Construction work related to the Mumbai Metro can proceed on the 33 hectares of forested land razed in Aarey Colony, a lawyer for the Maharashtra government told NDTV today, shortly after the Supreme Court stayed the felling of more trees till its next hearing on October 21. The top court order states: "... status quo to be maintained... with respect to cutting of trees".
"There is no status quo on construction on the 33 hectares of Aarey land that has been cleared," Nishant Katneshwarkar, the Maharashtra government lawyer, said.
The construction being referred to is a car shed for Metro Line 3. In addition, the building of a Metro Bhavan is also underway in Aarey. Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL) may also ask for a further 30,000 square feet of land for Metro Line 6.
The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case today despite Dussehra holidays after a group of law students wrote 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."
The students argued there was "no time for filing an appeal petition and go through legal technicalities as by then Aarey will be cleared off by Mumbai Authorities".
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 of trees began mere hours later, sparking protests from residents and environmental activists and a stand-off between them and Mumbai Police that resulted in 29 people being arrested.
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.