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'Protesting NGOs didn't approach MMRC or government'

Savio Rodrigues* | Mumbai

The citizens of Mumbai are faced with a unique and difficult conundrum – while on the one hand is an option to lessen travel time within the city, reduce growing pollution levels and save lives lost daily in overcrowded rail and road transportation, on the other is the cutting of 2,700 trees at Aarey Milk Colony.

At the centre of this fight between a much-needed infrastructure development and an environmental concern is Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRC) Managing Director Ashwini Bhide.

The Aarey Car Depot has become a talking point for varied reasons. There are those having genuine concerns for the environment, a couple of NGOs trying to wheeler-deal a change in the Car Depot's  location to a private player, the Catholic Church loss of cemetery land to Metro Bhavan-led protests and some powerful politician driving their political agenda. Excerpts from an interview:

Is Mumbai Metro Line 3 more important than the 2,700 trees in Aarey Milk Colony?

MML-3 will carry 17 lakh passengers every day and thereby take 6.5 lakh vehicle trips off the road and concurrently reduce 2.61 lakh tonnes CO2 pollution every year.

If the same amount of pollution is to be reduced just by planting trees, Mumbai would need more than two crore trees, for which there is no space in the city.

Despite having one of the largest per capita tree cover, Mumbai is one of the most polluted cities due to a large number of vehicles in the city. Hence, Metro Line 3 is as important as trees in the city.

The temporary strain on the environment caused by cutting of 2,700 trees at Aarey Milk Colony in terms of CO2 sequestration, will be compensated just by four days of Metro Line 3 train operations and lifetime damage will be compensated by merely 80 days of Metro Line 3 train operations.

Besides, 461 out of 2,700 trees will be transplanted in the vicinity and 13,000 more trees will be freshly planted also to substantially mitigate the impact.

Why has MMRC not opted for the Kanjurmarg land when it was the first option of the Expert Committee? Why was Aarey Milk Colony site selected when it was the second option?

MMRC and State Government had accepted the Kanjurmarg land option as suggested by the Expert Committee in 2015 itself. However, the said land had been claimed by private landowners and in a long-pending litigation there had been a status quo order against the State Government issued by the Hon. High Court since 1997.

Despite the best efforts by the State Govt. and MMRC, the status quo could not be vacated for one and half year exceeding the window of three months given by the Expert Committee.

The High Court had also asked MMRC to deposit Rs. 2,600 crores to cater to the ownership claim in case of it is getting established in future. If the claims are established as per the Land Acquisition Act, MMRC would need to pay compensation of double the land cost i.e. Rs. 5,200 crores.

When an undisputed and unencumbered government land belonging to Dairy Development Department was already made available for Metro Car Depot in 2014, it was not possible for MMRC to depend on a disputed land where the claims of private parties were still undecided with a potential liability of Rs. 5,200 crores.

Therefore, the State Govt. on 31 December 2016 allowed MMRC to go for the second option suggested by the Committee which was a modified Depot option at Aarey wherein 5 Ha land with tree cover was to be retained.

Even in the first option, a small car depot with 16 stabling lines was to be set up at Aarey Milk Colony as per the Expert Committee Report.

A case in the Supreme Court to shift Metro-3 Car Depot by a NGO was dismissed. What was this case about and what was the SC opinion on the car depot?

Yes, in an interlocutory application No. 33819/2019 filed by the activists in SLP No. 31178/2018 before Supreme Court with a request to shift the Metro-3 Car Depot from Aarey Milk Colony to any of the eight other alternative locations provided by them has been dismissed in April 2019.

In this case, the petitioners presented eight different options for locating Metro-3 Car Depot and requested Supreme Court not to allow MMRC to carry out the construction activities at Car Depot land at Aarey and direct MMRC to shift the Car Depot from there to any of the eight alternatives.

Supreme Court asked MMRC to file their Affidavit which MMRC filed and presented their case on how the eight alternatives were technically not feasible and how it was not possible and desirable to shift Metro-3 Car Depot from Aarey Milk Colony to any other place.

Supreme Court accepted MMRC’s say in this matter and dismissed the interlocutory application.

Thus, the issues of suitability of Aarey Milk Colony land as Metro-3 Car Depot location and purported availability of other alternatives have been settled by Supreme Court with finality.

