Mumbai's Metro Battles Activists, Fears, Divine Fury

India | Development
The storm is yet to die out over the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited's (MMRC) taking over 30 hectares of the famed Aarey colony, a green belt of Mumbai, when another application has come in from MMRC demanding another 12,000 sq metres of land. The colony in Goregaon, inaugurated in 1951, was the result of the vision of Dara Khurody, a dairy pioneer of India whose name is taken in the same breath as Father of the White Revolution, Verghese Kurien and Tribhuvandas K Patel.

His aim was to ensure milk supply in Mumbai; a fortuitous offshoot of that was a wide swathe of greenery in congested Mumbai. And there have been howls of protest over the metro rail’s intrusions.

The second time around, the MMRC wants land near Marol, to the south of the colony. The 30 hectares taken caused enough trouble for the metro project; now, the 12,000 square metres sought (another 1.2 hectares, that is) is likely to cause another controversy.

“Now, more of them (protesters) will come running here to halt the work,” says a tribal, one among the 30-odd locals who have found work with the MMRC project. The tribes people live near Santosh Nagar, Adivasi Pada, unit No 22 and unit No 25, and form a vibrant third of the 100-odd workers at the MMRC car depot. The locals are bemused by the highly volatile reaction of environmentalists, activists and the media, which are taking the ‘development triggering ruin’ line. For the locals, the line has brought benefits – namely employment.

“Till today, nobody cared for us. Now, when we are getting jobs, they all come rushing down to Aarey, hollering ‘don’t fell trees!’ Who’s felling trees, anyway; the work is being done on open ground,” says a tribal supervising work at the site. The MMRC's line No 3 (MML-3), aimed at improving transportation in the financial capital of the country, has been mired in trouble since the very beginning. The 33.5 km corridor, running along Colaba-Bandra-SEEPZ, is plugged to de-congest traffic in Greater Mumbai.

On August 22, 2014, the Maharashtra Government handed over 30 hectares out of the 1,287 hectares of Aarey Colony for the car depot. The state claims only 25 hectares is being used for the car depot (less than two percent of the area of the colony). MMRC has tried to retain the green cover on the remaining five hectares. And the big benefit MML-3 will bring is decongesting the Jogeshwari-Vikhroli link road, the Goregaon-Powai link road and the Marol-Maroshi roads. It’s hoped that it will reduce the use of at least one lakh motor vehicles on these roads daily.

The car depot was proposed at ground level in Aarey and the ramp is planned at Sariput Nagar from where the underground metro comes to ground level for access to the depot. At present, vehicles coming from Marol towards Aarey use the Marol-Maroshi road, which intersects with the ramp near the Reliance Energy substation.

To maintain existing vehicular traffic, it’s proposed to construct an underpass at the intersection. The common fear of most environment activists is that once the metro arrives in Aarey, it will inevitably lead to addition of more infrastructure – wider roads, and so on. “In the name of the metro, MMRC will take over the entire Aarey colony. They will take over all of Aarey, you see,” says Roger Dias, a Malad resident, echoing the sentiment of a host of other activists accused of “managing the media to ensure eyeballs” by the locals of Aarey. MML-3 is jinxed, much like most other development projects across the world. Why, even the construction of Eiffel Tower was protested violently at the onset.

“We, writers, painters, sculptors, architects and passionate devotees of the hitherto untouched beauty of Paris, protest with all our strength, with all our indignation in the name of slighted French taste, against the erection...of this useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower,” said a petition against the tower in 1887. Today, the Eiffel Tower is most visited monument, that you must pay for, in the world and attracts almost seven million visitors every year.

Among those opposing the metro in Aarey is Shabana Azmi, actor and activist. She has taken to Twitter to gather support and asked the authorities to avoid cutting trees in Aarey to build a metro car shed. “Aarey forest is the lung forest for Mumbai. 3,500 trees in Aarey forest will be cut to build a metro car shed if we don’t raise our voice. Ask CM Devendra Fadnavis and Ashwini Bhide, MD of Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation, to look for alternatives,” she said.

Meanwhile, Delhi’s air pollution should serve as a warning and the metro car shed must be moved out of Aarey colony, offered Mumbai Mayor Vishvanath Mahadeshwar. The Shiv Sena has continued to maintain it is opposed to the car shed and even rejected it in the draft development plan – 2034, marking all of Aarey as a green zone but chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, who heads the urban development department, has overruled it. Mahadeshwar maintained that the Shiv Sena was not opposed to the metro project. He said, “However, our concern is about the cutting of trees for the construction of the metro car shed which we are opposed to. Aarey is a green zone and must be maintained as such if Mumbaikars are to live a healthy life and not be prone to respiratory diseases.” He said that there was a need to approach the issue as a humanitarian problem. By 2038, Mumbai will be susceptible to a host of diseases, he offered and “the Metro Car Shed must be moved out.”

The Parsi community, too, has joined hands against the project, saying the underground sections of the metro would endanger fire temples in South Mumbai. The community members are not convinced by the metro officials’ assurances. In October, a petition to prime minister Narendra Modi said that the metro would “breach the magnetic circuits” of two Zoroastrian fire temples, “diminishing their spiritual powers” and unleashing “dark forces”. Signed by 11,000 people, the petition concludes that the temples being “living, vibrant... intermediaries between God and mankind”, if these “holy fires are defied, the backlash from nature will not spare those responsible”.

However, Firoz Kotwal, who presided for several decades over the Wadia Atash Behram temple, one of the two in question, was content with the explanations. Convinced with the proof offered by the MMRC team and a personal assurance by the chief minister, Kotwal said that the hue and cry was “baseless” and neither Zoroastrianism nor its rituals were “in any danger from the Metro tunnel”.

Kotwal offered that the “mystic circuits” cited in the petition were not a part of the ancient texts of Zoroastrianism in its sixth century incarnation but had been introduced by the 19th-century Kshnum cult. Why, even Khurshed Dastur, the high priest of Zoroastrianism’s holiest shrine at Udvada in neighbouring Gujarat and the community’s representative in the secular National Commission for Minorities shot down the fears saying, “It is the work of a minuscule group with nothing better to do.”

Dastur said he visited the MMRC office and they showed him “films and documents for hours” and reassured him the tunnel will be passing under the washing area of the temple, and not the sacred sanctorum. “It is in no way touching the main Aatash Behram area,” he added, quelling popular fears.

That India’s financial capital needs the new metro to help bolster its swiftly buckling public transport system is a given. The city’s local train network commutes seven and half million passengers each day – more than even the record seven million that visits Eiffel Tower every year. It may be recalled that in September last, 22 persons died in a stampede on a foot over-bridge at Mumbai’s Elphinstone road station, underlining the need for an alternative transport system. MML-3 has been riddled with controversy in sharp contrast to the first two phases that were relatively uncontroversial.

Phase 1, managed by the MMRDA and a joint venture between Reliance Infrastructure, the French company Veolia and the Maharashtra government, is an 11.5 km elevated railway opened in 2013. The line is fully elevated and consists of 12 stations from Versova to Ghatkopar. Phase 2 is a 40 km elevated suburban train line that is currently half-built. Just the third phase is underground and passes under South Mumbai whose tolerance for metro construction is lower than the rest of the city. Very few of SoBo’s residents need to use the metro. That apart, the stakes for approval of this phase are high: In all, a $3.5 bn partnership between the Indian government and the state of Maharashtra, with loans from the Japan International cooperation Agency and hefty contracts for Indian agencies, as well as Chinese and Turkish infrastructure entities.

It may be recalled that in may 2017, the supreme court disposed of the special leave petition fled by a Mumbai resident against the lifting of a stay on tree cutting for the MML-3 project (colaba-Bandra-SEEPZ) by the Bombay High Court. The court directed the petitioner to approach a two-member HC committee with their grievances. The high court vacated its stay on cutting trees for the construction while observing that a balance needs to be struck between developmental activities and preserving the environment.

SoBo resident and petitioner Nina Verma had sought a special leave petition in the supreme court on May 8, challenging the HC order. A fine balance will have to be met between retaining dwindling natural resources in a swiftly growing Mumbai and offering technological advancements through modern transport options like the underground metro. Mumbai is the only city in the world to house a 104 sq km Sanjay Gandhi National Park in its midst. Considering that 88 percent of Mumbai’s commuters use public transport and the Mumbai suburban railway carries more than 7.5 million commuters every day, the need for an alternative is real and felt hard.

Resisting the construction of MML-3 blindly is detrimental to the very want of Mumbai which thrives even amidst opposition. Almost as a rule, those opposing the metro have little to do with tackling the ordeals of urban commuting or living amidst the natural resources they fear damaging. But, popular fears will have to be quelled along the way. However unreal!