For the past week, citizens and environment activists in Mumbai have been celebrating a rare victory. The forested expanse of Aarey Colony in the north of the city will no longer be the site of the controversial Metro 3 rail line car shed.

Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray made the announcement on October 11, declaring that the 30-hectare Metro 3 car shed will be shifted to a government-owned plot in the suburb of eastern Kanjurmarg. Thackeray also declared 800 acres of land in Aarey Colony as a reserved forest – something that environmentalists have been demanding for years.

These decisions have been made three years after activists first challenged the proposed metro car shed in the Bombay High Court, and more than a year after thousands of Mumbai residents took to the streets to protest the car shed project.

Aarey, often referred to as Mumbai’s last remaining “green lung”, is a 1,300-hectare forested land south of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. It is home to 27 Adivasi villages, at least nine leopards and nearly five lakh trees. The metro car shed project proposed to cut down more than 2,600 of those trees. In mid-2019, city residents spent several months fighting back through rallies, protest marches, human chains and meetings with civic and metro officials.

In a city in which protests about city-centric problems have been enfeebled in recent years, the “Save Aarey” resistance movement by citizens drew national attention. This month, their efforts finally bore fruit. On September 30, the state’s Shiv Sena government also withdrew criminal cases registered against 38 protesters last October.

A rare victory

“I think people have still not realised how big a victory this is, how uncommon it is,” said Dayanand Stalin, an environmentalist from Vanashakti, an organisation that has been litigating against ecologically damaging infrastructure projects for 13 years.

But the Aarey car shed is not the only contentious project that environment activists have been resisting in Mumbai. Since 2013, activists have also protested against the 29-km coastal road project that threatens the ecology of the city’s western coast.

This project, however, has drawn very little attention from Mumbai’s citizens. Apart from a small section of South Mumbai residents, few Mumbaiites have rallied with activists to protest the dangers of the coastal road or demand that the project be modified or cancelled. In the absence of much resistance, the construction of the coastal road is well underway.

What explains this difference in citizen mobilisation? Why was the protest movement to save Aarey successful, while the one against the coastal road is barely visible?

A projection of what Bandra's Carter Road will look ike after the construction of the coastal road. Credit: Bandra Collective

An emotional appeal

The coastal road, an eight-lane expressway, is the most expensive infrastructure project underway in Mumbai, being built a cost of more than Rs 13,000 crore for just its first 10-km stretch. The road will offer faster transport to barely 2% of the city’s population. It involves reclaiming almost 900,000 square metres of land from the sea. This is likely to disrupt the livelihoods of coastal fishing communities, alter tidal patterns, destroy the fragile ecosystem on the foreshore and place Mumbai at greater risk of monsoon flooding.

Despite such potentially dire consequences, citizens’ opposition to the coastal road project has been very limited. Environmentalists, urban planners, transport experts and fishing communities were the first to object to the project six years ago.

Unlike the Save Aarey movement, however, residents across Mumbai have not come together to stall the project. Smaller citizen groups began protesting against the coastal road only in early 2019, after reclamation work for the first 10 kms was in full swing.

These citizen groups largely comprise high-income residents of Worli, Napean Sea Road and other South Mumbai coastal neighbourhoods, who want the project to either be scrapped entirely, or built as a sea-link on stilts, rather than on reclaimed land. They have made efforts to raise awareness about the problems with the coastal road and have also teamed up with activists to litigate against the project.

“But the Aarey car shed project attracted a lot more opposition from citizens compared to the coastal road, where opposition has been confined mainly to South Mumbai,” said Hussain Indorewala, an urban researcher from Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Insititute for Architecture.

One of the main reasons for this, according to conservation architect Pankaj Joshi, is the emotional appeal of the Save Aarey movement.

“Forest conservation and protection of trees is far easier and palatable for most people to digest,” said Joshi. “We have seen initiatives like the Chipko movement before, and even school children are taught about the importance of saving trees.”

Many of the protesters who poured out on the streets for the Aarey cause last year were school and college students who often brought their families along. Several of them were inspired by 18-year-old Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg, and were also disturbed by global news reports of massive wildfires destroying large sections of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil.

The importance of coastal ecology, marine life and tidal buffer zones, however, are not as widely understood as the fact that trees contribute to clean air. “Most children are not even taught about all this in schools,” said Joshi.

Work proceeds on Mumbai's coastal road. Credit: Aaran Patel

The part versus the whole

Another major reason for the muted citizen activism against the coastal road is the nature of the campaigners’ demand.

“In the case of Aarey, the car shed was just one part of the larger Metro project, and the opposition was not to the whole project,” said Indorewala. Although metro transport will not be as affordable as public buses or local trains, Mumbai does stand to benefit from the many metro rail lines being planned across the city. Protesters fighting to save Aarey were clear from the beginning that they were not against the metro in itself, and were merely asking for the car shed to be moved to one of the many alternate locations initially proposed for it.

“Because there were alternate options, there was some room for Aarey protesters to negotiate,” said Indorewala. “But with the coastal road, the only options the authorities have discussed are whether the road should be built as a sea link or through reclamation.”

Both these options have damaging ecological consequences, and activists and citizens protesting against the coastal road have largely focused their demands on scrapping the project entirely.

“The view that the road needs to be scrapped is right, but the government is not going to be willing to cancel a project of this magnitude,” said Stalin. “Even the courts today see all infrastructure projects as issues of national importance, so going against an entire project is seen as an attempt to hold the country back.”

Besides, says Pankaj Joshi, it is difficult to convince masses of people that the city does not need more roads. “Mumbai has the lowest per capita road area compared to other cities in India and globally,” said Joshi.

Mumbai is India’s most car-congested city with 510 cars per kilometre of road, and transport planners have always emphasised the need to discourage private transport and provide more alternatives for mass public transport in order to decongest the city. But even from a public transport perspective, Joshi points out that Mumbai’s road space is inadequate. “Road space is not enough even for increasing the frequency of bus services,” he said. “So we can never fully argue that we don’t need to construct more roads.”

The Metro car shed has been shifted out of Aarey by the Shiv Sena government even though the previous Bharatiya Janata Party-led state government had begun tree-felling at the site last year. Reclamation for the coastal road is already underway, and for now is proceeding a full steam.