MMRC has also been supposedly offered the Royal Palms land? Why is MMRC not considering this land?

Yes, owners of Royal Palms as well as Vanshakti had approached the CMO in 2015 and offered land in Royal Palms to house the Metro Car Depot in lieu of 4 FSI on a 25 Ha plot. The proposal was sent to MMRC for examination.

After site visits and detailed technical scrutiny, it was observed that the said proposal was not only financial burdensome but also technically not suitable and environmentally more detrimental, apart from being unduly advantageous to a private landowner while a more suitable and cheaper option of Car Depot on Govt. land was already available. Therefore, the proposal was not considered.

Why resort to cutting trees? Why not uproot and replant them?

The decision regarding how many trees are to be cut and how many trees are to be transplanted is purely in the domain of the Tree Authority and their expert members and not with the project proponent.

There are 3,691 trees in the Car Depot land out of which 1,045 are being saved and retained by MMRC. Out of the remaining 2,646 trees, 461 trees are to be transplanted in the nearby plot as per the Tree Authority’s direction.

2,185 trees are to be cut and six times more new trees are to be planted in lieu of that. It is pertinent to note that out of 2,646 impacted trees, 1,169 trees are exotic like Subabul which are not considered to be environmentally beneficial and their replacement with sturdier, native trees is desirable.

So, effectively only 1,129 good quality trees at the car depot land are getting cut against which 13,000 good quality trees are getting planted elsewhere.

Besides, MMRC has already planted 23,846 good quality plants of native varieties like Sita-Ashok, Kadamb, Arjun, Kanchan, etc., which are in very good condition for the past two years.

People protesting are of the opinion that Aarey is a forest. What is the MMRC’s view on their claims?

People may have their own opinion about the status of Aarey Milk Colony. However, it is a matter of record that Aarey Milk Colony belongs to Dairy Development Department of State Govt. and has been used for dairy activities since 1950s.

The State Government and the Forest Department have made it very clear in their Affidavit before the High Court as well as the NGT that it is not a forest land.

The issue of Aarey being a forest has been comprehensively addressed in Case 2766/2017 in the order of Justice Dharmadhikari dated 26 October 2018 wherein their claim has been rejected in very clear terms.

Similar claim made before NGT in 34 of 2015 has also been rejected. Now, the matter has been heard again by Chief Justice of Bombay High Court and reserved for orders. The very fact that the State Govt. has used this land for dairy and allied activities as well as for some suitable institutional use since 1950, clearly indicates that this is not a forest land.

Besides, Ministry of Environment declared it as an Eco Sensitive Zone in Dec-2016 which amounts to be the buffer zone of Borivali National Park. It is interesting to know that out of total 1,287 Ha land of Aarey Milk Colony, tree cover is limited to 25 per cent of land only and the rest of the land is under roads, buildings, cattle farms, grass patches, etc. Even within the 30 Ha land parcel allotted for car depot, only 17 per cent is under tree cover.

Have any of the NGOs protesting #SaveAarey met with MMRC or has MMRC reached out to the protesters to share the environmental efforts of the Metro 3 Line project?

NGOs protesting #SaveAarey have neither directly approached MMRC or the State Govt. nor have they given any representation or shown willingness to understand the issue and discuss their concerns. They have either approached the media and made their presence on social media or have taken up their issues before various courts. But strangely they have avoided any direct communication with MMRC or the State Govt.

If the Mumbai Metro Line 3 is fully underground, why is the depot not underground? Wouldn't that have saved the trees in contention?

For a 33.5 km long Metro-3 corridor with 27 stations and 72,000 PHPDT capacity Metro Lines, about 25-30 Ha space is required for a car depot.

An underground car depot of this size is neither technically feasible nor financially prudent and sustainable. It would have air-conditioning requirements of a huge scale for 100 – 150 years of operational life which would be more damaging to the environment.

Besides, creating such a huge underground space would warrant excavating the surface land and using the 'cover method' which would need cutting off trees on the surface. So, there is no scope for saving trees even if the depot is made underground. On the contrary, such underground structure would be unsustainable in the long run.

If you are going to cut trees, what will MMRC be doing to balance environmental strain being caused? Isn't this land in an Eco-Sensitive Zone?

