Aarey! The City and the Forest must Coexist

By Priyanka Chaturvedi

The United Nations (UN) is debating and discussing climate change in New York this week, with an emphasis on sustainable development goals. Prime Minister Narendra Modi also made a strong pitch for India’s leading role in this. India’s UN office, as part of the celebrations of 150 years of the Mahatma, has included a book on Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings on the environment. India has also gifted solar panels to the UN, in a clear indication that India stands strongly for the environment and finding solutions for a cleaner and greener earth for our future generations to inherit.

16 year-old Greta Thunberg has caught the imagination of the world with her hard-hitting speeches on how the world needs to wake up to the dangers of climate change. However, back home in Mumbai, we have to fight to save our environment from the authorities. The decision of the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Ltd (MMRCL) to cut down more than 2700 trees in Aarey to set up the Metro car shed has seen widespread protests across the city.

In a show of solidarity, people across the country have also urged the agency to rethink its decision. It is heartbreaking and heartening at the same time to see young children join the protests to urge the development authorities to save Aarey Forests, Mumbai’s largest green lung and also a thriving ecosystem that houses various species of animals and wildlife. Only two cities in the world can boast of having wildlife exist in the precincts of a bustling and busy city—one is Mumbai, the other is Los Angeles in the United States of America.

After receiving considerable flak, and with the High Court coming down heavily on the agency, the MMRCL unleashed a media and PR blitzkrieg to justify the felling of trees and how it was the need of the hour. In their enthusiasm to be proved correct, they labeled the protestors as anti-development and misguided activists. Anyone who knows the city and has lived in Mumbai will tell you that the propaganda campaign that has been unleashed is being economical with the truth.

The argument being put forth about the carbon offset and reducing carbon footprint with vehicles going off the roads is absolutely valid. However, is the Metro running entirely on clean energy? We burn coal to generate electricity, and run the Metro on that energy. So, let’s not delude the citizens and admit that while the Metro is a much-needed utility to decongest traffic from our overstretched city roads, it is definitely not a carbon offset. Even the amount of concrete being used for the project would also take a long time to offset.

The point that is not being highlighted is that Aarey has a variety of native species residing there besides wild animals like leopards. Once a car shed, with Metro trains running there, its sound and vibrations would push these species away from the city. With thousands of people using the service and the area bustling with activity, it will most certainly kill the ecosystem that’s thriving there. The possibility of the area opening up for possible commercial exploitation to support the cost of infrastructure also cannot be ruled out. Hence it isn’t just about the trees that can be replaced or transplanted elsewhere but more about what it does to the thriving ecosystem that exists there.

The argument bandied about on Aarey standing in the way of development is also incorrect. In this case, the car shed has three other options within the city that can be explored. The absurd argument of cost escalations do not wash. Can citizens of this city which has been contributing maximum revenue to the Centre not expect its future generations to have its quota of greenery while happily coexisting with a Metro, even if the costs are higher?

What is most unfortunate is the agencies’ lack of empathy and understanding as to why the protests are happening and why they are gathering momentum. The huge ad spend to prove their position as the only correct stance shows their lack of sensitivity to an issue that will impact the city, its citizens, and its future. The MMRCL’s stand till date has been to not even engage in a dialogue with Mumbaikars. The labeling of environmentalists, activists, tree experts, IIT Mumbai academics and flood plain researchers as anti-development is hardly a confidence-building measure to find solutions.

The future is that of sustainable development. We will continue to raise our voices till a solution is found. The city’s development and environment can and should coexist; it cannot be a choice of one over the other.

This blog first appeared in Kochi post, and has been reposted with permissions