Around 800 acres of land in Mumbai’s Aarey – the focus of a bitter row in September and October last year between environmental activists and the then BJP-ruled Maharashtra government, which wanted to cut down 2,700 trees to build a car shed for the Metro project – have been declared a reserve forest, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray said Sunday.
The proposed car shed, the Chief Minister said, would be shifted to Kanjurmag, adding that there would be no escalation in cost because the state already owns land there.
“This uncertainty over the car shed is over now,” Mr Thackeray told reporters today, thanking his son and Environment Minister Aaditya Thackersay – who was at the forefront of the campaign to save the Aarey trees – and officials from Mumbai Metro.
The Chief Minister also directed the withdrawal of all police cases filed against Aarey protesters – a move that was announced in December last year as well. The cases relate to those filed against people who tried to stop the authorities from cutting down the trees.
Aaditya Thackeray last month tweeted that the protesters had only stood up for the future of the planet. He also said the rights of Adivasi communities that call Aarey home would be protected.
A huge controversy broke out last year over the then Maharashtra government’s decision to cut down trees in Aarey – a vast swathe of green with around five lakh trees and home to a wide variety of animals and birds – to build a car shed for the Metrorail project.
In October the Bombay High Court refused to declare Aarey a forest or quash the Mumbai municipal corporation’s decision to allow felling of trees. Hours later, under the cover of night, bulldozers rolled into Aarey and trees were cut amid a dramatic stand-off with protesters.
In a series of tweets at that time Aaditya Thackeray termed the cutting of the trees as a “shameful and disgusting” act which was carried out “in cover of night”.
Activists, including a group of law students, wrote to then Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, asking the Supreme Court to intervene.
The top court ordered a temporary stay but the Maharashtra government said it had already cut down the trees it needed to. The court then clarified that it would not stay construction of the car shed – on land that had already been cleared.
The Aarey protests became a bone of contention between the BJP and Shiv Sena (which was in power in the state as an ally of the BJP), with neither Uddhav Thackeray nor Aaditya Thackeray shying away from expressing their opposition to Aarey trees being cut.