On the night of October 4, merely hours after the Bombay High Court rejected activists’ petitions to declare Mumbai’s Aarey Colony a protected forest, the authorities started axing trees to make way for a metro car shed. By the time the Supreme Court intervened on Monday morning, ordering the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation not to cut any more trees in Aarey, it was already too late: the authorities had finished cutting 2,141 trees out of the total 2,185 that they had intended to fell.
For several years, the proposal to build a metro rail car shed on 30 hectares of the Aarey Colony land has faced stiff opposition from concerned citizens, who want to protect Mumbai’s last green lung from concretisation. In September, after a Tree Authority committee approved the cutting of more than 2,000 Aarey Colony trees, large-scale citizen protests reached national headlines.
Since then, the national relevance of the Aarey car shed controversy has become increasingly apparent.
One of the reasons why the Bombay High Court dismissed the petitions is because the petitioners wanted Aarey to be recognised as a forest and therefore a no-construction zone. The court pointed out that Maharashtra does not have a policy that clearly defines a “forest” to begin with – a problem faced by states across the country.
In 1996, a landmark Supreme Court judgement had stated that a forest had to be understood as per its dictionary meaning (a large tract of land with trees) and would include all areas classified as forests in Indian government records. But the central government has not yet formulated a clear legal definition of forests in various laws – an omission that has come at the cost of forest cover in India. Without a watertight definition to protect forests, more than 15,000 sq km of forest land has been diverted for industrial projects over the past three decades.
A poor forest protection record
India has long had a poor record of protecting its natural environment from the march of “development”. Environmental clearances are given far too easily to mining and industrial projects, and a lot of illegal industrial activity has been allowed to flourish.
In Goa, for instance, the Supreme Court has repeatedly ordered the state government to crack down on illegal mining, but a 2013 report by the Shah Commission found that more than 11,000 hectares of forests had been encroached on for illegal iron ore mining. This included land in reserved forests and wildlife sanctuaries.
The environmental security of the vast Western Ghats, known for their rich biodiversity, has also been compromised in recent years. The Kasturirangan report of 2012 had recommended classifying 60,000 sq km of the Western Ghats as ecologically sensitive. But by August this year, state governments had declared barely 31,000 sq km of the ghats as such. The remaining forest land could easily fall prey to quarrying, mining and other industries.
In some cases, government agencies have themselves encroached on forest land, like the Haryana police department, which has cut more than 20,500 trees in protected forest land in recent years to build two police training centres in the middle of an Aravalli wildlife corridor.
The impact of forest abuse on wildlife has been obvious. In July, a report on the status of tigers in India found that the highest decline in tiger population has occurred in Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha and Jharkhand. These also happen to be the states with the highest amount of forest land diverted for mining since 2015.
Adivasi and forest-dwelling communities, of course, have always borne the brunt of such encroachment and commercial exploitation of forests. India has a long and brutal history of using violence to oust traditional forest-dwellers from their homes. Despite the large-scale diversion of forest land for industry, state governments tend to label Adivasis as “encroachers” on forest land.
The Forest Rights Act of 2006 recognises the rights of traditional forest dwellers to live and cultivate on forest lands, but lakhs of Adivasi claims over forest land have been unfairly rejected in the past decade. In February, the Supreme Court ordered the eviction of all forest dwellers whose land claims under FRA had been rejected – a move that could displace more than 1.89 million forest dwelling families across India. Several state governments are now re-examining many of these claims, but forest officials in Madhya Pradesh used pellet guns against Adivasi farmers in July, while trying to evict them from their farms.
Monday’s Supreme Court stay on tree-cutting in Aarey may have brought a belated (and perhaps only temporary) victory to those fighting to preserve the Mumbai forest. But it is clear that when it comes to protecting the environment, India is losing the larger battle.