Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray’s announcement on Sunday that a planned metro car shed would be shifted from the Aarey forest area in Mumbai’s western suburbs to a government plot in Kanjurmarg in the east drew criticism from the Bharatiya Janata Party. Though Thackeray said that there was “zero cost” involved in changing the plan, BJP leader and former Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis warned of cost escalation of at least Rs 4,000 crore.

With Sunday’s announcement, Thackeray reversed the decision taken by the previous Fadnavis-led government. The Shiv Sena, a former ally of the BJP, has been vocal in its opposition to the construction of a metro car shed in Aarey since the beginning.

Fadnavis called the decision “unfortunate” and one taken to satisfy the Shiv Sena’s ego. “This decision will increase the cost of the project by at least Rs 4,000 crore and this cost escalation is assessed by the committee appointed by this government,” he claimed. “Why such a huge burden just to satisfy someone’s ego? Whom does government want to suffer and for what?”

In a series of tweets, the former Maharashtra chief minister said that the Kanjurmarg site was under litigation, adding that it was marshy land that will require at least two years to stabilise. “The Kanjurmarg site was earlier considered by the government, but it was under litigation and stayed by the High Court,” Fadnavis wrote. “Some private individuals claimed their rights and the stay was requested to be withdrawn. However, the court wanted the amount to be deposited if the claims got settled in future.”

Fadnavis said that the amount was around Rs 2,400 crore in 2015. “What is the status of that case today,” the BJP leader asked. “And if someone moves the Supreme Court, who will be responsible for the delay?”

The BJP leader stated that all the previous tenders will have to be scrapped and a new process will have to be initiated for the project. “This means that the Metro project, which would have been in the service of Mumbaikars just next year, has now been postponed indefinitely,” he tweeted. “Rs 400 crore was already spent for Aarey car shed, Rs 1,300 crore wasted due to staying of project and additional cost escalation of Rs 4,000 crore.”

However, a six-member committee had suggested to the Fadnavis government five years ago that Kanjurmarg would be the best location for the Metro-3 car depot, Mumbai Mirror reported. The committee was appointed by the then state government in March 2015 to assess the project’s environmental impact. It had also said relocation to Kanjurmarg would increase the project cost by around Rs 1,700 crore since the Metro-3 line would have to be extended by 7.5 km with additional stations.

The Fadnavis government had then maintained that there was no alternative to Aarey and rejected the committee’s report, eight months after it was filed, according to the newspaper.

File photo of people opposing the cutting of trees in Mumbai’s Aarey Colony. [Credit: IANS]

‘Anti-people’ decision: BJP

After Sunday’s announcement, the BJP called the Shiv Sena-led Maharashtra government’s decision “anti-people”, The Indian Express reported. It also cited the move as an example of the current government’s “anti-development” agenda.

“The Thackeray government has cheated the people of this state, this will only delay the project,” BJP MLA Ram Kadam said.

BJP leader Kirit Somaiya claimed that the move will cost the state Rs 5,000 crore and delay the project by five more years. “The metro cars will have to take an eight km detour to reach Kanjurmarg, which will raise operational costs,” he added.

Somaiya reiterated the points highlighted by Fadnavis, saying that one piece of land in Kanjurmarg was under litigation and another one was not usable.

‘Best news for environment’: Shiv Sena

Meanwhile, state Environment minister Aaditya Thackeray, reacting to Uddhav Thackeray’s announcement, tweeted: “We have received some of the best news for environment today for the entire year.”

Aaditya Thackeray also highlighted that the state government has directed the withdrawal of all police cases filed against Aarey protesters. “They protested to save a forest, that wasn’t identified formally as one, but always one,” he said. “Almost 808 acres has been proposed to be declared as a reserve forest [under] Section 4 of Indian Forest Act this week and after 9 months, it will be declared as forest. I do not think any other city in the world, like ours, has declared 808 acres in its city limit as a forest.”

He called the chief minister’s decision “bold” and “pro sustainable development”.

Former Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh tweeted: “I applaud Uddhav Thackeray-ji for finally deciding on this and saving the Aarey ecosystem, so valuable to Mumbaikars. I grew up in this area and I am very well aware of its value.”

Activist Zoru Bhathena, who had earlier moved court against the project, also praised Thackeray’s announcement. “We are thrilled to hear that the government has agreed that there is an easy way to move the depot out of Aarey,” he said. “Citizens will get the priceless benefit of better Metro connectivity, government will benefit from lifelong cost savings from merging depots, and Mumbaikars will forever benefit from the preservation of the Aarey forest. A win-win for everyone.”

People in Mumbai oppose the proposed felling of trees in Aarey colony on September 29, 2019. [Credit: IANS]

Aarey project

One of the first decisions taken by Uddhav Thackeray, after being sworn in as head of the Maha Vikas Aghadi government last year, was to stop work on the Aarey car shed. The government also appointed a committee to study feasibility of the project. In September, the government had announced that 600 acres of land in the area would be declared a forest.

The proposal to build a metro rail car shed on 30 hectares of the Aarey Colony land had faced stiff opposition from concerned citizens, who wanted to protect Mumbai’s last green lung from concretisation. In October 2019, 38 people were booked in connection with the protests against the authorities’ move to cut trees, even as the Bombay High Court dismissed a series of petitions to stop the work and give it the status of a forest.

While the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited – the agency implementing the metro project – claimed it would compensate by planting thrice as many saplings elsewhere, protestors demanded that the car shed be shifted to an alternative site. Till October 2019, the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation had cut 2,141 trees in the Aarey Milk Colony area to make space for the car shed.

The Supreme Court had intervened in the case after a group of law students wrote to the then Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi.