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Night-long drama, 29 in jail over tree cutting

Night-long drama, 29 in jail over tree cutting

MUMBAI: The five-year-long battle between environment activists and Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRC) over the axing of 2,185 trees in the heart of the financial capital’s green belt escalated into a full-scale confrontation through Friday night and ended on Saturday with the heavy deployment of police, the arrest-without-bail of 29 protestors, the imposition of Section 144 prohibitory orders and the raw sight of chopped-down trees and sawed-off tree-trunks.
In the seemingly zero-sum game between development and conservation, the ‘modernisers’ had had their way — while the jury won’t be in for years over whether it’s a win or a loss for the city and its citizens. In the meantime, the march of Metro-III — arguably the biggest infrastructure showpiece after the Worli-Bandra sealink — between Colaba and SEEPZ, continues unimpeded.
MMRC wasted no time at all in swinging into action after the Bombay high court upheld the BMC Tree Authority order paving the way for the Metro carshed to be built in Aarey. On Saturday, the high court refused to allow activist Zoru Bhathena and NGO Vanshakti’s urgent plea to stay the axing of trees, saying it would directly contravene its own day-old verdict.
While Amrita Bhattacharjee of Aarey Conservation Group said over 1,500 trees had already been cut on Saturday, Ashwini Bhide, managing director, MMRC, said: “The planned work should be close to completion but I don’t have the exact number of details (of the trees cut).”
In addition to those arrested, over a 100, including Shiv Sena deputy leader Priyanka Chaturvedi and former mayor Shubha Raul, were detained after Section 144 of the CrPC was invoked to restrain “unlawful assembly” of more than four persons. Police also resorted to lathi-charge to disperse the protesters. By Saturday morning, 500 cops had been deployed and protesters alleged police heavy-handedness.
It was local adivasis who first noticed that trees were being axed and alerted others on Friday evening. Some Greens in the neighbourhood rushed to the site and recorded the work and shared the clips. Soon, hundreds of Save Aarey supporters and other citizens began to pour in from various parts of the city.
The first few who arrived at the spot around 8pm did not face hurdles. Police were called in around 10pm after crowds multiplied. The bandobast was beefed up around 12am after police used lathicharge to quell the situation.
Two layers of nakabandi were put up on three roads leading to the site. After learning that Section 144 had been imposed, protesters began to turn up in groups of two or three. Several, though, alleged that police assaulted protesters and women were manhandled by male cops. Following the allegations, more policewomen were called in.
Six of the 29 arrested persons were women. They were charged with “assaulting police personnel” and “unlawful assembly”, among others. Most of those arrested were young students. The oldest accused was 53 and the youngest 21. The accused included a member of the Bhim Army and local residents of Aarey’s tribal hamlets.
“A mob of 100 to 200 protesters had assembled illegally at the carshed construction site to protest the tree felling on Thursday night. They obstructed the police from doing their duty and some of them assaulted constable Ingle and a female constable, Anita Sutar,” said a statement from the police. Late on Saturday, police said around 175 people were still wanted in connection with the protest.
Families of those arrested said they were mere bystanders at site. “My nephew is very young and had gone to the site with his friends. He got emotional when the tree felling started. But he hasn’t assaulted any cop and should be released on bail soon,” said a family member of Swapnil Pawar, one of the local residents arrested.
At the Borivli magistrate court where the accused were produced in the afternoon, one of them, Siddharth Sapkale, complained that he had been punched in the stomach while boarding a police vehicle. The magistrate told him to consult his lawyers. Sapkale’s lawyers subsequently told the court that he was not aware if the punch was accidental or intentional.
“We want police custody of only four of the 29 accused—Anand Desai, Diplay Pawar, Siddharth Sapkal and Shreyas Rajadhyaksha. Police want to examine if they have links with any organisation,” the public prosecutor informed the court. But the court rejected the plea and sent all 29 accused to judicial custody. They applied for bail in the same court and their bail hearing is scheduled for Monday.
Two of the arrested told the court they are law students and their exams are coming up. The court gave them permission to be escorted to the exam hall by policemen if they could produce documents confirming their exam schedule.
Earlier on Thursday, the police detained close to hundred people from the car shed construction site. “We were shouting very general slogans like ‘Save Aarey’ and were not doing anything to warrant arrests. The police suddenly announced that Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure had been invoked and we should disperse. The protesters were arguing with the authorities when suddenly a lathi-charge was ordered. Protesters were lathi-charged four times without giving any prior warning. It was an ugly sight to watch protestors fall to the ground,” said Reuben Mascarenhas of Aam Aadmi Party who was among those detained.
Mascarenhas said this was probably the first time the police took such harsh action. “This is a message to young professionals that if you participate in protests, you will face legal action. This is being done to cut off support for the cause,” added Mascarenhas.
Sources in the police department said nine more youngsters could have faced arrest but they were released as they provided proof of exams coming up. One among these was Manisha Dinde, a 20-year-old TYBMM student, living in Aarey’s tribal hamlets. She was first detained overnight at Dahisar. Subsequently she was released in the morning and returned home. But when she stepped out to head for her exams in the afternoon, she was detained once again. After much pleading and intervention of NGOs, she was released.
On Saturday, a specially constituted bench of Justices Satyaranjan Dharmadhikari and Justice Anil Menon heard greens’ pleas for a stay on the felling of trees. The activists urged that MMRC be restrained until they move the Supreme Court, which is closed for Dassera till October 13.
Bhathena’s advocate Sonal said after Friday’s judgment, the high court bench rejected an oral plea for a stay saying it is expected that MMRC would not take any action immediately.
MMRC’s advocate Akshay Shinde said there is nothing on record or in the judgment to show a request for a stay was made. But the bench said, “The nature of the relief is such that if it is granted, it would directly contravene the observations, findings and conclusion in the detailed judgment.”
TimesofIndia

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