IT WOULD have been just a routine letter from the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) to the state government, the kind that people write to central ministries with a complaint or a grievance so that it can be put away as “action taken”. But against the background of the protests against the cutting of trees in Aarey, the missive might add a fresh twist to the tale.
Written in response to an appeal from the Mumbai-based NGO, Empower Foundation, to the central ministry submitting evidence of the presence of leopards in Aarey and seeking action for saving the animal’s habitat, the letter asks the state government “to take necessary steps to save [the] leopard’s habitat in Aarey Milk Colony”.
The NGO had also written an identical letter to International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), which is funding the Metro project.
It highlighted that Aarey, 3 km from Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai’s suburbs, is home to nine leopards. The letter requested the ministry “to investigate, validate and intervene” as “JICA has intentions to harm and endanger the leopards of Aarey and destroy their natural habitat in Aarey forest and that they have funded for destruction of the natural habitat by cutting trees (2,646) for creation of commercial maintenance car shed for Mumbai Metro 3, despite various other options”.
The IUCN and JICA did not respond, but the environment ministry did, and its letter is dated October 3, a day before the Bombay High Court dismissed all petitions. “The matter relates to leopard and its habitat destruction by construction and non-forest activities in Aarey Forest, Mumbai. In this context, it is requested to take further necessary action on the matter at the earliest,” read the reply.
Leopards are listed under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. It classifies species as being either extirpated, endangered, threatened, or a special concern. Jalpesh Mehta, of the Empower Foundation, said, “Even if the letter came after the cutting of trees at Aarey, there is still hope. We can still save the leopard’s habitat, the biodiversity of the area. Also, we have the Supreme Court hearing on October 21 to look forward to.”