SC slaps ₹10L fine on MMRCL for felling extra trees in Aarey Forest

The top court, however, permitted the company to remove 177 trees from Aarey forest, saying a stay on tree felling would lead to the public project being brought to a standstill, which is not desirable

Mumbai Metro Aarey Forest

New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Monday directed the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL) to pay ₹10 lakh as penalty within two weeks for attempting to cut trees in Aarey forest beyond permission to construct it car shed.

A bench comprising Chief Justice of India D Y Chandrachud and Justices P S Narasimha and J B Pardiwala said it was improper on part of the MMRCL move the tree authority for felling of any tree in excess of 84. The top court, however, permitted the company to remove 177 trees from Aarey forest, saying a stay on tree felling would lead to the public project being brought to a standstill, which is not desirable.

MMRCL within a period of two weeks should provide an amount of ₹10 lakh to the conservator of forests. The conservator shall ensure that all afforestation which has been directed is completed,” the bench said.

“We request the director of IIT Bombay to depute a team for the purpose of verifying compliance. A report should be submitted L this court in three weeks,” it added.

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The apex court had in 2019 taken suo motu cognisance of a letter addressed to the Chief Justice of India by law student Rishav Ranjan seeking a stay on the felling of trees in the colony.

Bombay HC restrained MMRCL to cut 177 trees in Aarey Forest

Earlier last month, the Bombay High Court had ordered the MMRCL to not cut down any of the 177 trees at Aarey Colony for the Metro 3 car shed project, as per the permission granted by Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) tree authority, until the Supreme Court decides on the matter.

A division bench of acting Chief Justice of Bombay High Court Sanjay V Gangapurwala and Justice Sandeep V Marne passed an order in a fresh PIL by environmental activist Zoru Bhathena challenging the March 15 permission granted by BMC’s tree authority for felling of 177 trees.

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The bench had observed, “There is no doubt that the metro project involves public interest and public purpose. There cannot be any debate in the proposition that the balance has to be struck between sustainable development and ecology.”

The HC noted that the apex court was seized of the matter and it is likely to be heard on April 11. “It was not a matter of debate that SC had allowed MMRCL to approach Tree Authority to the extent of 84 trees,” the bench added. “However, the impugned permission is for 177 trees. The same is beyond the liberty granted by the November 29, 2022 judgment of the Apex Court. In light of that, it will not be possible for the High Court to accept the contention that the Tree Authority could permit the MMRCL to fell trees beyond 84.”

SC permitted MMRCL to pursue tree application with concerned authority

Refusing to stay the Maharashtra government’s decision to allow the car depot of Metro Line 3 in Aarey, the apex court in November 2022 allowed MMRCL to pursue its application before the BMC tree authority for felling 84 trees to construct a ramp for the project.

The PIL said due to the non-existence of tree authority and the municipal council being vacant, the BMC commissioner Iqbal Singh Chahal wrongly used his powers to act as tree authority, in breach of the April 2018 HC order that restrained him from exercising them in a “routine manner.”

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Senior advocate Venkatesh Dhond, appearing for the petitioner, also claimed that BMC’s approval was in violation of the Trees Act, 1975, as the commissioner granted permission without uploading his prior sanction on the civic body’s website and without issuing any newspaper notice, in violation of the law laid down by HC.

The start of construction

The MMRCL started the work on the 33-km long underground Colaba to SEEPZ line in 2016 with a total of 26 underground station on the entire stretch. Earlier this year, it was announced that it would be extended by 2.5 km from Cuffe Parade to Navy Nagar, and a total of 27 stations will be added with an estimated additional cost of ₹2.031 crore.
The initial plan was to complete the first phase of the project between Bandra and SEEPZ by December 2021, and the second phase from Bandra-Kurla Complex to Colaba by June 2022. After many delays, the MMRCL is now planning to complete the first phase by January 2024. The Phase 1 stretch between BKC and SEEPZ is scheduled for December 2023 opening.

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Project cost hiked by ₹10000-Cr

Last year in the first Cabinet meeting, Maharashtra chief minister Eknath Shinde had approved an increase of ₹10,000 crore in the overall cost of the project. The cost of the project has risen from ₹23,136 crore to ₹33,405 crore, with state government now contributing ₹3,699.81 crore from the earlier ₹2,402.7 crore.

Officials said that the cost escalation was mainly attributed to the time taken in excavation due to basalt rock, adoption of bottom-up construction technology for space needs, addition cost incurred on account of rocky layers and to remove them and erecting steel decks for road traffic to allow building of underground stations in congested areas.

Other factors for cost escalation

One of the major reasons for the increase in cost and delay was the construction of the Metro car shed at Aarey forest, a forested land adjoining the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, which had been met with resistance by citizens and activists city over the felling of trees in the area.

After the formation of Maha Vikas Aghadi government in November 2019, chief minister Uddhav Thackeray cancelled the car shed project in Aarey, and announced that the plan be shifted to marshy, salt pan area of Kanjurmarg. The Kanjurmarg area was stuck in litigations and lawsuits, with the Central government claiming stake on the land.

The construction of the metro car shed at Aarey was one of the first decisions reversed by the current Shinde-Fadnavis government. Former chief minister Uddhav Thackeray had fervently appealed to the new government “not to stab Mumbai in its heart” by going ahead with the construction of the car shed at Aarey.

Why did the Supreme Court interfere

The Supreme Court had last year MMRCL to not carry out any work on Aarey forest until next hearing. The MMRCL had told the Supreme Court that no trees have been felled in the Aarey forest to make way for a metro shed and only “weeds and bushes” have been cleared.

However, CM Shinde made it clear that the government stands by its decision to develop the Metro 3 car shed at Aarey colony while deputy CM Devendra Fadnavis announced that the Colaba-Seepz line would be operational by December 2023 and not a single tree would be cut for the depot.

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