MUMBAI: Environmentalists are gearing up for another round of battle over the Metro-3 car shed project, which the new Eknath Shinde-led government in Maharashtra has proposed to move back to Mumbai's Aarey forest, an 1,800 acre area which is often termed as the city's 'green lung'.
Apart from leopards, some 300 different varieties of flora and fauna are found in the Aarey forest, located in suburban Goregaon and adjacent to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park.
According to environment activists, the forest not only provides fresh air to people of the city, but it also a key habitat for the wildlife, including some endemic species.
The forest has some five lakh trees, and also has a couple of rivers and some lakes flowing through it, they say.
Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis recently directed state Advocate General and the administration to submit a proposal on building the car shed in Aarey Colony, instead of Kanjurmarg which was chosen by the previous Uddhav Thackeray-led state government.
In 2014, the Metro-3 car shed was first proposed at Aarey by then chief minister Prithviraj Chavan, which was challenged by local NGO Vanshakti in the Bombay High Court, with a plea to prevent cutting of trees in the area.
Fadnavis, who succeeded Chavan, went ahead with the same site.
But, green activists had vehemently opposed the cutting of trees in Aarey for the car shed.
After the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress alliance came to power in 2019, the then CM Uddhav Thackeray reversed the decision, shifting the Metro-3 car shed to a site in the Kanjurmarg eastern suburb, but it was embroiled in a legal dispute.
The Thackeray government had also declared Aarey as a reserved forest.
On Thursday evening, Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde and his deputy Fadnavis, in their first cabinet meeting held hours after coming to power, overturned the previous Thackeray-led government's decision.
An official from the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (MMRDA) said nearly 900 days have been wasted in litigations and no construction has taken place, either at the Kanjurmarg site or in Aarey.
"This clearly means it would take at least three years to complete the Metro-3 car shed at the Aarey site, if everything goes smooth with the new government," he said.
There are various Metro lines at different construction stages, but the Metro-3 car shed is crucial, mainly because it connects the western suburbs with the two major industrial hubs in Mumbai - the Bandra Kurla Complex and SEEPZ.
NGO Vanshakti's D Stalin, who is at the forefront of opposing the car shed at the Aarey land, said, "It is not just the car shed that is going to come at the Aarey land. There is a solid chance of real estate players foraying as well. It will destroy the Aarey forest land forever."
There had been a logical explanation for construction of the car shed for Metro 3 and 6 at the Kanjurmarg site, but some "invisible powers" are strongly forcing the new government to shift it back to Aarey, he claimed.
The Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Ltd, which oversees the 33.5 km Metro-3 project, has already spent over Rs 19,000 crore in tunnelling, civil works, station work and track-laying.
About 23 per cent of the construction work was completed at Aarey (before work was stayed there), while no work took place at the Kanjurmarg site, said an official from the MMRCL.
Most of the funding for the Metro-3 line has come from the Japan International Co-operation Agency.
Stalin said the importance of the Aarey forest is not just because it provides fresh air, reduces temperature and pollution and helps hold groundwater in the city.
"It also provides a crucial habitat for the wildlife and is home to some endemic species, flora and fauna not found anywhere else. It is also home to two rivers, three lakes and five lakh trees. Why should we disturb it?" he asked.
He said the Metro-3 car shed in the Aarey area will have direct and indirect affects.
"The direct affect is that trees will be cut, destroying 62 hectares of forest land. Eventually, floodplains of the Mithi river will be taken away, he said. The car shed is expected to require 50,000 litres of groundwater everyday for washing (Metro rakes). The indirect affect will be long-term," he added.
Stalin said the MMRCL will not construct only the car shed there, it is also planning a Metro station in Aarey.
"Why should a station come up inside Aarey? A 90-acre SRA (slum rehabilitation authority) project is also being planned near the station. The station will destroy the Aarey Colony," he claimed.
Nearly 1.5 lakh people are going to stay in the SRA tenements.
Moreover, several plots have been taken away for other activities, like a zoo, Metro Bhavan, RTO testing centre and a labour camp.
All kind of activities are proposed at Aarey because of the car shed, Stalin said.
The Uddhav Thackeray-led Shiv Sena has opposed the move to build the Metro car shed at Aarey, and it has also received support from Maharashtra Navnirman Sena leader Amit Thackeray, son of MNS chief Raj Thackeray.
Amit Thackeray has come out in support of environmental activists, saying the state government should reconsider its plan to construct the Metro-3 car shed in the Aarey forest area.(THE NEW INDIAN EXPRESS)