The Centre’s Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade has written to the Maharashtra government, instructing it to stop the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority from developing the car shed at Kanjurmarg, Mumbai Mirror reported on Tuesday.

On October 11, Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray had announced that 800 acres of land in the Aarey Milk Colony in Mumbai would be declared a reserve forest. He also said that the car shed for a metro project in the area would be relocated to Kanjurmarg.

The 102-acre land at Kanjurmarg being used for the metro’s car shed project is under the salt commissioner, who reports to the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade led by Guruprasad Mohapatra. The letter written to the Maharashtra government said that the construction of the car shed would be “against the interest of the GOI”, however, no other activity has been planned on the land yet.

“The improper and unilateral action of the collector, MSD and MMRDA has caused severe loss to the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade, Government of India,” the letter from Mohapatra read, according to Mumbai Mirror. “I would request you to take necessary steps and to direct the collector to withdraw the orders passed in this regard in order to protect the interests of the Government of India.”

The communication indicates an escalation in the political tussle between the Shiv Sena-Nationalist Congress Party-Congress coalition and the Bharatiya Janata Party-led central government.

Maharashtra’s Environment Minister Aaditya Thackeray said that he was aware of the letter sent to the state Chief Secretary Sanjay Kumar, but asserted that the work on the metro car shed would not be stopped. “The land does not belong to the government of India, it belongs to the state government,” he added.

The state is reportedly ready to file a lawsuit in the matter, an unidentified official in the bureaucracy told the newspaper. “We have verified all the papers and the land records,” the official said. “All due diligence was done before we transferred the land to MMRDA. We will respond to the DPIIT.”

The new site is a 41-hectare former salt pan land that has been caught in a political battle between the Centre and the state. Sites for salt cultivation in Mumbai were designated as salt pan lands after a settlement survey that occurred before 1930. The Salt Commissionerate, which comes under the Centre’s DPIIT, and the Maharashtra government have been in a conflict over ownership since the 1980s when the state first staked claim.

An unidentified state government officer told Mumbai Mirror that of the current land at Kanjurmarg only 102-acre was given to the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority on October 6. The official added that the previous Devendra Fadnavis-led government had claimed that the land was marshy and under litigation.

“The land is wholly owned by the state government and was in fact earmarked for the Metro 6 car shed which is being built by the MMRDA on the same CTS No 657 at Kanjur village,” the officer said. “So, there is no question of the land belonging to the DPIIT.”

After Thackeray’s announcement to move the car shed to Kanjurmarg, Fadnavis had 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 had claimed.

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 had reported in October. 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.

A view of the construction site of a metro train car shed in the Aarey colony in Mumbai on October 7, 2019. Credit: Punit Paranjpe/AFP

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.