The Supreme Court on Monday ordered a status quo in the matter involving the axing of thousands of trees in Mumbai’s Aarey area to clear the area for the construction of infrastructure for the Mumbai Metro.
The court also directed that all individuals who have been detained for protesting the government’s action be released immediately.
Further, observing that it “appeared Aarey was a forest at some point of time”, the court asked the state government to submit a status report on the number of trees felled so far and the compulsory afforestation efforts of Mumbai Metro.
Speaking to National Herald, Senior Advocate Sanjay Hegde, who appeared for the petitioners, said that it was an interim order to maintain status quo in the matter. “The court did not stay the judgment of Bombay High Court. I expressed the apprehension that in the garb of clearing the already-axed trees, more trees would be cut, after which the court passed the orders to maintain status quo in the matter.”
Asked if it was clear how many trees had already been chopped during the midnight of October 4, he said, “Nobody has those figures. But the government said that whatever needed to be cut has already been cut. They recorded the statement of Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for Maharashtra government to this effect.”
“At the same time, after today’s order, passed at around 10.15 in the morning, if the concerned authorities try to cut any trees, they would be liable to be hauled up for contempt of court,” Hegde added.
Asked if the government might have already achieved its objective, with some estimating the number of trees already cut at 2600, he said: “You don’t cut trees just for the sake of cutting trees. They did it to construct the metro yard. Now, they can’t go any further till the Supreme Court hears the matter on October 21, the next date of hearing.
A Supreme Court special vacation bench of Justices Arun Mishra and Ashok Bhushan said the legality of trees that have already been felled can be decided by the environment bench after the Dussehra vacation.
The bench was constituted after a law student, Rishav Ranjan, wrote to Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi on Sunday asking the court to intervene and stop the trees from being cut. The court decided to treat the letter as an PIL.
Aarey is considered a “green lung” of the city as it is one of the few areas that have dense forest cover. Both the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation and the BJP-run state government have maintained that Aarey is not a forest and hence the trees can be axed.
The Bombay High Court on Friday had refused to declare the Aarey Colony as a forest area. It also declined to quash a Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) decision allowing the felling of trees in the suburban green zone for a metro car shed.
On Saturday several activists, citizens, celebrities and politicians began protesting the move, many of whom were taken into preventive custody and released later.
Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code, which prohibits assembly of more than four persons in an area, was imposed around the colony.
The 29 environmental activists who were arrested were sent remanded to five-days judicial custody.
The Shiv Sena, which runs the BMC and is a partner in the state government, has vehemently protested the decision to cut the trees, including some tweets by Aditya Thackeray, leading to huge criticism from citizens on Twitter who pointed out how ironical this sounded.
A video was also posted on Twitter by Congress leader Sanjay Jha, criticising the Shiv Sena’s stand.