The Supreme Court (SC) on Monday directed Maharashtra state officials to maintain a status quo and barred further felling of trees for building a Metro car shed in Aarey Colony. The order came close on the heels of a submission by the state government that it had already felled the requisite number of trees needed for the project.
A special two-judge Bench of Justices Arun Mishra and Ashok Bhushan was hearing a letter petition which had been converted into a public interest litigation by Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi.
A group of students, led by law student Rishab Ranjan, had written to the CJI seeking a stay on the felling of trees in Aarey Colony. The letter petition had stated that Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRCL) had felled as many as 2,100 trees in the area from Friday night, hours after a judgment of the Bombay High court refused to set aside the Mumbai municipal corporation’s decision to allow felling of over 2,600 trees.
The students also alleged that Mumbai Police had lathicharged protesters peacefully opposing the felling of trees by MMRCL and Mumbai municipal authorities. The letter had said that of the 3,300 trees at the proposed location of the Metro car shed, nearly 2,100 had been axed. These trees are on the banks of Mithi river in Mumbai. Their absence could lead to flooding, the letter stated.
On Monday, the two-judge Bench also said it would have to examine whether the entire Aarey area was a forest area or an eco-sensitive zone.
It asked the state authorities to place on record relevant notifications and status of trees planted by them. The direction by the court came on the submissions of senior advocate Gopal Sankaranarayanan, who said that even though the states are required to notify an area as forest, Maharashtra has still not done so. The Aarey Colony area was deemed an ‘unclassified forest’, and thus, the felling of trees in the eco-sensitive zone was illegal. However, after perusing the notification issued by the Maharashtra government, the Bench said, Aarey area is a ‘no-development zone’ and not an eco-sensitive zone as claimed by the petitioner.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for Maharashtra and Mumbai’s civic body, said the entire area of Aarey is around 3,000 acres and only 2 per cent, that is 33 hectares, was given for the Metro shed project. The court, however, said it was not an issue of whether 1-2 per cent of the area was being used. “If it is legally not permitted, it will not be permitted,” the Bench said.