The Supreme Court (SC) on Tuesday dismissed a plea challenging the exclusion of Aarey Colony, Goregaon, from the eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) of Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP), while also directing the Maharashtra forest department to submit a report on the allegations of tree felling, forest fires and rising encroachments at Aarey during the lockdown, under a separate application.
Both matters were heard via video conferencing by two separate SC benches.
In the first case, the Apex court bench, comprising justices Arun Mishra and S Abdul Nazeer, dismissed a civil appeal by environment group Vanashakti, which had challenged the December 5, 2016 ESZ notification for SGNP by the Union environment ministry that had declared a minimum of up to 100m and a maximum of up to 4km from the boundary of SGNP as ESZ, while excluding 165 hectares of Aarey to allow construction, including the Metro-3 car shed. On January 24, the principal bench of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) had disposed of the same application, stating the law had been followed, while demarcating the ESZ. Vanashakti had then challenged the order in the SC, which was heard on Tuesday.
“The SC bench did not agree with merits we put forth that the ESZ notification allows construction in eco-sensitive areas around the national park, and dismissed our civil appeal,” said advocate-on-record Srishti Agnihotri, on behalf of Vanashakti, represented by senior counsel Anita Shenoy. “The bench said that Mumbai was already a congested city, and highlighted the importance of sustainable development, while dismissing the plea.”
Vanashakti said they will file a review petition in the SC. “The judgment is unfair and does not take into account any of the contentions made by us. If the city is congested, it is all the more necessary to have green zones,” said Stalin D, director, Vanashakti. “Firstly, NGT disposed of the matter without a hearing, and to make matters worse, SC feels that Mumbai does not need green zones. These are very dangerous assumptions to make.”
In the second matter, another SC bench, comprising justices Arun Mishra and Krishna Murari, heard an application filed by Vanashakti, under connected pending matters on Aarey, that alleged illegal tree felling, forest fires, and rising encroachments in Aarey despite there being a lockdown and sought the protection of the area and action against wrongdoers.
“The bench called for a report from the Maharashtra forest department to place on record the on-ground situation and action taken by them,” said Agnihotri. “The matter will now come up after six weeks (from Tuesday).”
HT had reported on April 18 and May 11 about the surge in illegal activities in and around SGNP, including Aarey, with unidentified violators booked by the local police on directions from the Aarey chief executive officer. However, no arrests were made. Cases of forest fires went unattended as the area fell under the jurisdiction of the State Reserve Police Force and not under Aarey authorities.
The Maharashtra forest department said they had already stepped up efforts by removing encroachments from within and around SGNP and Tungareshwar during lockdown. “We will apprise the SC of problems faced in and around SGNP where regular encroachment removal operations and monitoring using drones is being undertaken. Wherever difficulties have been faced, including areas in Aarey, we are waiting for assistance from the police department,” said Sunil Limaye, additional principal chief conservator of forest (wildlife-west).