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The Aarey Car Depot Conundrum: Save Mumbai vs Save 2700 Trees

The citizens of Mumbai are faced with a unique and difficult conundrum – a decision to lessen travel time in city commuting, reduction of the growing pollution levels and to save lives lost daily in overcrowded rail and road transportation is being weighed against the cutting of 2700 trees at Aarey Milk Colony.

At the centre of this fight between a much need infrastructure development and environment concern is Ashwini Bhide, Managing Director, Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRC).

The Aarey Car Depot has become a talking point for varied reasons. Many having genuine concerns for the environment, a couple of NGOs trying to wheeler-deal a change in Car Depot 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.

GoaChronicle, Founder and Editor-in-Chief, Savio Rodrigues in a no-holds barred interview with MMRC Managing Director

GC: Is Mumbai Metro Line 3 more important than the 2700 trees in Aarey Milk Colony?

Ashwini Bhide: MML-3 will carry 17 lakh passengers every day and thereby take 6.5 lakh vehicle trips off the road which will reduce 2.61 lakh Tons CO2 pollution every year.

If the same amount of pollution is to be reduced just by planting trees, Mumbai would need more than 2 cores trees for which there is no space in the city.

Despite having one of the largest per capita tree covers, Mumbai is one of the most polluted cities due to large number of vehicle population 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 2700 trees at Aarey Milk Colony in terms of CO2 sequestration, will be compensated just by 4 days of Metro Line 3 train operations and lifetime damage will be compensated by 80 days of Metro Line 3 train operations.

Besides 461 out of 2700 trees will transplanted in the vicinity and 13,000 more trees will freshly planted which will substantially mitigate the impact.

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

AB: 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 Govt. issued by 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 3 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 ie. Rs. 5,200 crores.

When an undisputed and unencumbered Govt. 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 31st Dec. 2016 allowed MMRC to go for the second option suggested by 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.

GC: As 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?

AB: 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 8 other alternative locations provided by them has been dismissed in April 2019.

In this case, the petitioners presented 8 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 8 alternatives.

Supreme Court asked MMRC to file their Affidavit which MMRC filed and presented their case on how the 8 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.

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

AB: 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 visit 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 undue advantageous to a private landowner while more suitable and cheaper option of Car Depot on Govt. land was already available. Therefore, the proposal was not considered.

GC: Why resort to cutting trees, why not uproot it and replant it?

AB: 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 trees like Subabul which are not considered to be environmentally beneficial and their replacement with sturdier native trees is desirable.

So effectively only 1129 good quality trees at car depot land are getting cut against which 13,000 good quality trees are getting planted.

Besides, MMRC has already planted 23,846 good quality of plant of native variety like Sita Ashok, Kadamb, Arjun, Kanchan etc. which are in very good condition for past 2 years.

GC: People protesting are of the opinion that Aarey is a forest? What is MMRCs view on the claims of a forest?

AB: 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 Govt in Forest Dept has made it very clear in their Affidavit before High Court as well as NGT that it is not a forest land.

The issue of Aarey being forest has been comprehensively addressed in Case 2766/2017 in the order of Justice Dharmadhikari dated 26th Oct 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, Mumbai 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 has 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 1287 Ha land of Aarey Milk Colony, the tree cover is limited to 25% land only and 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% land is under tree cover.

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

AB: NGOs protesting Save Aarey have neither directly approached MMRC or the State Govt. nor they have 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 State Govt.

GC: If the Mumbai Metro – Line 3 is fully underground, why then is the depot not underground, would you not save trees?

AB: For a 33.5 Kms long Metro-3 corridor with 27 stations and 72,000 PHPDT capacity, Metro Lines about 25-30 Ha space is required for 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 huge underground space would warrant excavating the surface land and using cover method which would need cutting off trees on the surface. So, there is no scope for saving of trees even if the depot is made underground. On the contrary, such underground structure would be unsustainable in the long run.

GC: If you are going to cut trees, what will MMRC be doing to balance environmental strain it will cause? Is not the land in an Eco-Sensitive Zones?

AB: 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 cutting off trees. But by adopting efficient designs and construction methodology, MMRC has tried its best to keep this damage at the minimum.

With its progressive and transparent Rehabilitation Policy, MMRC has ensured much 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 variety and also planted 9,500 trees as per the Forest Department norms under CSR. Thus, total 23,846 trees are 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 past 2 years.

Similarly, 13,000 additional trees will be planted wherever land is made available to MMRC including 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 car depot.

GC: What would be the additional cost the government would have to incur to shift the Aarey Milk Colony Car Depo? Will JICA fund it or will it come from tax-payers?

AB: 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 of car depot from Aarey Milk Colony to Kanjurmarg would also be financial burdensome for State Govt. 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 then the additional burden of acquiring this land to the tune of Rs, 5200 crores would also be a burden on the State Govt. and to that effect a burden on the taxpayers.

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

AB: As we all know the suburban Rail of Mumbai carries more than 80 lakh passengers per day which is at least 3 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. The similar amount of people gets injured and disabled. Losing 3500 – 4000 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 1 crore passengers by 2041. This would lead to safe commute on suburban trains also. Metro Line-3 being the most important and efficient corridor of the entire Mumbai Metro network which would a huge potential to save lives of Mumbaikars by providing a safer, comfortable and reliable transport.

Tree cutting may cause 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.

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

AB: 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 depot is shifted, then the saving would be only of 1000 trees with huge additional financial burden, substantial delay in project commissioning and certain permanent inefficiencies in the metro operations.

GC: Is not the Car Depot going to increase pollution levels due to cutting off trees?

AB: 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. Reduction in pollution due to Metro-3 will also substantially compensate the negative impact of tree cutting for car depot.

One Comment

  1. This Ashwini bhide MD of metro company.

    Had this been in China, the private party would have been jailed and their property attached within 3 days.

    Ok in democratic India, pay them current prices and GPL on their backside. Joh peid ab tak khade hai usko Katne ki koi zarurat nahi, ashwinintai ko bolo aur PAUDHE lagao aur USS mein SE kitne PEID bante hai Woh humnko 5 Saal ke baad batao. Hum bhee yahin hai aur aap bhee yahin ho.

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