THE RESURFACING CONUNDRUM: CASE OF AAREY FOREST IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE INDIAN FOREST ACT, 1927 AND FOREST RIGHTS ACT, 2006
“For in the true nature of things, if we rightly consider, every green tree is far more glorious than if it were made of gold and silver.”
~ Martin Luther
Aarey Colony forests- known as the “green lung” of Mumbai, located in Goregaon, is spread over 13,000 hectares and is home to over 20 Adivasi villages. The 1,800-acre forest is rich in biodiversity of both flora and fauna.
It has recently gained back its position in the spotlight owing to the politically tumultuous situation in Maharashtra which has once again questioned the need for ecological balance in nature and the willingness of society to fight for it.
II. THE VISION OF AAREY FOREST
The narrative begins when India gained Independence and Mumbai was emerging as the hub for industrial and business life. The fast-growing city required easily accessible agricultural produce to support its ever-growing population and economy. The Aarey milk colony was founded as a result of this demand. The state department of dairy development was given approximately 1,300 acres in 1949. The vision was to create a separate area to streamline Mumbai’s unsanitary and unorganized cattle sheds and boost dairy product production and supply. Dara N Khurody, the then-Bombay milk commissioner, was the driving force behind this concept. In 1951, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru planted a sapling to formally inaugurate the milk colony.
III. COMPREHENDING THE CONTROVERSY
In September of 2019, Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation’s (MMRC) proposal to row down over 2700 trees to construct a 33.5 km underground Colaba-Bandra-SEEPZ Metro project at the Aarey Milk Colony was approved by Mumbai’s Civic body. The proposed car depot will have an administrative building, operation control, inspection and maintenance workshops, and stabling lines for the parking of trains, according to the MMRCL.
Devendra Fadnavis, the former Chief Minister of Maharashtra, initiated the project. However, when Shiv Sena’s Uddhav Thackrey took over the project in 2019, it was canceled due to opposition from environmental activists. As a result, the Uddhav Thackeray-led Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government relocated the proposed car shed from Aarey Colony to Kanjurmarg, citing environmental concerns. The government also ordered the dismissal of cases against some of the protesters who had been arrested during anti-movement demonstrations. However, the “scrapping” of the project was merely bureaucratic and mostly futile because, by the time the new changes were implemented, metro authorities had already cut down 2,135 of the proposed 2,700 trees.
IV. RESPECTIVE STANDPOINTS
4.1 The Government
The government has not changed its stance and has marketed the project as a solution to the city’s congestion problem as a “necessity for development.” The government has continued its outlook saying that this is a developmental pitch that will be prosperous for the state and its economy. Fadnavis has now asked Advocate General Ashutosh Kumbhakoni to present the government’s initial proposal at the Bombay High Court on the state’s decision to relocate the metro car shed to Aarey Colony. He went on to say that the construction will not harm the environment and that the Supreme Court had approved the site for the work, which is currently 25% complete, after considering pre-emptive environmental reports.
4.2 The Activists
Environmental activists say Aarey is crucial for Mumbai’s future. They argue that the forest not only provides clean air to city dwellers at a time when pollution levels are dangerous but that its ecosystem also protects the diverse habitat that is home to some endemic species. There is also an increased risk of man-animal conflict if the Aarey cover is reduced. Activists have called for peaceful protests, arguing that development and urbanization must not come at the expense of the environment.
Environmentalists have condemned the move, viewing it as an attack on biodiversity and forest cover. Vanshakti , a Mumbai-based environmental organization, petitioned the Bombay High Court in 2019 to issue an order granting the Aarey Colony the status of “Reserved Forest” or “Protected Forest” under the Indian Forest Act, 1927. The Supreme Court issued an interim order in October 2019 to keep the status quo regarding tree cutting in Aarey, as the petitioner had pointed out and proven instances of illegal tree cutting. Despite the apex court’s stay, no response from local civic bodies was observed.
