NEW DELHI - The Supreme Court on Monday restrained authorities from cutting anymore trees in Mumbai's Aarey to set up a Metro car shed.
A special bench comprising justices Arun Mishra and Ashok Bhushan said it will have to examine the entire thing and posted the matter for hearing on October 21 before its forest bench.
"Don't cut anything now," the bench said.
The felling of trees is being opposed by green activists and local residents.
The apex court directed that if anybody is still under arrest for protesting the cutting of trees, they should be released forthwith on furnishing of personal bonds.
During the hearing the Maharashtra Government told the bench that all those arrested for protesting against cutting of trees in Aarey have been released.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Maharashtra Government, submitted that he was not aware of all records and assured the bench that nothing will be cut in Aarey till the case is decided.
The PIL petitioners told the bench that Aarey forest was deemed as an "unclassified forest" by the state government and felling of of trees was illegal.
However, after perusing the notification issued by the Maharashtra government, the bench said, Aarey area is a no development zone and not a eco-sensitive zone as claimed by the petitioner.
The apex court decided on Sunday to register as PIL a letter addressed to Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi by law student Rishav Ranjan seeking a stay on cutting of trees.
A notice was posted on the Supreme Court website about holding the urgent hearing by constituting a special bench.
The Bombay High Court had on October 4 refused to declare Aarey Colony a forest and declined to quash the Mumbai municipal corporation's decision to allow felling of over 2,600 trees in the green zone to set up a metro car shed.
The letter states,"As we write this letter to you Mumbai authorities continue to kill the lungs of Mumbai i.e Aarey forest by clearing of trees near Mithi river bank and according to news reports 1,500 trees have already been cleared by authorities.
"Not only this but our friends are put in jail who were peacefully organising a vigil against acts of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) with Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRC) at the site."
The student requested the Supreme Court "to exercise its epistolary jurisdiction to protect Aarey without getting into technicalities as there was no time for preparation of a proper appeal petition and cover the scars of these young activists who are responsible citizens standing for serious environmental concerns".
It also said that students have moved the apex court as the Bombay High Court rejected the bail plea of 29 activists who had participated in the "peaceful vigil" against the tree-felling and have been detained by Mumbai Police.
The letter has alleged that the student-activists were abused and manhandled by the Mumbai Police which has booked them for offences of 'assault on a public servant to deter him from discharging his duty' and 'unlawful assembly' under the IPC.
According to the letter, Aarey forest is located adjacent to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park and has five lakh trees.
The trees were proposed to be cut for Mumbai metro-3 project and specifically for construction of a car shed, it said and added the high court refused to recognise Aarey as a forest or declare it as an ecological sensitive issue because of jurisdictional limits.
The police on Saturday imposed Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code in Aarey, restricting movement and gathering of groups, and cordoned off the area.
Activists, Oppn leaders hail SC order; hit out at govt, MMRCL
Activists and leaders of the opposition Congress and NCP on Monday welcomed the Supreme Court's order restraining authorities from cutting anymore trees in Aarey Colony here to make way for a Metro car shed.
Former Maharashtra chief minister Ashok Chavan and NCP leader Supriya Sule hit out at the BJP-led state government for "haste" in cutting trees and "suppressing" the voice of activists and the common man.
The Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Ltd (MMRCL) started hacking trees from Friday night to make way for the car shed, hours after the Bombay High Court dismissed four petitions filed by NGOs and activists, challenging the decision to allow felling of trees in the prime green lung of the city.
"The haste with which the Maharashtra government acted over the weekend in cutting trees is condemnable," Sule said.
"The Supreme Court decision on Aarey is welcome.
However what is worrying is the admission of the Maharashtra Government in the SC that the necessary number of trees have already been cut," the Lok Sabha member from Baramati tweeted.
"I condemn the act of state government to start felling of trees in the night last week. The final decision was not even out but still the government rushed for axing the trees," she added.
Chavan also hit out at the Devendra Fadnavis-led state government over the cutting of trees in Aarey.
"The Supreme Court's order is a "tight slap on the face of BJP-Shiv Sena government that has tried to suppress the voice of the common man and activists protesting against Aarey tree felling," the senior Congress leader said.
Prof Avkash Jadhav, head of the history department at St Xavier's College here and trustee of the city-based KAASH Foundation, welcomed the court's decision and demanded a probe by a Special Investigation Team (SIT) into cutting of trees at night last Friday.
"An SIT should be set up to inspect the site of Aarey now and identify the actual damage done," said Jadhav, who last month helped students of his college to write a letter to British adventurer Bear Grylls for seeking his support to stop felling of trees in the Aarey Colony.
The team should comprise activists and environmental experts from other states and members from non-governmental bodies, he said.
"We demand strong action against the MMRCL authorities and all those who took the cover of darkness at night to arbitrarily cut trees on October 4," he said.
Jadhav said MMRCL's Managing Director Ashwini Bhide take responsibility "for acting to be a proactive project director of performing her duties of axing the trees at night".
In its restraining order, the apex court said will have to examine the entire thing, and posted the matter for hearing on October 21 before its forest bench.
Jadhav said by October 21, the Maharashtra government and the MMRCL should give a detailed account to the Supreme Court of how they allegedly "used the state machinery against its own citizens, crushing all civil liberties under the guise of development".
He said Bhide claimed that the order to cut trees was released on September 13, which gave the authorities 15 days to take action.
"But, if the matter was subjudice and came before the Bombay High Court on October 4,is it not contempt of court to come with the axing notification before the high court's decision was out?" he asked.
Tasmeen Shaikh, member of the Aarey conservation group, said, "Every time the MMRCL came up with some defence for setting up the car shed project of Metro-3 at Aarey land, we countered it logically."
The MMRCL later removed its "lame defence" from its website to avoid controversy, she claimed.
"I feel the only defence left with the MMRCL for pushing the Metro-3 car shed in Aarey is that the site is good according to 'Vastu Shastra'," she said sarcastically.
The MMRCL's "failure" to give a logical reason behind tree cutting for car shed is a classic example of "non- application of mind by our learned bureaucrats", she said.
The Metro authorities have defended tree felling by contending that it is restricted only to a small area in Aarey Colony, and is necessary to ensure a modern transport system for Mumbaikars.
The proposed car shed for the Metro-3 line (Colaba- Bandra-Seepz) will occupy 33 hectares. (PTI)
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