Parsis to Adivasis, Mumbai’s metro project faces heat from citizens

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Metro 3 construction outside the Anjuman Atash Behram in Kalbadevi. (Credit: Aarefa Johari)

The Metro 3 line will connect South Mumbai to the northern suburbs, but all is not well along the route.

To an outsider, Mumbai’s most ambitious metro railway project – the 33.5-km underground Metro 3 – appears to be full of promise. Construction of the line from Colaba in South Mumbai to the northern suburb of Seepz is underway, with an aim of easing rail and road congestion in a burgeoning metropolis.

But for many Mumbai citizens living along the Metro 3 route, the Rs 23,136-crore project has turned out to be a nightmare. The construction has faced legal opposition from citizen groups since it started in 2015.. The latest to join the protests is the small Parsi Zoroastrian community of South Mumbai. Members of the community have moved the Bombay High Court against plans to bore tunnels under two of their sacred fire temples. At a hearing on May 23, the court ordered the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited – the agency building Metro 3 – to hear them out.

Hurting religious sentiments are just one of the many objections Metro 3 faces as it struggles to complete work by 2021. All along its route, citizens have complained about displacement and rehabilitation, the safety of their buildings, noise pollution, tree-felling and the violation of environmental norms.

Scroll.in takes a look at three cases where citizens have gone to court against the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited and its Metro 3 project.

The Metro 3 route, as shown on the MMRC website.

Sleepless nights, deafening days
At the southern tip of Mumbai, the Metro 3 route begins in the affluent neighbourhood of Cuffe Parade, where loud drilling and occasional explosions can be heard all through the day.

Construction work in this area began towards the end of 2016, a few months before residents realised that the metro authorities were cutting dozens of trees in local parks. In February 2017, a group of residents filed a writ petition in the Bombay High Court seeking a stay on tree-cutting. But in May that year, the court allowed the corporation to go ahead with licensed tree-cutting for the sake of arriving at a “middle ground” in the case of development projects.

After a year of intense construction activity, that case is now moot. But one Cuffe Parade petitioner, lawyer Robin Jaisinghani, fought another case against the corporation. In August, he moved the High Court against the relentless and loud noise of machinery used at the construction site, which is barely 50 metres from his the gate of his building. He complained that the noise often crossed 100 decibels – way above the permissible limit – and disturbed residents not just during the day but through most of the night.

“My young daughters could not get sleep before school. And every time I tried to complain at the local Metro 3 office, they would threaten to beat me up,” said Jaisinghani, who demanded Rs 10,000 a day in compensation for each family member affected by the noise. The court responded to his petition immediately, ordering the corporation to stop construction from 10 pm to 6 am.

But 10 months on, Jaisinghani claims the corporation workers are following the court order only partially. “Violations continue even today,” he said. “On some days, work goes on till midnight. And even during the day, when noise levels are not allowed to cross 55 decibels by law, the construction noise goes up to 80 or 90 decibels.” Jaisinghani has had to replace his windows with soundproof panes.

Jaisinghani is not the only one to protest the din caused by the metro construction. A number of citizens across the city, including activist Sumaira Abdulali, have filed petitions in the High Court seeking relief from the noise pollution. At one hearing on April 18, the court ordered the police to conduct noise level tests at various spots along the Metro 3 route to check for violations. Despite the order, residents continue to complainof violations in the noise norms and the sleepless nights they cause.

Residents along the Metro 3 route complain of the noise from relentless drilling and occasional explosions through the day. (Credit: HT)

Parsi petition
Also along the Metro 3 route is the densely populated Jagannath Shankar Seth Road that runs from Kalbadevi to Girgaum, where residents are anxious about the safety of their old buildings. Kalbadevi and Girgaum are two of South Mumbai’s oldest residential neighbourhoods, with a mix of middle and lower middle-class Maharashtrian and Gujarati residents. The Metro 3 route will run right under JSS Road, with tunnels slated to go under several residential buildings and places of worship.

The Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited surveyed 348 buildings along JSS Road around two years ago and found the structural weaknesses of 85 to be “severe” or “very severe”, the Times of India reported. Despite this, the metro authorities have given residents only oral assurances that their safety will be ensured during the construction, said structural engineer Jamshed Sukhadwalla.

“More than a year ago I told the MMRC authorities in meetings that most buildings on this road are too old to withstand the tunnelling work, but they simply said the buildings will be safe and we should not worry,” said Sukhadwalla, who has an office in a Kalbadevi building. “They still maintain that stand, but they never give anything in writing.”

What has angered Sukhadwalla and other residents of Kalbadevi even more is the corporation’s response to an accident at the 100-year-old Jer Mahal building. On April 21, a portion of the building’s third floor caved in and concrete slabs fell all the way to the first floor, injuring one woman. Residents blamed it on vibrations caused by tunnelling work. But the corporation denied this, claiming that its tunnel boring machines were a considerable distance away from the building and had not been in operation for a few days.

