India

800 Acres Of Mumbai's Aarey Declared Forest, Metro Car Shed To Be Shifted

800 Acres Of Mumbai's Aarey Declared Forest, Metro Car Shed To Be Shifted

Aarey forest is home to around five lakh trees and a wide variety of animals and birds

Around 800 acres of land in Mumbai's Aarey - the site 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. The structure that had already been built in Aarey would be utilised for some other public purpose, he added.

"This uncertainty over the car shed is over now. Biodiversity in Aarey needs to be to protected. There is an 800-acre jungle in an urban set-up... Mumbai has natural forest cover," he said.

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.

Environment Minister Aaditya Thackeray last month said the protesters had fought for the future of the planet and that 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.

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People gathered at Mumbai's Aarey Colony at night while Mumbai authorities began cutting trees

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 - that was extended in December - 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.

In November, however, the BJP was ousted from power in Maharashtra despite winning the October election. The Shiv Sena, which fell out with its long-time ally after the election, joined with the NCP and Congress to form a government and Uddhav Thackeray became chief minister.

Mr Thackeray ordered a stay on construction of the car shed (on cleared land) in one of his first decisions as chief minister.

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.