A project of this size and that too in an already over-crowded and space-starved city like Mumbai naturally entails displacement of people as well as the cutting off trees. But, by adopting efficient designs and construction methodology, MMRC has tried its best to keep this damage minimal.

With its progressive and transparent Rehabilitation Policy, MMRC has ensured better rehabilitation and resettlement for displaced families. Similarly, MMRC has adopted sustainable mitigation measures for the temporary environmental damage the project might cause. So far, MMRC has planted 14,346 trees with 6”x 12” girth and 12 -15 feet height of native varieties and also planted 9,500 trees as per the Forest Department norms under CSR. Thus, a total of 23,846 trees have already been planted at different locations including the degraded areas of Borivali National Park.

They are properly maintained and taken care of and have been surviving nicely for the past two years.

Similarly, 13,000 additional trees will be planted wherever land is made available to MMRC, including in the Aarey Colony.

If Royal Palms Project is ready to make land available for tree plantation, MMRC is even ready to plant these trees and maintain them there, so that the green cover of Aarey Milk Colony is substantially compensated. It is important to note that the owners of the Royal Palms project had offered their land for construction of the car depot.

What would be the additional cost the government would have to incur to shift the Aarey Milk Colony Car Depot? Will Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) fund it or will it come from tax-payers?

As we have informed the HC in earlier case that there is a loss of Rs. 4.2 crores for every day’s delay in this project. So, the delay in getting the car depot land and completing the depot activities would substantially incur additional financial burden on the project.

Shifting the car depot from Aarey Milk Colony to Kanjurmarg would also be financial burdensome for the State Government as the line that will have to be extended for another 10 Kms is not part of JICA funding.

Besides, if the land at Kanjurmarg is proved to be privately-owned the additional burden of acquiring this land to the tune of Rs, 5,200 crores would also be a burden on the State Government and, to that effect, a burden on the taxpayers.

Mumbai Metro Line 3 has been talking about saving lives of the people of Mumbai. How are you saving lives by cutting trees?

As we all know Mumbai's suburban railways transports more than 80 lakh passengers per day which is at least three times more than their actual capacity.

This leads to extreme overcrowding on trains and thereby a very unsafe commute for common citizens. Every day, at least 10 people die on suburban rail tracks either because of trespassing or by falling out of crowded trains. A similar amount of people get injured and disabled. Losing 3,500 – 4,000 lives every year for past many years has been a matter of great concern for the financial capital of India.

So many families are devastated by such untimely death of their earning family members. This situation can be addressed and precious lives could be saved only if there is a substantial capacity expansion of rail based public transport in the form of Metro.

The entire Metro network can have the capacity to carry more than one crore passengers by 2041. This would lead to a safer commute on suburban trains also. Metro Line-3, being the most important and efficient corridor of the entire Mumbai Metro network, could save lives by providing a safer, comfortable and reliable mode of transportation.

Cutting trees may cause a temporary strain to the environment but the benefits of Metro-3, in terms of reduction in pollution, reduction in traffic congestion and saving of lives, substantially outweigh this environmental strain.

Is it not true that even if you shift the main car depot out of Aarey Milk Colony, there will still be a Sub-Depot? How many trees would have to be cut for that?

Yes, it is true that even if main car depot is shifted to Kanjurmarg, there will have to be a small depot with at least 16 stabling lines at Aarey Milk Colony that would also entail cutting of at least 1,300 trees.

Today, we need to cut 2,200 trees and transplant 460 trees for the depot. If the depot is shifted, then the saving would be only of 1,000 trees with huge additional financial burden, substantial delay in project commissioning and certain permanent inefficiencies in the metro operations.

Is the Car Depot going to increase pollution levels due to cutting off trees?

There is no reason that the Car Depot would increase pollution level due to cutting of trees. While we need to cut 2,200 trees from the Car Depot, 13,000 additional trees are going to get planted afresh. In addition to that, MMRC has already planted more than 23,000 trees within city out of which 21,000 trees are in degraded areas of Borivali National Park which are in the close vicinity of Metro-3 Car Depot. A reduction in pollution due to Metro-3 will also substantially compensate the negative impact of the tree cutting for the car depot.

* The writer is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of GoaChronicle. A version of this article first appeared here.

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