Will the New Maharashtra Government Really Save Aarey?
Some major changes to the status quo will have to be made
A couple of months ago the Save Aarey movement captured the attention of the entire country, the first time in India’s recent history that an environmental issue has been able to do so. Thousands came out to protest every Sunday for more than a month, to the extent that the Devendra Fadnavis led BJP–Shiv Sena state government had to resort to a midnight chopping of thousands of trees at Aarey.
Even that did not quell the protests, which led to the police force being ordered to lathicharge citizens, detaining hundreds and arresting around 29 Mumbaikars who were charged with ridiculously harsh sections of the law.
Needless to say, the Aarey issue was used by all political parties to gain advantage in the 2019 assembly elections. The widespread protests forced reactions from all major parties – both Jairam Ramesh from the Congress and Supriya Sule from the NCP came to Aarey to speak with the members of the Aarey group and declare their support for the movement.
The Shiv Sena, which has had public disagreements with the BJP over Aarey, took centrestage when it came to Mumbai’s last remaining green lung and took a pointed stand, promising to declare it a forest the minute they returned to power – although they were already part of the ruling alliance with the BJP.
The Save Aarey movement brought mainstream attention to environmental degradation. It got a nation that’s largely apathetic towards its environment to talk about land use, pollution, the climate crisis and the need for policy level changes that protect and conserve India’s natural wealth. It brought attention to the state of the country’s rivers and the impunity with which builder–politician nexuses operate when it comes to massive landgrabs of our lakes, wetlands and river banks.
It also brought attention to the government and corporate backed illegal mining of India’s forests, despite the Forest Rights Act and the state of India’s tribal communities. It forced the media to cover environmental issues in greater depth and detail – and in the case of the Shiv Sena, NCP and Congress, it got them to declare themselves committed to the goals of sustainable development.
But how committed are they truly? Because the Coastal Road is a Shiv Sena project. It has environmentally disastrous consequences, it is displacing a large artisanal fisherfolk community entirely dependent on the coast for their livelihoods, it is unlikely to resolve any amount of traffic congestion – and will in fact serve to increase the number of cars on the road – and most importantly, it is illegal.
Coastal Regulation Zone laws do not allow for the construction of roads in CRZ I areas. They prohibit reclamation. Both the Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority and the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change have repeatedly denied clearance to this project.
The Shiv Sena was able to sidestep this major roadblock only through political bargaining when the 2019 Lok Sabha election was about to be fought. The 200 page Coastal Road judgement by the Honourable Justice Nandrajyog enumerates the entire back and forth over this project, and is a must read for anyone wanting to understand the coastal road project in detail.
The fact that the illegality of the project was dodged by amending the CRZ laws to allow the construction of this road —the Coastal Road, like the Navi Mumbai Airport, was added as an exception to the CRZ laws to permit their construction— shows how various political parties get what they want by bending the country’s laws as per their whims.
This behaviour ought to be a major cause for alarm among the citizenry. What is the point of going through all the trouble of voting, making sure sensible people are voted to power and that these people draft sensible legislation, if none of the power bearers intend to follow any of these laws themselves?
Both Aaditya Thackeray and Supriya Sule were quick to take to social media to declare themselves fully committed to the goals of sustainable development after their win in the state elections. But how environmentally conscious has the NCP been? Has it ever cared about environmental degradation? Something that citizens at the Aarey protests were quick to point out to Sule. Intensive sugarcane farming and the massive spurt of sugar refineries in the Kolhapur district, where the NCP and Congress have long been powerful, has had a terrible effect on the groundwater levels there. So what has the NCP done to ensure sustainable development in this region?
And Aaditya Thackeray, who has shown an immense amount of environmental awareness when it comes to Aarey, has been equally vocal about his support for the coastal road project. He has not uttered a single word about the marine ecology that will be affected by the road. Nor the fact that the rocky shore this project will destroy is around 66 million years old.
One mustn’t forget that while the Shiv Sena claimed continuously that they would declare Aarey a forest the minute they came to power, they haven’t done so yet. Even the stop work order given to the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited with regard to construction of the Metro Car Shed is not being monitored, and the MMRCL has NOT in fact stopped its construction.
They have in fact raised the length of the barricades at the car shed site. The Shiv Sena has not uttered a single word about any of the other proposed projects at Aarey – the Metro Bhavan, the SRA housing, the Zoo, the RTO Bhavan and Testing Centre. Even the committee set up by the new chief minister to look for alternate sites for the car shed has no citizen or environmental expert representation.
In order for the government to be truly environmentally conscious, some major changes to the status quo will have to be made.
Are all the members of these parties —the INC, NCP and Shiv Sena— as environmentally aware as Mr Thackeray and Ms Sule say they are? Can these leaders even convince their own party members to account for the environment in everything they do?
Because taking ecologically conscious decisions requires making some large sacrifices – the need to make large profits being one of them. It requires curbing the appetite of not just corporates and builders (who are the major contributors to these parties’ coffers) but also one’s own party members and allies.
Does Mr Thackeray have the guts to take such bold decisions? I for one feel that a system which functions purely for its ability to make some people very rich very quickly cannot be expected to have the ability within itself to make such drastic corrections.
Unless political leaders start addressing these inherent contradictions within existing political and economic models, citizens will remain wary and sceptical of their claims of bringing environmentally friendly policies into effect.