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SC asks status quo to be maintained in Aarey Colony, government to not cut any more trees, next hearing on 21st October

It may be noted that in April this year, the Supreme Court had rejected the plea against locating the metro rail depot at Aarey, ruling that all other alternative locations suggested by activists were rejected by the Technical Committee after thorough studies.

The Supreme Court today directed that status quo be maintained in Aarey Colony and said that no more trees can be cut in Aarey which is the proposed site for the Mumbai metro car shed. The SC made it clear to Maharashtra government that if trees can’t be cut legally, they can’t be cut at all.

However, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta appearing for Maharashtra government said that no more trees are required to be cut. He said that once the Court reopens after the Dusshera break, the case can be taken up by the Environment Bench on the legality or illegality of the trees cut.

The SC has also sought a report from the state government on compulsory afforestation. The SC has also asked for status of the saplings planted by Maharashtra government. It also directed the government to release the activists detained if not already done so.

The apex court green bench will hear the matter next on 21st October. Maharashtra, along with Haryana, is set to go to polls for state assembly elections on 21st October.

Justice Arun Mishra asked whether the Aarey Colony was an eco-sensitive zone or not. Demanding evidence for the same he said that it was a no-development zone and not an eco-sensitive zone.

A Special Bench of the Supreme Court comprising Justices Arun Mishra and Ashok Bhushan heard the PIL against felling of trees in Mumbai’s Aarey Colony which is the proposed site for Mumbai metro car shed. Last night, the SC had converted a letter written against the cutting of trees into a PIL and formed a special bench to hear it.

Some students had sent a letter to the Chief Justice of India today seeking a stay on cutting the trees, which was signed off by Dhananjay Ranjan, a 4th-year law student of Lloyd Law College, Noida.

The letter had said that there is no time in preparing a formal appeal against the Bombay High Court judgement, as by that time all the trees will be cut. It also mentioned the detention of protestors including students who were trying to protect the trees earmarked for felling. The Supreme Court took suo moto cognisance of the matter and decided to hear the matter urgently.

On the night of 4th October, the Mumbai Metro Corporation had started the process of cutting 2185 trees in Aarey colony after the Bombay High Court dismissed all petitions against the same earlier in that day. As per an order issued by the Tree Authority on 13th September, approval for cutting 2185 trees and transplanting 461 trees was grant to clear the allotted land for the depot of metro trains. According to an Indian Express report, 2134 trees already have been cut by last night, within less than 24 hours of starting the operation. This means all the 2185 trees have been cut by now as another 24 hours has passed. Transplantation of 461 trees will take longer time comparatively. Police had to impose section 144 of the IPC for smooth implementation of the order as protestors had arrived at Aarey Colony to prevent trees from being cut.

It may be noted that in April this year, the Supreme Court had rejected the plea against locating the metro rail depot at Aarey, ruling that all other alternative locations suggested by activists were rejected by the Technical Committee after thorough studies. The activists had approached the Supreme Court after Bombay High Court had rejected their petitions. A bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and comprising Justices Deepak Gupta and Sanjiv Khanna had dismissed the interlocutory application within minutes, citing the Bombay HC order and the technical committee’s report.

After the go-ahead from the courts, the MMRC had approached the Tree Authority for permission to cut the trees in the allotted area, and the permission was granted on 13th September. Activists had again approached the Bombay High Court against this permission, but the court dismissed the petitions on 4th October, and even imposed a fine of Rs 50000 on one of the petitioners. After the dismissal of petitions, the MMRC went ahead with clearing the area on the same day, as the car depot is already behind schedule by one year due to opposition by activists.

As both the High Court and Supreme Court had ruled that other alternatives are not viable for the project, it is not clear on what basis the fresh petition was sent to the SC. In the letter, the law students have raised the same arguments against the Metro project in Aarey colony which were raised earlier several times by activists and were rejected by the Courts. They have not made any fresh argument. Moreover, the trees already have been cut, so any request to stop that would be infructuous.

Activists had spread a false propaganda that the cutting the trees was illegal as there is a 15-day waiting period after the High Court order. But the fact is, the 15-day waiting period was imposed by Tree Authority while granting the permission to cut and transplant the trees on 13th September, which means the waiting period is already over. The High Court had imposed no waiting period. The letter claims that although the order was passed on 13 September, it became effective only on 4th October after High Court dismissed petitions against it, hence 15 day starts from that date, but that is not true as the Court had not stayed the order.

Mumbai Metro has already planted 20,900 trees with GPS tagging on each of them in nearby Sanjay Gandhi National Park, and survival rate is 95% for the trees, as confirmed by the Chief Conservator Forest and Director of Sanjay Gandhi National Park. The Tree Authority has further ordered MMRC to plant 13,110 trees in the Aarey Colony area within 30 days. This means, compared to 2185 trees cut and 461 trees transplanted, almost 34000 trees are being planted, which is 15 times the number of trees felled.

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