The Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Ltd (MMRCL) on Friday told the Supreme Court that no cutting of trees has been carried out in the Aarey forest region in Mumbai.
The Court was hearing a batch of applications filed by activists and residents alleging that the authorities have resumed the tree cutting in Aarey forest region contrary to the status quo order passed by the Supreme Court in November 2019.
Solicitor General of India Tushar Mehta, appearing for the MMRCL, denied that tree cutting was going on in the area. The SG said that after status quo order was passed in November 2019, no trees were cut. In the meantime, there were bushes, weeds and shrubs which have grown in the area, and the authorities are only removing those. The SG said that only trimming of certain branches were carried out and no trees were cut. The MMRCL has filed an affidavit making these assertions.
The bench comprising Justices UU Lalit, S Ravindra Bhat and Aniruddha Bose said that in view of this stand taken by the MMRCL, there is no requirement for any interim order to be passed by the Court.
"No specific interim directions are called for in view of the stand taken in the recent affidavit by an on behalf of the respondent(MMRCL)..Suffice it to say that as stated by the concerned respondent, no trees have been cut since the order dated November 7, 2019 and shall not be cut till the next date of hearing", the bench noted in the order.
The matter will be posted for disposal on August 13.
When the matter was taken, Senior Advocate Chander Uday Singh, appearing for the petitioners, submitted that the tree cutting has resumed in the Aarey region for the metro car shed project, despite the status quo orders. He submitted that without considering the committee's report which proposed the metro shed at Kanjurmarg, the authorities have decided to keep it at the Aaray site and have started clearing of the forests.
Justice Lalit said that the matter needs to be heard in detail and expressed the inclination to pass a status quo order till the next posting date.
"What we will do is, we will order status quo till the matter is taken up", Justice Lalit said.
At this juncture, the Solicitor General intervened to explain the stand of the MMRCL that no tree cutting has taken place.
"Only weeds and bushes on the ground were cleared. There is an approach road, there were branches that required trimming for vehicles to pass through, and trimming took place. No trees were cut. They have shown photographs of some other areas", the SG said.
The SG denied the petitioners' allegations and commented that the senior lawyer might not have been properly briefed.
"If public interest litigants make inaccuarte statements, it will leave a bad taste", the SG said.
"There are certain benefits of having a Public Interest Litigation too", Justice Lalit replied.
During the hearing, Justice Lalit pointed out that he had assisted the Supreme Court as an amicus curiae in the TN Godavarman Thirumalpad case (in which the Court passed directions to protect forests) and asked if there was any conflict of interest in his hearing of the matter.
"I don't see any conflict of interest", the SG stated.
In 2019, the Supreme Court had registered a suo motu case titled "In Re Felling Of Trees In Aarey Forest (Maharashtra)" based on a letter petition sent by few law students against the cutting of the trees for the construction of a metro car shed. The actions taken by the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Ltd (MMRCL) and other authorities to cut the trees in Aaray had led to widespread protests by environmental activists and city residents.
Connected along with the suo motu case are special leave petitions filed against the Bombay High Court's judgment refusing to interfere with the project.
On October 7, 2019, the Supreme Court had ordered status quo with respect to the cutting of trees, after Solicitor General Tushar Mehta submitted on behalf of the State of Maharashtra that no further trees will be cut.
The Aarey tree felling resumed after the change of government in Maharashtra recently, when the new government with Eknath Shinde as the Chief Minister announced the decision to construct the metro shed at the same place.
Case Title : In Re Felling Of Trees In Aarey Forest (Maharashtra)|SMW(C)No(s).2/2019