While the Maharashtra government said it intends to reserve 600 acres of Aarey land near the Sanjay Gandhi National Park as forest, the Aarey Milk Colony – almost 3,262 acres of land in the middle of Mumbai – has been a contentious issue for environmentalists, politicians as well as real estate players over the years.
An agitation had been launched to ‘Save Aarey Colony’, an area which falls in the periphery of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. On Wednesday, the Maharashtra government took the decision to declare the 600 acres of land as forest, using state power under The Indian Forest Act, 1927. The move has been welcomed by activists as well as common Mumbaikars. However, clarity is needed regarding the development zone.
The erstwhile Maharashtra government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, under the leadership of Devendra Fadnavis, had decided to set up a Metro Car shed for Mumbai Metro Line 3. It has decided to give 74 acres of Aarey land to Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL). The area which was acquired by the MMRCL is 82 acres (33 ha.) This decision was challenged in courts by a number of activists and by the Shiv Sena – then the ruling partner of the BJP. The challenge pertained to environmental concerns around Aarey, their demand was that the car shed be set up in another location, and not on forest land. The BJP government went ahead with its decision, however.
Environmentalists and activists had rushed to the Bombay High Court to prevent the state government from taking further action. At the time, the court had refused to accept that Aarey was forest land; the Bombay HC order in the matter on October 4, 2019 said so. Late in the night of October 5, the MMRCL went ahead with its plan to cut the trees. However, a widespread agitation was launched against the action and the BJP government. On October 6, the Supreme Court stayed the HC’s order and has asked the MMRCL to not go ahead and cut further trees. Meanwhile, around two thousand trees were cut down by the MMRCL.
As the Maharashtra Assembly Election was announced during this time, the issue turned political and BJP had to face public’s wrath. After the results, the Shiv Sena broke away from the BJP and formed a government with the Congress and NCP. Since, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray has been saying that he will not allow a car shed to come up on Aarey land.
Once the new Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government settled in, it formed a committee under senior IAS officer Manoj Saunik to take stock of the situation. In its report, the Saunik committee had said that the car shed should come up at the allotted Aarey land as it would be the most cost effective proposal. However, at the same time, the committee suggested that the state government takes concrete decisions to preserve Aarey.
BJP leader and former MP, Kirit Somaiyya, had claimed that the committee report supports the stand of the BJP government and that the MVA should endorse it. However, environment minister Aaditya Thackeray had said that it was up to the state government to accept or reject the report. “The state government is serious about saving Aarey from any new developments. We are also of the opinion that Aarey is a part of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park and is necessary for Mumbai's existence,” he said after the report got out.
Aarey Colony, which was commissioned in 1949, was spread over almost 3,262 acres. In 1962, the state government allotted 10 acres of land to the fisheries institute and 65 acres to the BMC's water complex – a water purification plant was set up and is still active. In 1989, the state gave 329 acres of land to film city. Between 2009 and 2013, a total of 542 acres of land was given to various projects, including slum rehabilitation. Aarey has a total of 47 slum pockets. From these 542 acres, 98 acres of land was given to set up Force One, the anti terror wing of Maharashtra police, for training and other purposes; 190 acres was set aside for a zoo.
As of now, around 2,000 acres of land (excluding 84 acres for car shed) is free. On September 2, the Maharashtra government took the decision to declare 600 acres of Aarey as forest. So, will these 600 acres will be made up of the land given for the car shed or the zoo, or not, is the important question.
D.Stalin from the NGO Vanshakti, who fought the legal and the on-ground battle to ‘Save Aarey’, has welcomed the decision. “This government is sincere to protect forest rights. We welcome this decision. It is a win-win situation for forest conservation, slums and also for tribal rights. This will help for Aarey's long term conservation,” he said.
Last week, CM Thackeray had asked the MMRCL to find a new spot for the car shed, either in the western suburb of Goregaon or in Kanjurmarg. It is then understood that the car shed will not come up on Aarey land.
“The state urban development department will ask people to submit objections and suggestions regarding the decision. Then it will formalise the process," said urban development minister Eknath Shinde. “It will protect the original purpose of Aarey colony. There won't be any new development in the marked area," said the state's dairy development minister, Sunil Kedar.
Aarey has also a large population of tribal people. The CM has asked officers to protect their rights and allow them to develop their homes.