The Supreme Court warns of strict action if trees cut at Aarey forest; next hearing on Tuesday

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The Supreme Court on Wednesday warned the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL) of ‘strict cognizance’ if any tree in Mumbai’s Aarey forest area is cut in violation of the company’s affidavit filed on August 5.

The court made the observations while considering a batch of petitions filed by NGOs and environmental activists opposing the cutting of trees and developmental work undertaken by MMRC to make a Metro Shed within the forest area because it forms the “green lung” of Mumbai.

Senior advocate Anitha Shenoy, appearing for NGO Vanashakti, urged the highest court to issue a standing quo order, stopping any reasonably add reference to the Metro project. She also named photographs produced by the NGO showing clearing of area.

“In that case, you (MMRC) won't move with any development work,” the bench observed.

Responding thereto, MMRC counsel Rukmani Bobde assured the court, “No trees are cut since October 7, 2019 and can not be cut in any manner.”

With the following hearing within the matter fixed for August 30, the bench told Shenoy, “It is barely a matter of 5 days. just in case they violate the undertaking, we'll take strict cognizance of it.”

Activists informed the apex court that despite the affidavit filed by MMRCL, leveling work and other developmental works are being done at the location.

“The said undertaking as given by Director MMRCL on August 5 has already been taken on record. The MMRCL shall strictly be bound by the terms of its undertaking,” a bench of justices Uday Umesh Lalit, S Ravindra Bhat and Sudhanshu Dhulia stated.

The proposed project was to return au fait 33 hectares of Aarey land, which is asserted as a “reserved forest” by the previous Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government under former chief minister Uddhav Thackeray. He even decided to shift the Metro car shed site to Kanjurmarg. But, with the Eknath Shinde-led government absorbing, work on the project has resumed at the identical site.

Vanashakti approached the court with an application last month claiming that the felling of trees had revived at the location from July 25, in violation of the October 7, 2019 “status quo” order elapsed the SC after the regime gave an undertaking that no such act would be done.

When the highest court heard the matter on August 5, MMRCL director Charuhas Jadhav filed an affidavit claiming that only some bushes were cleared and a few branches were trimmed to confirm smooth vehicular movement on the approach road to the positioning. The affidavit further informed that till October 7, 2019, around 2,141 trees were cut for the project, but since then “no trees were cut and therefore the project didn't proceed further”.

Recording these submissions, the bench said on August 5, “Suffice it to mention that as stated by the concerned respondent, no further trees are cut since the order dated October 7, 2019 and shall not be cut in any manner till the subsequent date of hearing.”

Since then, the matter has been adjourned twice. On Wednesday, when the matter was taken on board, the Maharashtra government represented by senior standing counsel Rahul Chitnis sought adjournment for the circulation of documents.

“How over and over can we allow this interest keep adjourning now and then?” the bench asked. The NGO had opposed the state’s request.

In 2014, the Metro car shed for the third phase Metro project was first proposed at Aarey, near Sanjay Gandhi parkland by then Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan. The matter was taken first to the Bombay supreme court by Vanashakti.

After the establishment order gone by the Supreme Court, the Uddhav Thackeray government appointed a technical committee led by the cabinet minister, and comprising Greater Mumbai municipal commissioner and officers from department of forests, environment and MMRCL, to look at the feasibility of continuous with the project at Aarey. The committee concluded that the location at Kanjurmarg was suitable for the project because the earlier plot of 33 hectares at Aarey is forest land.