Mumbai: Online battle over Aarey car shed gets ugly

Mohamed Thaver, Laxman Singh
At a protest outside High Court. (Express photo: Ganesh Shirsekar)

The fight over the plan to fell and transplant over 2,600 trees at Aarey Milk Colony for the Metro 3 car depot has spilled online with at least one IAS officer, official Twitter handles of the upcoming Metro line, actors, activists, politicians and residents engaged in a social media battle of facts, innuendo, accusations and rebuttals.

Since August 29, when the Tree Authority gave permission to fell 2,185 trees and transplant 461 to other locations, new hashtags have emerged, with the battle threatening to get ugly as trolls took over. Activity on the official Twitter handles of Metro 3 and Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Managing Director Ashwini Bhide picked up after August 29, the same time when the permission for tree felling triggered a massive public outcry.

Since September 6, Bhide, who would till then tweet not more than once or twice a day with updates on the progress of the Metro work, has put out more than 76 tweets, retweets and replies to other tweets, all on the advantages of having the car shed in Aarey. She has also taken on celebrities for promoting misleading information.

When actor Raveena Tandon tweeted a photo depicting biopersity and wildlife in Aarey, with the message Is Aarey Forest, not a forest? , Bhide tweeted: Mam, pl dn t get misled by partial info & chck ur facts befr takng a public stand. Pl c d map below. D yellow spot @MumbaiMetro3 s car depo. Pl also c where d #FilmCity is. Ya there r 4.8 lakh trees in entire Aarey Milk Colony of 1300 ha & not just in car depot land.

All Bhide s tweets end with #AareyAikaNa, which translates, with a play on Aarey, into hey, listen up .

The other hashtag being used by officials and other pro-car shed social media activists is #jaanophirmaano (know before you believe). Those campaigning against the car shed are using #SaveAarey and #SaveAareyForest to amplify their message.

Besides officials, among those using the pro-car shed hashtags is Suresh Nakhua, who identifies himself as the spokesperson of Mumbai BJP s digital marketing cell on Twitter. In one tweet, he alleged that environmentalist Stalin D, director of NGO Vanshakti, was opposing the project with the backing of missionaries. Quoting this, another Twitter handle trolled Aaditya Thackeray, the Shiv Sena scion who is against the car shed project. Is @AUThackeray led shivsena supporting Christian missionaries? What will happen to hindutva? #aareykakalasach .

Celebrities have also taken to online campaigns. Amitabh Bachahan tweeted: T 3290 – Friend of mine had a medical emergency, decided to take METRO instead of his car .. came back very impressed .. said was faster, convenient and most efficient .. Solution for pollution …Grow more trees… I did in my garden… have you. This was retweeted by @MumbaiMetro3, which has 15,800 followers.

Lata Mangeshkar, who has a following of 13.8 million, tweeted on September 4, To cut down 2700 trees and invade the natural habitat for so many species would be a tragedy…

Some Twitter handles that favour the felling of trees have plugged pro-Hindutva portals like OpIndia and Swarajya, both of which have carried articles in the last two weeks in support of the car shed and criticised the Save Aarey campaign while accusing NGOs and liberal activists of spreading misinformation.

The other online battleground is Facebook, where a page named Nationality Indian, Religion Hindu is targeting NGO Vanshakti as being part of a 3M lobby explained as Marxists, Missionaries and Mullahs.

One Facebook user alleged that Vanshakti was banned from raising funds under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) in 2016 by the Home Ministry because of issues such as conversions and fund persions. 3Ms are back to stall any development that is in national interest, the user posted.

Following such posts, Stalin D has issued clarification on the allegations and also sent a legal notice to one person. Stalin D told The Indian Express that following the legal notice, the post had been deleted. He said he had also sent a legal notice to Suresh Nakhua alleging defamation for his tweet alleging that Vanshakti had a Christian missionary agenda.

Vanshakti s Minakshi Menon said that all allegations on violation of FCRA were fake.