Vanashakti was also forced to file an urgent directions application, which brought the court’s attention to several incidents of forest fires, illegal tree cuttings, and encroachments in the area. Later, the petitioner submitted additional documents demonstrating how construction near the Mithi river could potentially cut off the water supply to wild animals that rely on it. These findings, particularly the felling of trees in the area, sparked widespread protests, with hundreds pouring into the streets to oppose the responsible authorities, some even hugging the stress to keep them from being felled.
To put a stop to these protests, Section 144 was imposed, and approximately 30 people were arrested.
V. LEGAL IMPLICATIONS
5.1 Forest Management in Congruence with Indian Forest Act (1927)
In India, affairs related to forest fall under the concurrent list, thus, both the state and national governments share responsibility for managing forest resources in a sustainable manner. The Indian Forest Act of 1927 empowers Indian state governments to enact rules governing various aspects of forest management.
The Imperial Forest Department passed the first Indian Forest Act in 1865. The purpose of this act was to impose British control over Indian forests. It was, however, amended twice after that, first in 1878 and then again in 1927.
The Indian Forest Act of 1927, the modern version of this act, aims to regulate the movement of forest produce and duty leviable forest produce. The forest rules can differ from state to state. This piece of legislation governs forest policies, rules, and regulations. This law specifies the procedure for designating an area as Reserved Forest, Protected Forest, or Village Forest. The Degree of protection is as follows:
Reserved forests > Protected forests > Village forests
This act also defines a forest offense, what acts are prohibited within a Reserved Forest, and the penalties for violating it, “shall be punishable with imprisonment for a minimum term of six months which may extend to two years or with minimum fine of one thousand rupees which may extend to five thousand rupees or with both. The offence under this section shall be cognizable and non-bailable” under section 33 as seen in the case of Prasad Paswan v. State of Jharkhand .
5.2 Displacement of Tribals Conforming to Forest Rights Act (2006)
Over 3,500 Warli Adivasis and other tribal groups live in Aarey, which is divided into 27 hamlets. Many of them are currently displaced.
Prajapurpada hamlet near Birsa Munda Chowk, which falls within the affected area in Aarey, for example, has seen the metro authorities relocate 70 of over 80 families to a Slum Rehabilitation Authority building outside of Aarey. Because they do not fall within the project area, the remaining ten have escaped the axe. He emphasized that most Prajapada families had applied for land rights under the Forest Rights Act of 2006 over a decade ago, but their claims were still pending.
The Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006 recognizes the rights of forest-dwelling tribal communities and other traditional forest dwellers to forest resources on which these communities rely for a variety of needs such as livelihood, habitation, and other socio-cultural needs as seen in the case of Orissa Mining Corporation Ltd vs Ministry of Environment & Forest.
Section 4 (8) of the act states, “The forest rights recognised and vested under this Act shall include the right of land to forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers who can establish that they were displaced from their dwelling and cultivation without land compensation due to State development interventions.”
The thin line between sustainable forests and livelihoods and meeting new developmental demands is increasingly becoming blurred since, forests play an important role in addressing the challenges of climate change, food shortages, and improved livelihoods for a growing population, the proposed developments also seek to advance these agendas in a more tangible way. A demarcation must be created between ‘perceived development’ and ‘exploitation’.
Mismanagement of forest lands and resources under the guise of “development” has resulted in a situation in which the forest is now rapidly depleting, leaving less room for overturning past errors.
As rightly pointed out by President Barack Obama, “There’s one issue that will define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other, and that is the urgent and growing threat of a changing climate.”
The necessity for trees and their conservation has become salient to the sustenance of life in light of the current climatic changes. Therefore, a dire need for transparency and cooperation between the two major stakeholders- the government and the public are needed, through means of proper dialogue, discussion and resolution. Moreover, to ensure the same, law courts also have to shoulder the task of carrying out these ambitions.
Author: Snigdha Ghose,
Gujarat National Law University and 1st year