Saving Aarey, the last lungs of Bombay

Mumbai’s citizens came out in droves to save trees from being felled in Aarey to make way for the metro. Collective action is crucial to save the green lungs of India's rapidly urbanising cities.
11 Oct 2019
0 mins read
Aarey, the green lungs of Mumbai (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Aarey, the green lungs of Mumbai (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Last week saw protests of a different kind in Mumbai. Activists and citizens from all walks of life came together to protest the cutting of trees in Aarey Milk Colony, one of the few surviving green lungs of the fast growing and polluted city of Mumbai.

This green zone extends from Powai to the Western Express Highway, Goregaon and includes patches of forests as well as grasslands and marshes that harbour a variety of flora and fauna. Aarey is home to 77 species of birds, 34 species of wildflowers, 86 species of butterflies, 13 species of amphibians, 46 species of reptiles, 16 species of mammals and 90 different types of spiders. Several newly discovered species of scorpions and spiders have also been found here. Leopards are Aarey’s most famous residents. Twenty seven tribal communities also reside in the colony.

Aarey raked up the classic development versus environment debate, quickly becoming a bone of contention between the Maharashtra government and the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL) on the one hand, and residents and activists (notably supported by almost all political parties except the BJP) on the other.

What led to the protests?

All this began with the Maharashtra Government’s plan to construct a metro in Mumbai. The MMRCL is a joint venture of Government of India and Government of Maharashtra, which plans to construct Mumbai’s first underground Metro. The metro corridor will connect South Bombay and Bandra to the domestic and international airports.

2700 trees were planned to be cut from a 33 hectare area to construct a car shed for the metro. This caused a massive public outcry, with citizens and activists vehemently opposing this plan, saying that this would destroy one of the last remaining green lungs of Mumbai.

The MMRC argued that of the 33 hectares, a 5 hectare green belt would be preserved and that the Colaba-Bandra-Seepz Metro would bring more environmental benefits by significantly reducing carbon dioxide emissions, as compared to the damage done by cutting trees.

Citizens and activists responded to this argument, saying that it was not just about the number of trees that would be cut – it was also about destroying most of Mumbai’s last remaining green space.

As Vikrant Tongad, an environmental conservationist and founder of Social Action for Forest & Environment (SAFE) says, “Mumbai is in fact lucky to have Aarey, a green belt with such a rich biodiversity right in the middle of the city. Not only does it act as a buffer zone for the Sanjay Gandhi National Park and its green belt, but it also helps in preventing flooding in the surrounding areas of Mumbai. How can one compensate for the destruction of such rich biodiversity that has taken years to develop? Once a car shed is constructed in Aarey, it can be an entry card for other infrastructural projects to start in the area. There were alternatives to Aarey land which could have been thought of.”

A city based NGO Vanashakti had filed a petition in the Bombay High Court in 2015, to declare the entire area of Aarey Milk Colony as a reserved forest or protected forest under the Indian Forest Act of 1947. However the state, civic administration and MMRCL had argued that the HC could not decide on this issue of Aarey being classified or notified as a forest, because the matter was decided by another bench in October and the appeal against it was pending in the Supreme Court.

While residents and environmental activists continued their protests, the Bombay High Court dismissed all petitions against the cutting down of trees and the Tree Authority of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) gave the go ahead. The MMRC immediately began chopping trees in Aarey in the middle of the night. Hundreds of people protested against this hurried and insensitive action, leading to Article 144 being imposed by the Mumbai Police. Some protesters were arrested.

The Supreme Court finally intervened and a special bench of the Supreme Court was set up to hear the plea over the cutting of trees, after a delegation of students sent a letter to Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi seeking his intervention in the matter. The letter sought the Supreme Court's intervention to halt the felling of trees at Aarey by arguing that procedure was not followed and the BMC officials had started cutting the trees in the absence of tree officers from the relevant department. The letter also questioned the hurried way in which trees were cut overnight and also raised concerns about the way in which dozens of people were arrested during a peaceful protest.

Priyank Samagra, a Phd researcher at the Centre for Policy Studies, IIT Bombay is of the opinion that the Aarey incident displayed how there was very little space for civilian action, and that people had to go to the courts to resolve the issue of tree cutting. The incident also showed how urban elites, citizens as well as media were divided and there seemed to be no collective movement on the issue. It also revealed the broken communication link between citizens and the state. “There is a need for more space for alternative discourses and new development paradigms such as blue green infrastructure in the current discourses on the environment” he adds.

Is there any hope for our polluted cities?

While the required number of trees (2134 trees) have already been cut and the damage already done, the Aarey incident shows that threats to green belts in cities will continue to lurk from all corners, be it real estate developers or city developmental projects. In Bangalore, for example, citizens came out in droves to protest a controversial elevated corridor project for which 3000 trees would have to be cut, earlier this year. The campaign forced the Karnataka government to halt the project.

If development takes precedence over the environment in cases like Aarey, is there any hope for our cities? Cities in India particularly, are deteriorating at an alarming rate. Case in point: a 2016 World Health Organisation (WHO) study found that as high as fourteen of the twenty world’s most polluted cities are in India. Depleting tree covers, vehicular emissions, crop burning, dust and poor waste management are all responsible for declining air quality.

How do trees help?

Urban trees and forests play a major role in building resilience of cities to the negative impacts of urbanisation. According to Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO):

  • Trees help immensely in mitigating climate change. A mature tree can absorb up to 150 kilograms of CO2 per year,in turn improving air quality and reducing pollution levels in cities.
  • Trees can create a cooling effect by reducing temperatures from 2 to as much as 8 degrees Celsius, thus reducing the urban “heat island” effects now increasingly being observed in Indian cities.
  • Large trees act as filters for urban pollutants by absorbing pollutant gases such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, ozone and sulfer oxides. They also filter dust, dirt or smoke out of the air by trapping them on leaves and barks. Studies show that the average reduction of particulate matter near a tree can be between 7% and 24%.
  • Trees regulate the flow of water and help in preventing floods and natural disasters. A mature tree can intercept more than 15,000 liters of water per year.
  • Trees absorb and store carbon dioxide emissions as they grow. This not only helps to reduce carbon emissions, but also helps in conserving energy
  • Research shows that living in close proximity to urban green spaces can improve physical and mental health by decreasing high blood pressure and stress. 
  • Trees also contribute to local food security and help in increasing urban biodiversity

Proponents of tree felling in the Aarey case, contend that cutting the trees can be offset by replacing them with saplings. However, studies show that such efforts can be totally ineffective in controlling pollution as plant saplings cannot absorb pollutants as well as a fully grown tree can, and saplings can take a long time to develop into fully grown mature trees.

Further, the Maharashtra government claimed it would plant 20,000 saplings in lieue of the trees cut at Aarey. However, environmental activist Godfrey Pimenta found through an RTI that the government has not even planted 5000 saplings in Mumbai. So even when claims are made to plant saplings, they aren’t followed through with. For truly smart cities, it is imperative to account for, protect and conserve spaces for green cover.

As Vikrant Tongad says, “We are not against development and some cities do need metros, but can we think of saving the green belts while planning for such projects? What is important is sustainable development”. “The Supreme Court decision in the context of Aarey provides hope that the remaining trees in the area will be saved and if this triggers a discussion on how forests need to be defined and protected in the future, it would be a great step forward to save other green belts in the country.

Will good sense prevail over politics and development agendas? Will the voices of citizens and activists be taken seriously? The Mumbai incident should serve as a wake up call to all to rise above short term development goals and politics and act to save our cities… before it is too late.

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