While he is worried about all the buildings on JSS Road, Sukhadwalla has filed a public interest petition in the High Court specifically asking that two Atash Behrams – the highest grade of Zoroastrian fire temples – be safeguarded. One temple, the Wadia Atash Behram, is 187 years old. Tunnelling work under the temples was scheduled to begin this month, but the Parsi Zoroastrian community here claims the vibrations will break the link the sacred fires in the temples are supposed to have with the centre of the Earth.

Metro 3 construction outside the Anjuman Atash Behram in Kalbadevi. (Credit: Aarefa Johari)

Sukhadwalla and other petitioners from the Parsi community want the corporation to choose a different route for Metro 3. At the May 23 hearing, the High Court ordered the corporation to hear out the concerns of the high priests and trustees of the temples. While a meeting between the priests, trustees, petitioners and metro authorities has not yet been scheduled, the corporation has informed the court that it will not start drilling under the temples till the next hearing on June 14.

At the other end of JSS Road, Catholics are worried about the damage tunnelling might cause to the 77-year-old St Teresa’s Church. Meanwhile, drilling work in the vicinity of some residential buildings has prompted several families to move out of the area itself.

“Our building in Kalbadevi was more than 100 years old and anyway not in a good condition, so we were not sure how well it would be able to survive the metro construction,” said a former resident who did not wish to be identified. Her family moved to a new flat in Colaba last week. “We had been thinking of moving house for a while, but this concern about the metro was the main impetus to move.”

Adivasi displacement
At the northern end of the Metro 3 route, the forested, eco-sensitive Aarey area has seen the most protests against the metro corporation and state government. Environmentalists call Aarey – with its nearly four lakh trees, lakes, gardens and cattle farms spread across 3,160 acres – Mumbai’s last green lung. The forest is also home to 27 Adivasi villages or padas whose residents are now uncertain about their fate.

The Aarey protests began in 2014, when the state government sanctioned 30 hectares of forest land from the no-development zone to the corporation to build a metro car shed. This prompted citizen groups from across Mumbai to start the “Save Aarey” campaign and file numerous court cases. But after setting up a panel to look for an alternative plot, the state government went on to reserve 33 hectares of land here for the construction of the Metro 3 depot.

As it started construction work in early 2017, the corporation evicted more than 150 slum dwellers from Aarey’s Sariput Nagar, razing their hutments with just a two-day notice and moving them into a Slum Rehabilitation Authority building in the suburb of Kanjurmarg. The slum dwellers were not the only ones displaced by the project. Some 70 Adivasis from neighbouring Prajapur pada were also evicted and they are now furious about being clubbed with the slum residents and pushed into a slum rehabilitation building.

“We are not slum dwellers. We are Konkana Adivasis who have been living and farming in this forest for generations,” declared Asha Bhoye, an anganwadi helper from Prajapur and one of the petitioners in a case filed in February against the land acquisition in Aarey. “What do we do with a flat in an SRA building if they have taken away our farmland? How should our people earn a living?”

Asha Bhoye’s house in Prajapur pada, Aarey. (Credit: Asha Bhoye)

While many of Bhoye’s neighbours were evicted, her own home has not yet been acquired. But Bhoye and her husband, a roadside paan seller, have lost their half-acre farming plot on which they would harvest vegetables and coconuts every monsoon. “This year will be a struggle because we will not be able to farm, and our earnings are not enough to support a family of six,” she said.

On March 20, the corporation filed an affidavit in the court stating that the Aarey plot is neither a “naturally forested area” nor a “pristine area of land” with a “dense tree cover”, and claimed the activists were making incorrect allegations about the eco-sensitivity of Aarey. On April 17, the court asked the activists petitioning against the metro car shed to submit documents to support their claim that Aarey is a protected forest area.

While the case is still pending, Amrita Bhattacharjee, one of the petitioners, underscores the uncertainty that now defines the lives of many Adivasi residents of Aarey. “The challenge is that MMRC has not yet shared the details of exactly which plots will come under the 33 hectares,” said Bhattacharjee, a member of the Save Aarey campaign. “So there is a lot of fear among residents because they don’t know if they will lose their homes or not.”

When Scroll.in asked the corporation for its response to the three petitions and complaints from Cuffe Parade, Kalbadevi and Aarey, it declined to comment. “These cases are still being heard in court so I don’t think it is right for us to comment on matters that are sub judice,” said R Ramana, executive director of planning at the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited.

https://scroll.in/article/881470/from-parsis-to-adivasis-mumbais-underground-metro-project-faces-heat-from-citizens

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