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The truth about Aarey’s trees

Mumbai’s Metro body claims to have transplanted trees to make up for the ones lost, but activists are not convinced

One of the images posted by Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRC) managing director Ashwini Bhide on Twitter to demonstrate MMRC’s compensatory afforestation.
One of the images posted by Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRC) managing director Ashwini Bhide on Twitter to demonstrate MMRC’s compensatory afforestation.

With a scythe in his hand, the gardener at Aarey declares his love for trees. “I have raised them like my own children," he says. “It would be a shame if something were to happen to them."

The 65-year-old, who prefers not to be identified, works at the eponymous dairy colony in north Mumbai. He tends to an orchard opposite the site of the proposed car shed for the Mumbai Metro. Here, he says, lie nearly 400 saplings and trees, many of which were transplanted from areas where trees were felled to make way for the Metro.

These plantations came into the spotlight earlier this week after officials of the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRC) pulled off an all-nighter to fell over 2,100 trees at the proposed car-shed site. The MMRC claimed it had already planted around 24,000 trees at Aarey and the neighbouring Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) to limit the environmental impact of the felling. These trees belong to native species and were geo-tagged and well-maintained, tweeted Ashwini Bhide, MMRC managing director.

At the orchard, the gardener and his colleagues tend to species like Arjuna, badam and jamun. Some, they admit, didn’t take well to their new rooting spot and died. Many were victims of official apathy.

“I had once asked my superiors to give me 150 nets to fence the saplings," the gardener says. “They gave me only 50. As I had feared, the cattle fed on the rest."

The gardener has been instructed to plant trees at a distance of at least 8ft from each other. An Arjuna tree, for example, can grow up to 70ft. How would their canopies survive if they are planted so close to each other?

“It will take years for it to grow out that long," the gardener shrugs. “I won’t even be around till then."

It is such lack of attention to detail that makes the MMRC’s claims of afforestation suspect, say activists.

In 2017, the Bombay high court set up a committee to monitor Mumbai Metro’s plantation and transplantation initiatives. Every few months since, its members have visited spots across the city, including Aarey and SGNP, to take stock of the new saplings and older tree transplantations. In their last visit this summer, says activist Zoru Bhathena, who works closely with the committee, he noticed over half of the 1,800 transplanted trees had died over the past two years.

“The MMRC has a tendency to lie through its teeth," he adds. “They had also told the high court that it had appointed Simon Leong, a renowned arborist, to oversee the transplantation, that he was to be paid around 21 lakh a month. My colleagues reached out to him. He said the Metro officials had discussed it with him but he hadn’t been appointed at all."

MMRC officials did not respond to emails, multiple phone calls or requests for an interview. Earlier, the body had justified the removal of trees in the Aarey colony by drumming up the long-term environmental benefits of the Metro.

In a document titled “The Truth You Should Know" (accessed from the “Facts of Aarey" tab on its website), the MMRC says the rise in levels of carbon dioxide due to tree felling will be compensated by 197 trips within four days of the Metro rail being fully functional. Shortly after the trees in Aarey were felled, Bhide tweeted, “Sometimes to construct something new destruction becomes inevitable but it also paves the way for new life and new creation."

Mumbai is no stranger to the loss of green cover for infrastructure projects. An Indian Institute of Science study published in 2017 showed that almost 94% of the city had been paved or concretized in the past 40 years. In the process, it lost nearly 60% of its vegetation and 65% of its water bodies.The Aarey colony, meanwhile, has been reduced to two-thirds of its 3,262-acre space due to land allotment to the zoo, Film City and housing projects.

D. Stalin, an environmentalist with the city-based Vanashakti group, says the government’s green promises while felling trees have often rung hollow. The monorail project, begun in 2008, cost the city 841 trees. The Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) had said at the time that it would transplant 376 trees. A meeting with the civic body in 2012 revealed that only 146 had been transplanted.

“In 2015, I visited the Kandivali Sports Complex, where a number of such trees were transplanted," says Stalin. “Less than 30% had survived. The gardener told me they received no money for the upkeep and maintenance of these trees."

Rishi Aggarwal, founder of the Mumbai Sustainability Centre and among the first Mumbai activists to mobilize support for the Save Aarey movement, calls it a “numbers game" on the part of the government.

“Eventually, we need a separate environmental policy with long-term goals," he says. “We can’t have a piecemeal approach over a few thousand trees cut at Aarey and live in ignorance over the enormous forests that are razed to make dams and supply us electricity.

“The environment issue has to be understood in a multi-disciplinary format," he adds. “You have to see it in the context of water policy, land-use policy, housing policy, waste-management policy and many others. Otherwise, we will just end up as emotional tree-huggers."

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