For those who’re familiar with Mumbai’s topography, they will vouch for the importance of green cover in the city. While the city has skyscrapers, fancy restaurants and iconic spots aplenty, there’s one thing that the city of dreams does not have in abundance. The forest.
The city has long been held guilty of trading development at the cost of the environment. A study, led by the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, states that 94% of the city has been paved and concretised in the past four decades, and in the process lost 60% of its vegetation and 65% of its water bodies. Not only this, the city’s tree cover, which was more than 35% in the 1970s, is less than 13% today. To put things in perspective, scientists from IISc said a region should have at least 33% green cover to ensure adequate oxygen to its citizens.
Deciding how much development should be undertaken at the cost of environmental degradation is a difficult decision to make in itself. However, it’s disheartening to see the officials of the state and elected representatives conveniently turn a blind eye towards the forest, completely ignoring the harsh reality of the situation.
The gravity of the situation can be explained by bringing to light the government’s poor handling of the Aarey Forest. Said to be Mumbai’s green lung, the 1,300-hectare Aarey forest land in the city's northern suburb has been constantly exploited under the banner of development. What once used to be over 3,000 acres of forest land in north Mumbai has been reduced to around 1,300 acres.
The forest initially used to be part of the iconic Sanjay Gandhi National Park till 1949. Considered to be an important ecological ecosystem, the forest was even handed over to Aarey Milk Colony, an autonomous body, and was declared a No-Development Zone. However, all that changed in 2014, when the State government converted it into a Development Zone which began the erosion of the forest under the name of infrastructural development.
What is #SaveAarey?
The discontent under the harmful exploitation of the city’s green cover gave rise to the Save Aarey Movement. It began when the government proposed to cut more than 3% of the forest for building a metro shed.
The movement opposes the car shed construction as it will be declared a high-security area and will rob enthusiasts of one of their favourite cycling or trekking venues, not to mention the consequences of the felling of over 2,000 trees. Not only this, but the felling of trees will also adversely impact the tribals living in the region and hamper their rehabilitation.
Save Aarey is a movement that strives to protect the last green lung of the city. It is against all acts that act as a threat to the city's forest cover.
The Save Aarey movement suffered from a big setback on Thursday, as the BMC’s Tree Authority cleared the Mumbai Metrorail Corporation Limited proposal to cut 2.702 trees to build a Metro car shed in Aarey Colony. Ironically, the proposal also got support from the authority's tree experts!
While politicians from the Shiv Sena and Congress opposed the move and even staged a walkout, leaders from the BJP and NCP voted in favour of the move. The fact that the BMC has decided to grant permission for the felling of trees is surprising, in spite of it receiving more than 82,000 petitions objecting to the move.
This is not the first time that the world’s richest civic body has been accused of not paying adequate attention to preserving the city’s green cover.
According to the Maharashtra (Urban Areas) and Preservation of Trees Act, 1975, three new saplings have to be planted for every tree being felled. However, several activists have accused the bodies of not replanting the trees properly, which can considerably reduce their lifespan. There have even been allegations that the trees cut for various metro projects in the city are being dumped at mangrove forests in Borivli and Dahisar
The decision to fell the trees will surely be challenged in the High Court, with Aaditya Thackerey tweeting that his party will be challenging the decision. However, only time will tell whether Mumbai’s green cover can be preserved or not. Till then the city of Mumbai has a crucial question to ask themselves. Till what extent are they willing to support development, if it continues to destroy the very ecosystem of the city?