A committee, appointed by Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray last month, has recommended the lifting of the stay on the construction work of the Metro Rail car shed in Mumbai’s Aarey Milk Colony.
The committee, headed by Additional Chief Secretary (Finance) Manoj Saunik, submitted its recommendations to the Chief Minister’s Office yesterday (Tuesday, 28th January 2020).
Asked to explore and suggest whether alternative locations were available elsewhere to shift the car shed for the 33.5-km long underground Colaba-Bandra-Seepz corridor out of the green zone, the panel has found no viable alternative, sources said.
But just as it has cited logistical hurdles, cost escalations, and a further delay in the underground rail’s commissioning to justify that the car shed be allowed to remain in Aarey, the committee has found merit in the argument that increased construction activity inside the Aarey Milk Colony — one of the last vestiges of green spaces in Mumbai — was impacting the rich flora and fauna in the region. It has thus recommended that the state government should notify the unbuilt green areas inside the colony as a no-construction belt, preserving it like a protected forest.
The car shed project has been a battleground between environmentalists and the Mumbai Metro Rail authorities, ever since the plans were first drawn up in 2015. The battle lines were firmed up further when the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL), the project’s nodal agency, in an overnight operation on October 4, 2019, felled 2,141 trees at the proposed 33-hectare site, following a Bombay High Court verdict.
The Shiv Sena, then a partner in a BJP-led state government, had lent a political voice to those protesting the felling of the trees, with Uddhav’s son Aaditya, now the state environment minister, coming out in strong opposition to the move.
On November 29, last year, a day after being sworn in as the CM, Uddhav had stayed the car shed construction work, and dropped cases filed by the police against 29 protesters.
The four-man committee, also comprising Principal Secretary (Environment) Anil Diggikar, Managing Director (Mumbai Rail Vikas Corporation) R S Khurana and Chief Conservator of Forest (Sanjay Gandhi National Park) Anwar Ahmed, was set up on December 11. Its scope of work included exploring options to shift the car shed, examining if all procedural formalities were followed before the felling of trees and recommending ways to preserve the green.
Sources said the panel considered two alternate locations — a marshy land at Kanjurmarg where a car shed for another Metro line (Jogeshwari-Lokhandwala-Vikhroli-Kanjurmarg) has been proposed and another site just outside the Aarey land (Sariput Nagar) at Jogeshwari, which has a camp of the State Reserve Police Force, residential blocks and training facility for the personnel.
But after conducting site visits, the panel ruled that the shifting of the car shed would involve logistical and legal challenges, bringing further delays in the commissioning of the Metro corridor. The Metro 3 service was originally proposed to be operational from December 2020, it has already been pushed back by a year.
The committee has argued that shifting the car shed at this stage would lead to a further delay in the project’s commissioning and cause cost escalations. In 2015, the project was worth Rs 23,000 crore with the MMRCL relying mainly on off-budget borrowings to fund it. As per MMRCL sources, delay of each day in the project’s commissioning increases the cost by Rs 4.2 crore.
The panel has further argued for the lifting of the stay on the fait accompli principle, contending that MMRCL did not plan to fell any more trees at the site. It has reportedly argued that the damage that the project could have inflicted on the green has already been done.
In some ways, the Uddhav Thackeray-appointed committee seems to be echoing the findings of a technical panel, appointed by former CM Devendra Fadnavis in 2015, to explore alternate options. Even that panel, after surveying seven sites, had found Aarey Colony as the most viable option.
Sources said that it would be interesting to see if Uddhav accepts the panel’s findings, and Aaditya’s reaction to it. Incidentally, the environment department, as part of the exercise, has submitted an environment impact assessment report to the panel, enlisting the rich flora and fauna inside the Aarey Colony. Similar reports were also submitted for the other two sites.