The Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL) cut down 2,141 trees in Aarey Colony between Friday and Saturday, the organisation said today, hours after the Supreme Court ordered a stay on further cutting till its next hearing on October 21. The top court's ruling came after the Maharashtra government said it had already cut down the trees it needed to for its plan to clear 33 hectares of Aarey land for the construction of a car shed and depot.
"We respect the order of the Hon'able Supreme Court passed today. No future tree-felling activity at the car shed site in Aarey Milk Colony will be undertaken. Other works, including clearing of already felled trees, will continue," the statement read.
The MMRCL also said that construction of the buildings would continue as planned, confirming the state government's earlier interpretation of the top court order that only said "status quo (is) to be maintained... with respect to cutting of trees".
"Following the decision of the Hon'able High Court on 4/10/19 upholding the permission of the Tree Authority the felling of 2,185 trees was undertaken on October 4 and October 5, 2019 and as on date 2,141 trees have been felled. These will be cleared from the site and subsequent construction activities will be carried out," a MMRCL spokesman added.
In its statement MMRCL also claimed to have planted 23,846 trees and distributed 25,000 saplings as part of its "green initiatives".
Controversy over the felling of trees in Aarey Colony, a green belt in suburban Goregaon that has more than five lakh trees and is home to a wide variety of bird and animal species as well as 27 tribal villages, erupted on Friday after the Bombay High Court cancelled four petitions seeking to declare the area a forest.
The cutting began mere hours later, sparking protests from environmental activists and a stand-off with Mumbai Police that resulted in 29 people being arrested.
The Supreme Court had agreed to hear an urgent petition today despite Dussehra holidays after a group of law students wrote to Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, urging him to "exercise his special jurisdiction and go out of conventional way for stay on felling of trees in Aarey by Mumbai Authorities."
Activists have declared the cutting of trees "illegal", pointing to the fact that a mandatory 15-day notice period had not been observed after the grant of approval.
MMRCL chief Ashwini Bhide hit back at protestors' claims, calling them "propaganda" and pointing out that the original Tree Authority order had been issued on September 13. Ms Bhide had earlier insisted Aarey was the best suited site on "technical grounds".
The fight over Aarey has snowballed into a stand-off between the BJP and its ally the Shiv Sena, with Aaditya Thackeray, chief of Shiv Sena youth wing Yuva Sena, declaring "... this bullying is not accepted".
Maharashtra is scheduled to hold Assembly elections on October 21 - the same day as the court's next hearing in this matter. The BJP and the Sena have announced they will fight the election together but Aarey could drive a wedge between the long-time allies.
Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and the BJP have publicly supported the felling of trees.