A New Metro Brings Controversy to Mumbai’s ‘Green Lung’
Protesters are battling a transit plan that will cut thousands of trees and displace hundreds from Mumbai’s only woodland.
(Bloomberg) -- Shouts of “Azadi” — Hindi for freedom — keep time with the rhythmic beating of drums as protesters gather in a densely wooded area in Mumbai.
Since July, crowds ranging in size from dozens to hundreds have been congregating for these weekly Sunday demonstrations. At issue: a metro train car shed set to rise on undeveloped land in Aarey Colony, a lush pocket of urban wilderness that environmentalists consider the last “green lung” in the Indian megacity.
Spread over approximately 3,000 acres and owned primarily by the state’s Dairy Development Department, Aarey Colony is a mix of wetlands and woodlands, as well as clusters of mud-brick homes and small farming plots, all within the limits of the densely packed city of Mumbai. For around eight years, this rare green space has been ground zero in a conflict over how to complete a much-needed mass transit system without damaging a fragile ecosystem — and the indigenous communities that rely on it.
To combat congestion and pollution in a metropolitan region with an estimated population of over 20 million, Mumbai desperately needs to complete the 14-line metro system currently under construction. In particular, the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRC) — a joint venture between the state and central government – has advanced plans for one crucial line, known as Metro Line 3, which calls for constructing a train car shed inside Aarey Colony.
A coalition of environmental groups and Adivasis, or members of India’s indigenous communities, have joined with other residents of the area to fight the proposal: Encroaching development in Aarey Colony has already shrunk the green space, and many fear the metro project will open to the door to future projects.
The car-shed dispute is tangled up in local and national politics. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, Maharashtra originally planned the metro car shed for Aarey Colony in 2014. But after Uddhav Thackeray’s regional Shiv Sena Party came to power in the state in 2019, they sought to preserve the area, designating around 800 acres as reserved forest land the following year and vowing to move the shed to a different location. This June, an internal party rebellion ousted Thackeray; his replacement Eknath Shinde, allied with the BJP, restarted preparations for construction in Aarey Colony in his very first cabinet meeting within a day of taking power.
The question of whether to proceed with the controversial project now rests with India’s Supreme Court. After multiple delays, the petitioners on a case led by environmental nonprofit Vanashakti are hoping for a comprehensive hearing towards the end of September. The results will have significant implications for the future of Mumbai: The petitioners are not only hoping to stop construction of the car shed, but are also pressing for all of Aarey Colony to be designated a protected forest, likely putting an end to any other such construction projects in this area.
Representatives for the MMRC and the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority didn’t respond to requests for comment.
In an extremely crowded city with limited green space and parks, the fate of Aarey Colony is an issue that goes far beyond its immediate surrounding neighborhoods, advocates say.
“If we lose this, we lose our water supply,” says Shivani Bhatt, a protester who is concerned about damage to the site’s four rivers, and in particular, the flood plain of the nearby Mithi River. “We lose clean air. We lose our [city’s natural] air conditioning. It’s pertinent with climate change that we protect this area.”
Though it’s located just 20 miles from downtown Mumbai, the area has long managed to avoid development because it was mainly owned by the state's Dairy Development Department. In the 1950s, Aarey Colony became known as a “milk colony” — intended to produce dairy products for the city. As decades passed, the city around the area swiftly transformed into a powerhouse of industry and a cosmopolitan hub of filmmaking and culture.
Residents turned to Aarey Colony for an escape from city life, drawn by its lakes and gardens, boating spots, and its proximity to the officially protected Sanjay Gandhi National Park. The area is also home to about two dozen Adivasi hamlets, as well as cobras, vipers, newly discovered species of scorpions and spiders, and the most revered of all — leopards.
Aarey Colony has already faced numerous encroachments in the form of large housing complexes and a Bollywood studio facility called Film City, but the Metro Line 3 car shed has become the most controversial project thus far. Though its proponents argue that the car shed will occupy only 2% to 3% of the whole area, it will involve cutting roughly 2,700 trees. Stalin Dayanand, the director of Vanashakti, says that the environmental group accessed minutes from internal government meetings that suggest the car shed could be just the first step towards transforming the area into a glittering strip of commercial development.
“Aarey lands are prime property in the heart of the city, in a green zone,” says Dayanand, who is also a petitioner before the Supreme Court to preserve the land. “Any construction in Aarey will have high premium value.”
