By Roli S
As a resident of Mumbai-Thane area I have been a witness to the Aarey Colony construction of car shed issue for the last over two years, which started with environment enthusiasts protesting against the cutting down of trees and finally turning into a full blown political drama during this season of elections in the state of Maharashtra. I am once again left wondering who exactly will come out as winner in this whole episode. The political parties that are going back and forth with their decision making because of the impact it will have on the state assembly election result? The Judiciary that is further confused by the environmental facts given and the research papers provided? Environmental Activists who will save the trees and environment at the cost of a public transport system which is the need of the hour? Common people who are not directly affected by any of this and desperately want a better public transport system? Or, rationalists like me who always look out for solutions that are practical and for the larger good? Who will be the winner? And at what cost?
The Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL) was ordered by the BMC to cut 2,185 trees and transplant 460 on a 33-hectare land at Aarey for the construction of a Metro Line 3 rake depot. It had already cut as many as 2,134 trees by Friday, 4 October, 2019. This leaves me all the more questioning the timing and intensity of ‘protests’ and escalation of the issue, which is more than two years old.
Lightweight protests have been taking place against the construction of a car shed for the Mumbai Metro at the colony for two years. The issue has taken a political turn now just two weeks ahead of state elections. Except the BJP, which has maintained that the car depot in Aarey Colony would be in the interest of the city, its ally Shiv Sena, opposition parties Congress, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), the Samajwadi Party and Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) have all gate-crashed the ‘Save Aarey’ movement.
In the cacophony of activists’ demands and political claims, the party that is most distressed and helpless is in fact “The Aarey Trees”. Trees that have been standing in the area for many years providing green cover and supporting many species of birds and animals. The trees that are useful to us when they are alive and also when they are reduced to just plain timber! Whether to save these trees or hack these trees is the dilemma and in all this medley of support and protest, what is brushed under the carpet is the real issue – is it really possible to bring to life as many trees as we destroy? Because these trees are such a boon to us alive or dead!
In 2017, the Bombay High Court set up a committee to monitor Mumbai Metro’s plantation and transplantation initiatives. The MMRC claimed that it had already planted 24,000 trees in Aarey as well as in the neighbouring Sanjay Gandhi National Park in place of the over 2000 trees that were hacked in Aarey, to limit the environmental impact of the felling. These trees belong to the native species. They are all geo-tagged and well-maintained, claimed Ashwini Bhide, the MMRC Managing Director.
The gardeners that are looking after the trees claim that the trees are not planted in a planned manner as they have been instructed to plant trees at a distance of at least 8 feet from each other. An Arjuna tree, for example, can grow up to 70 feet. “How would their canopies survive if they are planted so close to each other?” they are asking. At the same time, activist Zoru Bhathena, who works closely with the committee that was set up to monitor the growth of the trees declares that he has noticed over half of the 1,800 transplanted trees have died over the past two years.
I have only one thing to highlight concerning this two-year long matter of contention between the activists and the developers – we’re never going to scare people and governments into living more sustainably! We have to be able to demonstrate just how dynamic, aspirational and heterogeneous such a world could be. We have to make our protests understood, make them justifiable, easy, desirable and timely.
We need a separate environmental policy with long-term goals. We can’t have a fragmentary approach over a few thousand trees cut at Aarey and live in blindness and ignorance of the massive destruction of forests that are razed to make dams for supply of electricity and to construct roads. The environmental issue has to be understood in a multi-disciplinary format and we have to see it in the context of water policy, land-use policy, housing policy, waste-management policy and many others.
The age long conflict between the supporters of development and the supporters of the environment can be made more meaningful through dialogues, research papers, organised and intelligible forums. So that serious and genuine issues like that concerning the Aarey trees do not end up being solved overnight through tweets of journalists, student union leaders, actors, and political leaders!
I would have been very pleased if more persistence was shown towards planting trees, looking after them and making sure that after 10 years there are more trees on Planet Earth than were cut in the first place, rather than creating a frantic hinderance to a development project that started after a lot of deliberation and keeping in mind the need of lakhs of commuters. The days of emotional trees huggers are gone, a more proactive approach is needed to maintain a fine balance between development and environment, I think.
The overnight impassioned and frenetic protests surrounding the Aarey Colony’s construction of a car shed are only a way to demonstrate why a particular issue is not welcomed and people cannot go along with this anymore. These kinds of protests end up mobilising sleeping people without waking them up first! Such protests end up hacking at the branches of evil without striking at the root.
The idea of sustainable development should not be reduced to rants and a topic of debate in the television studios – it should be accompanied by transparent, participatory mechanisms that allow for meaningful discussion of the development paths that make growth truly sustainable.
(Roli S is an Educator, Teacher Trainer, Author and School Reviewer based in Mumbai.)