In its maiden move, within a few hours of assuming power in Maharashtra on Thursday, Eknath Shinde's government directed the construction of Metro-3 car shed inside Aarey.
The first decision of the new government is being read as more than just making way for a project; it is the new flashpoint of the battle between Shiv Sena and BJP or between Uddhav Thackeray and Eknath Shinde, to be precise.
The decision is in complete reversal of the one taken by the previous Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government which decided to move the Metro-3 car shed from Aarey to the 102-acre salt pan land in Kanjurmarg.
What is the tussle about?
The dispute over the construction of a metro car shed at Aarey goes back to 2014. The decision to move the car shed from Aarey to Kanjurmarg was a bone of contention between Shiv Sena and its former ally, the BJP. The stalemate over the issue between Central and Maharashtra government continued.
Long back, Maharashtra government headed by Devendra Fadnavis and led by BJP, planned to build a car shed 33.5 kms long underground Metro project at Aarey Milk Colony. The 1800-acre urban forest in suburban Goregaon is home to over 300 species of flora and fauna. Shiv Sena, with Yuva Sena leader Aaditya Thackeray, opposed the move tooth and nail.
Things escalated, after civic body went ahead with overnight felling of trees, following the High Court's order. Bollywood actors, several locals and environmentalists joined in. Save Aarey campaign became a hashtag on social media, which prompted Fadnavis government to invoke Section 144 of the CrPC.
What the Uddhav Thackeray-led MVA said
Things heated up ahead of 2019 assembly polls, when Aaditya Thackeray led the protests against felling of over 2000 trees and promised relocation of the car shed from the area. In a turn of events historically similar, within a day of assuming power, Uddhav Thackeray too overthrew Fadnavis' decision to build the car shed at Aarey.
Instead the car shed was to come up on the salt pan land at Kanjurmarg instead. That's not it. The 800-acre land in Aarey was declared as a reserve forest area. Reportedly, Aarey is home to about 10,000 people who live in 27 tribal hamlets. At the time the protests started, about 29 protestors were detained and later released on bail.
What the Shinde-Fadnavis government says right now?
Eknath Shinde, as Maharashtra's former Urban Development Minister, has earlier defended the decision to move Aarey car shed to Kanjurmarg in larger public interest. Kanjurmarg land is a disputed area with several players, including the Centre, state and private entities staking claim on the land.
Shinde went so far as to allege that it was unfortunate that BJP was staking claim to Kanjurmarg. Due to the constant tussle, stays and petitions between former allies BJP and Shiv Sena, the Metro-3 project, sanctioned in 2015 and started in 2019, is yet to be completed.
In a very recent press conference, Fadnavis justified his decision citing, cost, time and transportation problem of Mumbai. "During our government, 25 per cent of the work has been completed on the land proposed by the Supreme Court and the remaining 75% work can be done immediately." He also said, "For the benefit of Mumbaikers, the car shed should only be made on that land proposed by SC in order to start the metro service."
Egos at stake, emotional card at play
A day after the Shinde government directed the State Urban Development Department to place before the Cabinet a proposal for a car shed at Aarey, former CM Uddhav Thackeray said at a press conference that he was "deeply saddened" by the overturning of the decision.
"Shinde government should not play with Mumbai's environment. The government should not make a decision that would bring suffering on Mumbaikars in future. Don't take your anger against me on the people of Mumbai." He further said, "I appeal with folded hands not to play with the city's environment as there is still wildlife in Aarey. Don't make this an ego issue."
Responding to Thackeray's appeal, deputy chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, on the other hand said, "In the interest of Mumbaikars, if Metro Line 3 is to be started immediately, then the car shed must be constructed in Aarey. We are firm on this decision."
What the Supreme Court says
Environmental activists and locals of Aarey had challenged the decision of the BMC Tree Authority to allow cutting of trees. In a setback to the Thackeray government, in 2019, Bombay High Court dismissed the petitions against the BMC's decision. A couple of days later, the Supreme Court restrained the state authorities from cutting more trees and ordered status quo in Aarey.
In the statement submitted to the court, MMRCL said that 2,141 trees had already been cut. The Eknath Shinde led Maharashtra government has directed the Advocate General to intimate the Apex Court of its plans to go ahead with the car shed.