The location of the car shed aside, nearly everyone in Mumbai agrees that the city needs more — and safer — public transportation. Each day, more than 8 million commuters squeeze themselves onto the city’s aging suburban rail system, which often operates well beyond capacity. This overcrowding has deadly consequences: In 2021, roughly five people per day died falling from packed trains or attempting to cross the tracks, according to railway police estimates, even though many commuters were working from home.
Meanwhile, Mumbai’s roadways face worsening congestion, with reports of 47% more new car registrations in 2021. The MMRC estimates that the Metro Line 3 project will transport 1.7 million Mumbaikars per day, reducing car trips by more than 600,000 daily, curbing fuel consumption as well as air and noise pollution.
“If there is one city that would benefit from a metro, it’s Mumbai,” says Shreya Gadepalli of the Urban Works Institute, a Chennai-based think tank. She notes that the only line that is currently operational in the city has the highest ridership per kilometer in all of India: “It’s a promising sign.”
For those who live in Aarey Colony, however, the conflict has little to do with the metro itself. “As Adivasis, we are not opposed to the metro at all,” says Anil Page, an Adivasi man who lives in Aarey. But he is frustrated at the process: For years, another possible location for the metro car shed was discussed and then rejected due to politically fraught debates over ownership of that land. So far, officials say approximately 1,780 “hutments” (a term for unauthorized housing) and 709 families living on privately held land will be impacted by this metro line. Page says he would rather be killed than uprooted. “We’re not going to give this up without a fight.”
Sitting in her own mud-brick dwelling, Page’s sister, Vinita Thakre, speaks of the Adivasis’ close connection to nature; families like hers rely on fresh-caught mud crabs, fruit from mango trees, and other local foods. Communities in Aarey Colony also live among animals like cobras and leopards. Despite the risks, Thakre says she holds no fear of the big predators; in fact, she says, the leopard “is like a god.” Not far from her home is the Waghoba temple, where some Adivasis worship a brightly painted idol of a big cat.
Camera traps have captured images of leopards moving through the metro car shed area, leaving the community worried about what will happen to these endangered creatures if construction proceeds. “Just like we live off the jungle, the leopard lives off the jungle,” Thakre says. “What is the leopard going to do? Is he going to ride the metro?”
Some urban planning specialists, though still optimistic about the metro project, have wider concerns about the transit system. While much of Metro Line 3 will be underground, the rest of the lines are elevated, which experts like Dikshu Kukreja, managing principal at C P Kukreja Architects, says is not ideal. “I am a strong proponent of underground metros. These large, concrete nodal lines crisscrossing the city above ground are not the character cities should have.”
Underground construction, however, is more expensive. “In India, we often look at capital expenditure, but we don’t look at long-term benefits. As an urban planner, I think we need to think long-term,” Kukreja says.
Other complain that Mumbai leaders are investing too much in US-style urban highway projects, such as the $1.5-billion Mumbai Coastal Road project, a sweeping eight-lane waterfront expressway set to be completed by the end of 2023. Even using the city’s optimistic usage predictions, the road will only benefit about 3% of the population according to University of Pennsylvania professor and environmental anthropologist Nikhil Anand, who came to these projections based on the anticipated drivers as a percentage of Mumbai’s population and commuters per car.
Given the city’s vast population and increasing vulnerability to extreme heat and flooding, climate-friendlier public transportation infrastructure should be prioritized instead many critics of the project have pointed out. “Personalized transport is a very American concept that has been romanticized,” Kukreja says. “Any city, Mumbai included, should adopt all modes of public transit, including the metro system.”
Gadepalli also rejects the notion that environmentally friendly projects are inherently anti-development. “We need to change that way of thinking.” As for Aarey Colony, she adds, “There’s never an easy answer, but I believe that we need to think about equity and environmental sustainability, and ensure that we’re not jeopardizing the livelihoods of the vulnerable for the sake of development.”
Mumbai also has a pressing need for a centralized authority when it comes to making strategic decisions about the transportation network, says Rahul Kadri, principal architect at IMK Architects in the city. Presently, the bus system, railways and metro are split into silos.
“We need an authority that is integrated and comprehensive, that is looking at where people commute, how they commute, and how we can make it simpler.”
And when it comes to Aarey Colony, in addition to echoing the value of an underground network, he is in favor of placing the metro car shed in another location. Though that option has proven politically difficult, he says: “Why would we use forest land for this? What is the need?”
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