India's Supreme Court halts tree felling for new Mumbai metro

A protest demanding that the Mumbai Metro Rail Corp Ltd not cut trees to build a train parking shed for an upcoming subway line, in Mumbai, on Oct 6, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI (REUTERS) - India's Supreme Court issued a stay order on Monday (Oct 7), halting the cutting of trees in Mumbai for an ambitious subway project that has sparked protests from activists opposed to the felling of some 2,700 trees to build a train parking shed.

A two-judge bench of Justice Arun Mishra and Justice Ashok Bhushan asked the authorities not to cut any more trees and to maintain the status quo.

Activists and environmentalists have opposed cutting down the trees, saying it would exacerbate Mumbai's pollution levels.

Over the weekend, Indian police detained dozens of activists who had tried to stop officials from cutting the trees after a lower court dismissed their objections.

Over 400 people had gathered last Friday night, and tried to hug the trees, located in the Aarey Colony suburb, in an attempt to stop officials from cutting them.

Police eventually removed the protesters and shut entry to prevent further inflow of people, activists said.

"They have been charged with obstructing a government servant from doing his duty and unlawful assembly. Around 200 policemen have been deployed at the location," Mr Pranaya Ashok, a spokesman for the Mumbai police, told Reuters.

The Bombay High Court had last Friday dismissed all petitions opposing the cutting of the trees, clearing the way for the authorities to build a parking shed for Line 3 of a broader train network that aims to reduce traffic congestion in one of the world's most densely populated cities.

Mrs Ashwini Bhide, the managing director of the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL), accused the protesters of trying to bypass the law.

"If you lose a battle in court, better to accept it honourably than to take it to street," she said in a tweet.

The MMRCL has said in the past that there is no other viable location for the shed, and the authorities have stressed that Line 3, slated to open in December 2021, will do more to reduce pollution in Mumbai than the cluster of trees.

Mr Yash Marwah, a member of the Aarey Conservation Group, an informal citizen's collective that has been at the forefront of protests, said those opposed to the felling of trees were considering other legal options.

Environmentalists, politicians, Bollywood stars and business leaders have opposed the felling of trees in one of the city's last green spaces, saying destroying green cover could exacerbate pollution.

"The vigour with which the @MumbaiMetro3 is slyly and swiftly cutting down an ecosystem in Aarey is shameful and disgusting," Mr Aaditya Thackeray, a leader of local BJP ally Shiv Sena said in a tweet late last Friday.

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