Maharashtra govt says whatever had to be cut has been cut.
New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Monday directed the Maharashtra government not to cut any more trees in Aarey Milk Colony area of Mumbai. But its order came amid an admission by the Maharashtra government that whatever was required to be cut has already been done.
Aarey Colony is a contiguous part of the larger Sanjay Gandhi National Park and a part of it is being cleared by cutting 2,646 tress to create space for the construction of Mumbai metro rail shed.
“As undertaken, status quo be maintained till the next date of hearing with respect to cutting of trees”, a special bench of Justice Arun Mishra and Justice Ashok Bhushan ordered.
While passing the order, the bench took on record a statement by solicitor general Tushar Mehta, appearing for Maharashtra government and the Mumbai civic body, who said, “Whatever was to be cut has been cut,” and added that “there will no more cutting of trees.” Since Friday, 2,141 trees have been cut.
The court also ordered the release, forthwith, of those arrested for protesting against the cutting of the trees.
Mr Mehta told the court that he had spoken with the Mumbai police commissioner and was informed that all those arrested for protesting against the cutting of trees have been released.
The order for status quo was given by the two-judge bench specially constituted after the apex court took suo motu (on its own) cognisance of a letter petition addressed to Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi by law student Rishav Ranjan seeking a stay on felling of trees in the colony. The apex court is on a week-long Dussehra break from Tuesday. The letter was received by the CJI’s office on Sunday and later in the evening it was directed to be listed for an urgent hearing.
The court on Monday permitted the students to file a formal petition relating to the issue.
Mr Mehta sought to defend the cutting of trees by saying that the entire area under forest cover is more than 3,000 acres and the area that is being cleared of tress is less than two per cent. But an unimpressed Justice Bhushan said, “Whether it is 1 per cent or 2 per cent is not relevant. The question is whether it can be done legally or not”.
At the next hearing, set for October 21, the court is likely to examine the legality of cutting of trees.
The bench ordered status quo even as solicitor general Mehta repeatedly urged the court to record his statement that there would be no further cutting of tress but not pass status quo order.
Apparently displeased with Mr Mehta hammering against the status quo order, Justice Misha said, “You can’t dictate… you are making it very light.”
Informing the court that the loss of trees would be made good by planting as many trees, Mr Mehta said that Mumbai Metro has already planted 2,900 trees. This was in pursuance to our order two years ago, Justice Mishra pointed out and sought a report on “how many of them are surviving today.”
“Submit the report,” Justice Mishra said in response to Mr Mehta’s statement that the survival rate is 95 per cent, adding that all of them are with GPS tagging.
There is confusion over whether Aarey area is part of the larger Sanjay Gandhi National Park and is a forest, an eco-sensitive zone.
While the petitioners contend that the area under question is an eco-sensitive zone and a forest, Maharashtra government claims that it’s an “unclassified” forest and denied it being an eco-sensitive zone.
The petitioners, who say that the national park has five lakh trees, produced a notification that said that Aarey was an eco-sensitive zone and pointed out that later, by another notification, the eco-sensitive shield was taken away. The challenge to the notification withdrawing eco-sensitive zone status of the area is pending before the court.
Justice Mishra has asked for a categorical answer whether the area in question is a forest and a protected area.
Telling the court that “none of us have entire picture”, the petitioners and the Maharashtra government sought that the matter may be deferred for another day.
The Bombay high court had, on Friday, October 4, refused to declare Aarey colony a forest and declined to quash the Mumbai municipal corporation’s decision to allow felling of over 2,600 trees in the green zone to set up a Metro car shed. The felling of trees in the colony has been opposed by green activists and local residents.
The Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRCL) started cutting trees from Friday night to make way for the car shed triggering angry protests, hours after the high court dismissed four petitions filed by NGOs and activists challenging the decision.
As many as 29 protesters were arrested for allegedly obstructing and assaulting police personnel during the felling of trees. They were released from jail in the wee hours of Monday after being granted bail by a local court, officials said.
Opposition NCP leader Supriya Sule welcomed the apex court order but said what was worrying was the admission of the Maharashtra Government that the necessary number of trees have already been cut.
Shiv Sena said the court order is a “moral victory” for environmentalists.
Maneesha Kayande, spokesperson of the Sena, which is an ally of the ruling BJP but has been opposing tree felling in the city’s green belt, said it was the government’s “mistake” not to declare Aarey area as a forest and rued that nearly “2,100 trees” have been cut in two days.