BREAKING| Supreme Court Refuses To Stay Maharashtra Govt Decision To Allow Metro Car Shed At Aarey; Allows MMRCL To Seek Felling Of Trees
The Supreme Court on Tuesday modified its status quo order on the felling of trees at Aarey region in Mumbai for the metro car shed project and allowed the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Ltd (MMRCL) to pursue its application before the Tree Authority seeking permission for the felling of 84 trees.
The Court said that the tree authority will be at liberty to take an appropriate decision on the MMRCL's application by imposing suitable conditions. The Court observed that Maharashtra Government's fresh decision to restore the location of the car shed at Aarey, after changing its earlier decision to relocate the same to Kanjurmarg, was based on relevant considerations and "it would be impossible for this Court to stay the decision at the interim stage".
A bench comprising Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud and Justice PS Narasimha noted that, prima facie, there is a view of the Bombay High Court which holds as valid the felling of the trees as well as the decision to locate the metro car shed at Aarey. The bench also noted that the Supreme Court had earlier declined interim relief against the project.
"In such projects involving large outlay of public funds, the Court cannot be oblivious of the serious dislocations caused if the public investment which goes into the project is disregarded. Undoubtedly, the concerns relating to environment are important, as all development must be sustainable", the bench observed in the order.
The bench noted that the State Government considered several factors, such as the letter written by the Central Government and expert committee reports, while coming to the conclusion that the original decision to allow the metro car depot for Metro line 3 at Aarey should be restored.
It also noted that a substantial number of trees(2144) have been cut and what remains is the cutting of the trees for the ramp.
The Court clarified that it will hear the main petitions at a later stage while disposing of the interlocutory applications.
Solicitor General of India Tushar Mehta, appearing for the MMRCL, highlighting that 95% of the work is over, submitted that permission is sought for cutting just 84 trees.
"The original total cost of the project was 23000 crores. We have already invested 22000 crores. Because of the delay caused by the litigation, the cost has increased to 37000 crores. There will be a huge impact on carbon emission going down. Vehicular traffic on the metro track would virtually go. My prayer is for 84 trees. 95% work is over. Serious prejudice would be caused to public if because of 84 trees the entire project is stopped. No one would gain anything. So far as the trees are concerned, the trees will be transported or new trees will be planted", SG Mehta submitted.
Highlighting that every day at least 9 citizens die daily due to overcrowding in trains, the SG said that the issue was related to a citizen's legitimate expectation to travel comfortably. He further stated that proposal for alternative site at Kanjurmarg was no longer viable considering the investment worth crores of rupees already made.
Arguments in opposition
Senior Advocate Chander Uday Singh, appearing for activists opposing the felling of trees, stated that Rs 23,000 crores is the investment for the whole project and not for the car shed. As regards the car shed, he submitted that except for a pillar, no construction has taken place, in view of the orders of the Supreme Court.
"This 23000 crores is for the entire project of 10 metro lines of which line 3 is one line. This has escalated to 30000 crores on account of market factors which has nothing to do with the car shed", Singh said. He also referred to committee reports which suggested Kanjurmarg as a more suitable site in terms of technical feasibility, ability to cater to passenger needs, impact of environment and land acquisition cost.
Singh submitted that after the new government under Chief Minister Eknath Shinde took over on June 30, the first decision announced was to resume the work at Aarey shed. He said that the decision was taken without a cabinet and only with the Chief Minister and the Deputy Chief Minister. There was an earlier decision taken to relocate the project to Kanjurmarg, which was taken on the basis of expert committee reports. However, the decision was reversed by the new government without any consideration of the relevant aspects.
Singh asserted that the area is a "pristine forest" which is habitat to several "endangered species". The present work has taken place only in the small window between July 21 to August 5, when the Supreme Court said it will hear the matter.
Senior Advocate Anita Shenoy submitted that the area is filled with trees and is a forest within the meaning of the definition given by the Supreme Court in the TN Godavarman case. She added that the transplantation of trees has been a complete failure. "67% of transplanted trees have died. This reversal is dangerous".
She also cited the precedents reported in (2003) 5 SCC 437 and (2021) 4 SCC 309.
Advocate Rukmini Bobde, making rejoinder submissions on behalf of the MMRCL, refuted the argument that the Aarey area is a "forest" land. She drew the attention of the bench to the judgment of the Bombay High Court which refused to hold that the region was not a forest. The National Green Tribunal has also dismissed applications filed in relation to the region.
She also pointed out that the Ministry of Environment and Forest has excluded this region while notifying the Sanjay Gandhi national park as eco-sensitive zone. There is a film city, residential complexes and slums near the Aarey milk colony and the area cannot be characterised as a forest.
"The tree authority must process our application, they may refuse it but they should process. They've directed us to plant 3 times, we've planted 6 times. 97% survival rates, we're even looking at samples so they grow", she urged.
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 Aarey 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.
Case Title : In Re Felling Of Trees In Aarey Forest (Maharashtra)|SMW(C)No(s).2/2019