens standing for serious environmental concerns".
It also said that the students have moved the apex court as the Bombay High Court rejected the bail plea of 29 activists who had participated in the "peaceful vigil" against the tree-felling and have been detained by Mumbai police.
The letter has alleged that the student-activists were abused and manhandled by the Mumbai Police which had booked them for the offences of 'assault on a public servant to deter him from discharging his duty' and 'unlawful assembly' under the IPC. The activists were released Monday morning, hours ahead of the hearing.
According to the letter, Aarey forest is located adjacent to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park and has five lakh trees. The police on Saturday imposed Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code in the area, restricting movements and gathering of groups, and cordoned off the area. The prohibitory restrictions too were lifted on Monday morning.
The trees were proposed to be cut for Mumbai metro-3 project and specifically for the construction of a car shed, it said and added that the high court refused to recognise Aarey as a forest or declare it as an ecological sensitive issue because of jurisdictional limits.
Earlier, Opposition parties slammed the ruling BJP-Shiv Sena, stating they failed to save the trees. Sena leader Aaditya Thackeray also criticised the MMRCL and backed the protesters. Some local tribals also opposed the tree cutting, claiming they were largely dependent on the Aarey forest for their livelihood.
The MMRCL has defended tree felling by contending that it is restricted only to a small area in Aarey Colony, and is necessary to ensure a modern transport system for Mumbaikars. The proposed car shed for the Metro-3 line (Colaba-Bandra-Seepz) will occupy 33 hectares.