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Was Midnight Tree Felling at Aarey Final Nail in Coffin for Sena-BJP Alliance? HC Order Reopens Wounds

Uddhav Thackeray with Devendra Fadnavis

Uddhav Thackeray with Devendra Fadnavis

Coming on the eve of the assembly elections, the felling of trees was interpreted as a political move and an attempt by the Fadnavis-led government to slight and undercut the Shiv Sena.

In a major jolt for the Uddhav Thackeray-led Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government, the Bombay High Court (HC) has stayed the allotment of salt pan land in Mumbai’s Kanjurmarg area for a Metro car shed.

The car shed for the under construction Colaba-Bandra-SEEPZ Metro project was originally planned at the Aarey milk colony in Goregaon, which is one of the few surviving green lungs of the city. The tussle over the location of this car shed during the tenure of the erstwhile Devendra Fadnavis-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-Shiv Sena government was among the flashpoints that eventually culminated in the estrangement between the two parties last year.

The first underground Metro rail route in Mumbai, the 33.5km Colaba-Bandra-SEEPZ project, is expected to reduce road congestion and connect the city’s business districts. The project, which was originally expected to cost over Rs 23,000 crore, is being funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

It envisaged the large-scale felling of trees on a land parcel inside the Aarey milk colony, which is among the few such urban forests in the midst of a megapolis for the car shed. This was opposed by environmentalists, who sought that the area be declared as a no-development zone.

The Shiv Sena too objected to the choice of Aarey, with Yuva Sena chief Aaditya Thackeray leading the charge. Aaditya’s younger brother Tejas, who is a naturalist and has discovered five new species of freshwater crabs in the western ghats and a new species of fish, was a frequent visitor to Aarey.

Tejas was in touch with researchers studying the spiders, scorpions and reptiles in this jungle, and was also involved in DSLR camera trapping of leopards in Aarey. Tejas photographed a female breeding leopard called Luna in Aarey. Hence, Aaditya was said to be insistent that the complex biodiversity of the area, which includes leopards living in close proximity to humans, needed to be protected.

The urbane, cosmopolitan, convent-educated Aaditya, who is now the environment minister in his father’s cabinet, was eager to expand the Shiv Sena’s social base outside its traditional Marathi lower-middle and working-class constituents. Aaditya, who has a keen interest in international politics, and looks up to former United Kingdom Prime Minister Tony Blair and New Labour, was eager to reach out to the educated and cosmopolitan sections, which identify the Shiv Sena more with the rough-and-tumble of street-level politics.

The Shiv Sena is seen as a party sans an ideology and one which cannot even take thumb of the rule positions on issues like environmentalism, gender justice and economic policy. The Aarey controversy was a good springboard for the party to change this perception.

Reportedly prodded by Tejas, Aaditya personally reached out to activists, researchers and journalists working on the ‘Save Aarey’ front.

In an interview to the Shiv Sena mouthpiece Saamana last year, Uddhav had said the Sena’s opposition to the car shed echoed the sentiments of Mumbaikars. He stressed that the party was not opposed to the Metro railway project but to its location in Aarey. The Shiv Sena also promised to maintain the Aarey milk colony as a green zone.

However, Fadnavis said that the alternative plan to shift the depot elsewhere would lead to higher expenditure and consequently, steeper ticket costs. He added that the Metro railway would be environment-friendly as it would take private vehicles off the roads and reduce the carbon footprint.

In October 2019, hours after the Bombay High Court dismissed petitions against the construction of the car shed, the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL), which is the agency executing the project, felled over 2,000 trees at Aarey. This sparked off outrage in the citizenry and the Shiv Sena. Several activists also courted arrests after protests and Saamana cried bloody murder.

Coming on the eve of the assembly elections, this action was interpreted as a political move and an attempt by the Fadnavis-led government to slight and undercut the Shiv Sena. This was seen as a personal affront to Aaditya. An upset Aaditya is said to have refused meeting two powerful bureaucrats who were involved with the project, and were part of the back-channel talks between the state government and the Sena.

The Shiv Sena and BJP were allies in government, but the power equations had changed since the days of late Sena supremo Bal Thackeray, who would make no bones of his party’s pre-eminence in the saffron alliance. The BJP snapped ties with the Shiv Sena before the 2014 assembly elections, and emerged as the single-largest party, forcing the later to ally with it on terms that were less than favorable.

Shiv Sena leaders charge that as the chief minister, Fadnavis would exert control on departments with Sena ministers. The BJP felt that pushed into the role of a second fiddle, the Shiv Sena’s base could be up for picking.

It is said that the midnight tree cutting at Aarey was thus meant to be part of a series of slights to the Shiv Sena, and to send out a message to its target constituency that the party traditionally associated with Marathi machismo, was in power but not in authority.

Sena leaders admit that this was part of the straws that broke the camel’s back as the party snapped ties with the BJP to form a government with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Congress later. The prevailing mood in the Sena leadership’s top echelons was that another term for the BJP under Fadnavis would see the party being further marginalised and cornered.

After the MVA came to power, Uddhav announced the decision to scrap the car shed project at Aarey and shifted it to Kanjur, leading to open season between the BJP and the Shiv Sena. A 600 acre patch in the Aarey forest was notified as a reserve forest. Ashwini Bhide, the go-getting IAS officer who as the managing director of the MMRCL was credited with the project taking off the ground fast, was also transferred.

However, based on the report of a committee appointed by the state government, Fadnavis maintained that alternate sites like Kalina and Kanjurmarg were not feasible for the car shed.

The HC’s stay will give now the BJP a fresh issue to berate Uddhav and his son.

The Shiv Sena has also been accused of duplicity. While the party stresses on its commitment to cause of Aarey, it has chosen to turn a blind eye to the concerns raised by environmentalists and fishermen over the Mumbai coastal road. This 29.2km and around Rs 12,000 crore project is being executed by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) on the western coast, and will involve massive reclamation, which could affect the geomorphology of the city.

But, as the battle over the location of the car shed turns into a personal war and prestige issue between the BJP and the Shiv Sena, the city runs the risk of seeing a much-needed public transport project like the Metro being delayed.

“Mithacha khada” or a lump of salt dropped in milk to curdle it is a much-quoted proverb indicating how things can go bad. For Mumbaikars, there is a looming threat of controversy over salt pans that is threatening to spoil the plot.

Disclaimer:Dhaval Kulkarni is a Mumbai-based journalist and author of ‘The Cousins Thackeray: Uddhav, Raj and the Shadow of their Senas.’ Views are personal.