New Delhi: A special bench of the Supreme Court on Monday asked the Maharashtra government to ensure that no trees are further axed at Mumbai's Aarey Colony.
A Bench of Justices Arun Mishra and Ashok Bhushan directed the government to maintain the status quo and said it would further hear all the petitions in the matter on October 21.
The court passed the directive after hearing a suo moto PIL based on a letter written by a group of law students to the court against the felling of trees.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta assured the bench that no trees will be further cut in the Aarey Colony. He told the court that the people who were arrested for protesting against Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Ltd (MMRCL) action were released. "In case those are still not released shall be released immediately," Mehta assured the court.
The court also asked Mehta to include the Ministry of Forest and Environment as a party in the matter.
Senior advocate Sanjay Hegde was representing the group of law students' who sent a letter to Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, prompting him to set up a special bench to hear the matter.
Environment activists were represented by senior advocate Gopal Shankarnarayan.
During the course of hearing, Justice Arun Mishra asked whether or not the Aarey Colony was the eco-sensitive zone. To which, advocate Gopal Sankaranarayan said, "Wider issues relating to Aarey being a forest or not has been pending before the Supreme Court in a 2018 matter."
He also apprised the court that a matter is also pending in National Green Tribunal as to whether Aarey is an eco-sensitive zone or not. "As the matter is pending the authorities should have not gone ahead with the felling of trees," Sankaranarayan submitted.
On Sunday, the court received a letter by the students' group against the axing of trees in the Aarey forest, decided to pursue it as public interest litigation (PIL) and constituted a "special bench" to hear the matter.
The Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Ltd (MMRCL) started axing the trees on Friday night after the Bombay High Court rejected a bunch of petitions filed by NGOs and activists against the tree felling. Resolved to save the trees, many protestors gathered at the site to raise their voice against the felling of trees. Later, more people joined the protestors near the Aarey colony area, where the Mumbai Police imposed Section 144, thereby banning unlawful assembly.
The protesters have been demanding the relocation of the bus depot, which is a part of the Metro III project.
The police had held at least 84 protestors for allegedly disturbing public order and obstructing government officials from performing their duties. Twenty-nine out of 84 protestors were sent to five-day judicial custody by a local court on Saturday. The 29 protestors were granted bail on Sunday by Dindoshi court on a cash bond of Rs 7,000 each and asked to appear at the police station for further inquiry.
Leaders from various political parties including Shiv Sena and Congress have condemned the move to fell the trees.
On October 5, the Bombay High Court had refused to entertain urgent mentioning by Aarey activists to stay the ongoing tree cutting.