Sustained (Infrastructure) Development Goals

Where does the Aarey deforestation stand in the larger scheme of things?

Lush greenery of Aarey forest
Photo: PTI

Chain of Events

On October 4, the High Court of the Indian state of Maharashtra dismissed a petition filed by non-governmental organisations and environmental activists that sought a halt on the State government controlled – Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation’s felling of trees in Aarey Milk Colony. The felling was to construct a car-shed for Mumbai’s ongoing metro project. On October 7, the Supreme Court of India converted a letter addressed to the Chief Justice to a public interest litigation and stayed any action on the part of the Metro Rail Authority. Between October 4 and October 7, the government cleared parts of the area, despite protests from citizen-groups and environment activists. Protesters were forcibly removed from the area and many were arrested. The felling began on the night of the judgment of the Bombay High Court and ended only after the Supreme Court’s intervention. By then, more than 2000 trees were cut. The Maharashtra government have admitted that the land required for the car-shed has already been cleared.

What the High Court held

The High Court gave several reasons for its rejection of the petition, one, the question of whether Aarey milk colony is “forest land” is still being heard by the Supreme Court as part of its monitoring of the Godavarman judgment, two, a petition in this respect was rejected by a two-judge bench of the High Court, against which an appeal is pending before the Supreme Court, and three, that this question is a subject of adjudication in the country’s National Green Tribunal. Since the question of whether the area is a forest has already been answered by a two-judge bench of the Court, and has not been sought to be quashed by the Supreme Court, the High Court felt that it could not injunct the government and the Metro authority from encroaching Aarey and clearing tracts of land for the car-shed. All of these hinge on technicalities; that India’s Forest Conservation Act does not define the term ‘forest’ and hence, the criteria for categorising an area as forestland is determined by state governments. Interestingly, Maharashtra has not published such criteria, which left the petitioners without any reference in law to support their contention. The Court was presented with research, however, to substantiate pleadings but these do not seem to have been taken into consideration.

Introducing Aarey – ‘the Milk Colony’/Forest

Aarey is one of two areas in Mumbai that has remained (relatively) unspoiled by large-scale construction and infrastructure projects, the other being the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. Not that Aarey is stranger to urbanisation, large tracts of the area were cleared in 1977 to build a ‘Film City’, and much before this, the area was divided into sectors to make it a hub for dairy farming. Both these areas are flashpoints in ‘citizens-versus–the-state-scenarios’, where the government pushes to acquire land for infrastructure and citizens oppose.  

The Race for Infrastructure

Viewed from a global perspective, Aarey is the latest of several instances in the recent past where governments have been pitted against citizens and/or environmental activists over infrastructure projects that are likely to have an adverse impact on the environment. For instance, there was the Brazil’s Bolosonaro’s bid to construct a highway through the Amazon, the recent Amazon forest fires as result of agriculture activity and deforestation, and the impact of the Amazon fires on species. There are heads of state, such as President Trump in the United States and President Bolosonaro of Brazil who openly question “man-made” climate change and its consequences. Approving Adani’s mine in Carmichael Basin or committing deforestation in the Aravallis, where environmental issues are pushed aside. The antipathy of many popular politicians and heads of state to the cause of the environment is an anachronism in the general scheme of environment conservation efforts globally. This is a curiosity in our social and political spheres, that a burgeoning of awareness about the realities of climate change coexists with a corresponding increase in climate-change scepticism.

The Politics of Climate Change and Environment Action

It has been argued that climate change and its denial is a problem of politics rather than science. In science, the reality of climate change is well-settled. Anti-climate rhetoric is employed by several popular leaders, politicians and leaders, mostly right-wing, in a bid to legitimise their infrastructure -intensive visions of growth that fail to factor environmental costs into their assessments. Along with migration, environment protection has been portrayed as yet-another conspiracy against ordinary citizens, aimed at robbing them of means to earn their livelihoods through activities such as agriculture, quarrying, mining, conventional energy industries etc.

All of this flies in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence of climate change and intergovernmental and non-governmental efforts towards protecting the environment, by the promotion of sustainable development.

The United Nations Has a LOT To say on Development

The United Nations’ sustainable development goals seek to “end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030”. Action against deforestation and desertification has been specified under the fifteenth sustainable development goal (Life on Land). Other goals pertinent to the cause of the environment are: affordable and clean energy, climate action, life on water, responsible consumption and sustainable cities and communities. These were adopted unanimously by all member-states of the United Nations, including those headed by stated climate change deniers. It is unclear how activity that involves environment impact will be reconciled with these states’ commitment to sustainable development, especially states that have adopted these goals as policy.

India and Aarey, again

To its credit, the Indian Union and provincial governments and its leaders have never denied climate change. On the contrary, several measures have been taken to further climate change action. Government policy, at least as demonstrated by its official website(s), is committed to achieving the 17 sustainable development goals as adopted by the states of the United Nations. The Union Ministry for Environment and Forests, however, has spoken in support of the Maharashtra government’s actions in Aarey. Both the Union and State governments have assured that they would be “planting trees” to make up for those felled. This displays a regrettably narrow perspective on the environment, one that refuses to account the loss of an entire ecosystem, the “lungs of the city of Mumbai” , if you will, and rare species of plants and animals. The Union government’s support of the Maharashtra government’s actions in Aarey sends out extremely problematic signals, of a state that is willing to steamroll a shot at a sustainable future for whatever reason, ‘development’ or otherwise, all the while embracing showpiece environment action that does nothing more than playing to the bandstands.

“Activism Works!”

The only constant there has been is the tenacity of environmentally-conscious citizenry worldwide, in organising themselves and protesting against governments and corporations that take no action to help create a better future for the planet, as was demonstrated in the global climate strike organised on September 2019, struggles against development in the Amazonas region of Brazil, and more recently, the Aarey protests.

At least the High Court got one thing right – prophecy or obiter dicta?

The Maharashtra High Court in its judgment drew a parallel between the citizen-state conflict and the Biblical story of David and Goliath, the activists being David and the state and its functionaries, Goliath. All we can hope is that the parallel holds true, right to the finish.

This post is contributed by Lydia Suzanne Thomas, the content manager of Legally Flawed.

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