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20.06.2017

Dear South Bombay, ever since the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation came in to Flora Fountain and hacked down century-old trees to pave the way for the Colaba-Seepz metro line (or “Metro-3”), we’ve been looking for things you can do to protect the ancient, leafy neighbours remaining to you.

But there isn’t much good news. “It’s something of a lost cause,” admits environmentalist Zoru Bhathena, participant in the arguments between citizen-activists and the MMRCL. “We got a stay from the High Court, then the stay was vacated, now there’s a committee looking into it but the committee hasn’t done anything” -- in short, by the time there’s another legal decision, many more of the trees marked for removal will be gone. With it will go precious bird habitats, trees formerly counted as the city’s heritage, tonnes of carbon-neutralising leaf cover and shade -- and millions of your memories. 

Beef Ban(yan)

How did it come to this? In 2012, a Metro-3 report claimed that about 1,700 trees would be cut or moved for construction -- a large number, but comparable to tree loss on other metro projects. Most people likely thought that it was a sad but inevitable price to pay for exciting new infrastructure. MMRCL boss Ashwini Bhide told the Mumbai Mirror that Metro-3 was going to “reduce fuel consumption by 3.5 lakh litres per day” and reduce greenhouse emissions by “99 lakh kg a year.”

By the time there’s another legal decision, many more of the trees marked for removal will be gone. With it will go precious bird habitats, trees formerly counted as the city’s heritage, tonnes of carbon-neutralising leaf cover and shade -- and millions of your memories.

But in a response to Bhathena’s RTI request this January, the actual number of trees dying for the Metro turned out to be a staggering 5,012. Even this didn’t prevent the court from allowing felling to proceed. Bhathena was involved in some of the last-ditch efforts to save a line of big trees in the Flora Fountain-Churchgate area last month, including a gnarly green peepal that people climbed on and hugged to try and dissuade woodcutters.

Ideas for a “new Chipko” -- in reference to the tree-hugging forest conservation movement of the 1970s -- are floating around, but they may not match up to the original if more people don’t get involved. “Only ten or fifteen people at a time turn up to protest something like this,” Bhathena says gently.

“The trees have gone because of the apathy of the citizens of South Mumbai,” Stalin Dayanand, leader at NGO Vanashakti, says more bluntly. Stalin is one of the leaders of the movement to conserve Aarey Colony lands from what activists say is illegal metro encroachment. Their fight began “as soon as the notification went up in September 2014,” he explains.

To be fair, given the legal confusion and the relative certainty that old trees in heritage zones are protected from felling, many may have been unable to hear alarm bells ringing in the case of Metro-3. But Stalin and many other Mumbai environmentalists believe that part of the problem is this city-wide fascination with infrastructure that’s more glamorous than useful. 

Leaf By Niggle

It’s not just you. For centuries, Bombayites have either taken the side of industry over conservation, or despaired at winning the battle on behalf of the trees. “Such is the demand for all kinds of timber in the vicinity of the railways that it is quite as impossible to repress it as it would be to dam up a roller of the ocean in its progress to the beach,” wrote Surgeon Alexander Gibson in the Bombay Presidency Forest Report for 1857-58 (There’s a guy who wasn’t paying attention to his colleagues plotting to reclaim Backbay). The rules against cutting valuable timber were very stringent on paper, he lamented, but any attempt at enforcement “produces an immediate outcry either from the Railway Company, the Bombay Residents, or the wood merchants[...]”

For centuries, Bombayites have either taken the side of industry over conservation, or despaired at winning the battle on behalf of the trees.

“The railways are, in a way, creators of the city,” railway historian Rajendra B Aklekar says. Bombay’s railways were “built not just by clearing trees, but also mangroves, old forts near Sion and Thane and flattening hills.” The trains reached the suburbs beyond Sion only because engineers filled a marsh with the hacked corpses of many mangroves, Aklekar tells us; Mahim station was built on a rice swamp.

South Bombay’s own face changes with every generation. Today, the leafy boulevards of the Oval Art Deco stretch and the lanes of Colaba leading up to Cuffe Parade are among the area’s prettiest, shadiest streets. Yet between 1874 and 1930, it was actually a railway line -- the last stretch of the Western Railway, running from Churchgate to a terminus in Colaba. (It was dismantled and the line terminated at Churchgate as the Backbay Reclamation plan expanded; Colaba station is now Badhwar Park.)

It’s grievous to lose trees that have survived all this, and to know that more will be lost no matter what you do. It may help to collect a hundred pals to hug the next tree that’s getting the chainsaw treatment, or tie ribbons around trees earmarked for death. But it may be more effective, now, to focus on the bigger picture, and seek greater clarity and accountability from the MMRCL, which has offered very few explanations to questions from citizens and the media so far.

Of the 5,000 trees to be lost, the Metro corp promised to “transplant” 3,000 to other areas, something that bitterly amuses activists. “Even the technology to do so doesn’t exist in Mumbai,” Stalin says. That’s not even the root of the difficulty. When Zoru Bhathena went to the Wadala site earmarked for the Metro-3 “transplantation,” all he found was salt marsh. “No one in their right mind could think a tree would grow there!”

While you’re debating the relative merits of a metro versus tree cover, Stalin would like you to consider that building a metro on a route that isn’t even particularly congested by Bombay standards -- “the density has shifted northwards, to Virar” -- was questionable in the first place. “They say a metro will get all the cars off the road, so I have a question,” says Stalin. “What are you making a coastal road for, then?” Chipko yourself to this BMC report to prep for the next big battle.

Getting there: Learn more about Vanashakti and get in touch here; follow Zoru Bhathena's Facebook page here.

Image credit: Instagram / ashwin.nagpal.

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