Aarey forest: Construction now allowed in ‘Mumbai’s Amazon’ by new government in India’s richest state

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An excavator is pictured next to cut down trees at the construction site of a metro train car shed in the Aarey colony in Mumbai  (Getty Images)
An excavator is pictured next to cut down trees at the construction site of a metro train car shed in the Aarey colony in Mumbai (Getty Images)

A controversial metro car shed project has been revived at a unique protected urban forest in India’s richest state Maharashtra by its new chief minister on the same day he was sworn in.

Construction near Aarey forest, located within the financial metropolis of Mumbai, will now commence after Eknath Shinde wrested power from his political boss and now ex-chief minister Uddhav Thackerey on Thursday, culminating a nine-day political upheaval in the state.

The project, which was overturned by the previous government in 2020, was reinstated on Thursday by Mr Shinde.

He directed the advocate general for the metro car shed to be built in Mumbai’s Aarey colony, paving the way for construction next to the dense Aarey forest, a one-of-a-kind urban forest in the world.

Aarey is known as the city’s Amazon and often described as its “lungs”. It is home to a number of flora and fauna and a number of wild animals, including leopards.

The proposed construction project in Aarey Colony had earlier been overturned by Mr Thackeray’s government after massive protests from environmentalists and locals.

The forest is spread over 13,000 hectares of land spead across the city’s Goregaon area and is also called home by thousands of tribals living in 27 hamlets.

Activist Dadarao Bilhore stands wearing a dress made from banana leaves and flowers found in the Aarey forest as he protests against the destruction of Aarey forest which they call ‘Mumbai’s Amazon’ (Getty Images)
Activist Dadarao Bilhore stands wearing a dress made from banana leaves and flowers found in the Aarey forest as he protests against the destruction of Aarey forest which they call ‘Mumbai’s Amazon’ (Getty Images)

The government in 2019 proposed the construction of a car shed in the area as part of its expansion plans for the Mumbai Metro 3 project, which comprises of a 33.5km underground corridor running along a route cutting through south Mumbai’s Colaba and Bandra areas.

The city’s municipal corporation had then granted permission to cut and transplant nearly 2,700 trees at Aarey Colony.

Massive protests from environmentalists and locals had sparked and they had warned that any construction in the crucial forest area would destroy its ecological balance.

The government at the time had called the project a necessity for the area’s development and the matter remained a contentious battleground for the development versus conservation debate in Mumbai for over two years.

The cause was supported by several politicians and Bollywood stars had weighed in as well. The protests had also led to the arrests of dozens of activists.

Mr Thackeray’s government, which had taken power in 2019, ordered the controversial project to be moved to Mumbai’s Kanjurmarg area in 2020. He said the car shed would be relocated to a plot of government land for which the government would incur no extra cost.

The Thackeray government had declared 800 acres of land in Aarey as a reserve forest, giving it protection.

The project had soon been mired in legal battles and construction at the new site had never commenced.

Mr Thackeray had also introduced a net-zero plan to attempt to transition Mumbai and make it the first south Asian city to become carbon neutral.

But now that Mr Thackeray, perceived as a moderate figure within his firebrand right-wing Shiv Sena party, was forced to resign after Mr Shinde splintered the party and took power, the fate of his policies hangs in the balance.

Activists, however, said they are again prepared to protest the decision and save the crucial forest from alleged destruction.

Yash Marwah, a volunteer with the Aarey Conservation Group, said the new chief minister has “enabled destruction of a forest, a river and the lives of people and flora fauna dependent on them”.

“We are revisiting strategies, reconnecting with volunteers, recrafting our communication. We will soon have both volunteer and public meetings. And if we see the chainsaws heading towards Aarey, they will see us on the battleground.”

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