Radhika Jhaveri

The call campaign started by members of the Aarey Conservation Group (ACG) and Jhatkaa.org has brought the Aarey controversy to the foreground yet again. The petition garnered support from around 2.6 lakh citizens from across India. It was followed up by a targeted call campaign to the Chief Minister’s office, Suburban Collector and MMRCL’s Managing Director in an attempt to halt their plans to build a Metro Car Depot in Aarey. The campaign has prompted Ms Ashwini Bhide, Managing Director of MMRCL to file a police complaint against the crusaders. Yash Marwah, one of the volunteers with the group says, “Over 2.6 lakh people have raised their voice through our petition now, in the past this has kept happening via different events and the authorities always find a way to divert our attention. We only want a public meeting with the CM and MD. Nothing else.”

The Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL) and citizen organizations have been fighting over the location of the Metro III car shed since the past three years now. The Metro III project is slated to connect Bandra, Seepz and Colaba in western Mumbai with a car depot proposed within the Aarey Milk Colony.

The 1200 Ha Aarey Milk Colony is a biodiversity hub and a catchment area for the Mithi River that flows through the city of Mumbai. The ACG has been asserting that a functioning car depot is bio hazardous in nature and under no circumstances should such an industry be allowed to function within an ecologically sensitive zone like Aarey. The operation of a car shed within Aarey will cause irreversible damage to its ecology and therefore the decision to construct it within Aarey must be reconsidered.

Amrita Bhattacharjee, an ACG group member says, “MMRCL wants to build a Car shed on a Forest land in Aarey which not only has dense tree cover but is also the floodplain of the Mithi River. In a coastal city like Mumbai; floodplains, forest land and wetlands are very critical areas for the city as during heavy monsoon these areas become the holding areas for excess water that the city’s drainage system cannot manage during High tide hours. Global Warming will increase the spells of heavy rains and over concretized Mumbai city is not prepared to handle such situations.”

Expert Committee and the Kanjur Marg Alternative

After protests by campaigners in 2015, the BJP led state government set up an expert committee to look into the viability of Aarey and provide alternatives, if available. The team considered nine options for the car depot, namely; Backbay Reclamation, Colaba; Mumbai Port Trust; Mahalaxmi Race course; Dharavi; Bandra Kurla Complex; Mumbai University, Kalina;  Aarey Colony; Sariput Nagar and Kanjur Marg. After deliberations, it was recommended that the car shed be moved to Kanjur Marg. Kanjur Marg is an abandoned salt pan and has not received any tide water since fifteen years. Aarey on the other hand, the environmental experts of the committee opined, is much desirable for its ‘ecological endowment’ and must be protected at all costs. They have also opined that irrespective of escalated project costs and possible delays in project completion timelines, the alternate sites must be seriously considered. One of the other reasons for suggesting Kanjur Marg as an alternative was that the Metro VI (Jogeshwari-Kanjurmarg) car depot had been proposed at the same land parcel. The metro III line may be extended to Kanjurmarg and the two lines can share the same car depots while providing the benefit of extended connectivity to central railway.

This recommendation of the expert committee was accepted by the government and it was agreed upon that the car shed be moved to Kanjurmarg. However, the ongoing ownership dispute between the Government of Maharashtra, Salt Commissioner and private owners regarding part of this land parcel has halted the plans. Following the recommendations of the expert committee, the government had filed an application in the High Court to get the land cleared for the Metro III car depot. However, from December 2015 when the application was initially filed till date, the dispute has remained unaddressed in the court. The government has not pursued the matter since. In April 2016, the government issued a statement saying that since the Kanjurmarg land has been made unavailable, they have no other option but to construct the depot in Aarey.

MMRCL has since barricaded the 30 Ha plot within Aarey and commenced land filling activity there. Ms Ashwini Bhide, Managing Director at MMRCL has stated that the, “Government of Maharashtra through its Cabinet decision approved Mumbai Metro III and the car depot at Aarey in March 2014. Considering the concerns raised by citizens the state government again reviewed all alternative sites for car depot including Kanjurmarg in 2015 and after studying the pros and cons of each of the option confirmed its decision to have car depot at Aarey in December 2016. Post addressing all the apprehensions of the citizens and receiving all the required approvals MMRC has started construction activity of car depot at Aarey.”

However, ACG members do not agree with this assessment. They say that MMRCL has not been forthcoming with supporting documentation and the alternate site inspection reports, if carried out, have not as yet been furnished by MMRCL.

Stalin Dayanand, Director at the Environmental NGO Vanashakti says, “MMRCL had no permissions in place before they started work. Some permissions were obtained post facto and some were circumvented through mis-interpretation and subversion of court orders. The project report of MMRCL itself lists out the number of permissions needed and less than half of them have been obtained. At no point was any effort made to engage with experts or citizens to resolve inherent flaws in the project. There is not even a single document that shows that alternate sites were seriously considered for the Metro car shed.”

Given the high number of cases that are pending at the High Court, the Kanjurmarg matter may not be heard by the court for a very long time. However, the ACG members feel that getting the land parcel at Karjurmarg cleared for construction is a matter of pursuing the High Court and urging it to hear the case on an urgent basis. They are arguing that the fact that the government has not approached the court even once after the initial application was filed means that the entire affair of forming the expert committee was nothing more than a pacifying act on the part of the government and that there never really was any intention of moving the car shed out of Aarey. “The aforementioned Kanjurmarg land has already been allotted for Metro VI car shed but the MMRCL has been claiming that the same land is not available for Metro III. If the Kanjurmarg Land is under dispute and is technically unfeasible for the Metro III car shed, then how is it feasible for Metro VI?” asks Amrita Bhattacharjee.

Claims of Possible Commercial Exploitation of Aarey Land

ACG members have alleged that the MMRCL’s unwillingness to pursue the Kanjur Marg option and their insistence on constructing the car shed at Aarey is because it affords them possibilities for commercial exploitation of Aarey land in the future. Real Estate development within Aarey near the car shed site would provide a means to raise funding for the expensive Metro III project. Ms Ashwini Bhide explains the project funding, “The entire cost of project i.e 23,136 crores of which 57.2% is being provided by Japan International Co-operation Agency(JICA) as soft loan and balance funding will be made available by Government of India and Government of Maharashtra in the form of equity and subordinate debt.”

However, ACG has brought forward documents where plans to develop real estate within Aarey have been mentioned. An Urban Development Department (UDD) GR dtd 3.3.2014 states that the Government has approved to transfer the land adjoining the Aarey Milk Colony Jogeshwari- Vikroli Link Road to MMRDA for residential/commercial development with a view to raise Funds for the Project. Ms Bhide has not provided clarifications about whether or not these claims are true and has not responded to the query of whether or not MMRCL plans to develop real estate in Aarey.

Presently, petitioners are pursuing the case in the High Court and the National Green Tribunal.  Zoru Bhathena, an ACG member and one of the petitioners himself  informs, “There is delay in the case since the Kanjurmarg case file which includes the application filed by the government has gone missing and the High Court is currently trying to locate it.”