The Mumbai metro project (“Metro Project”) was conceptualised to develop an efficient and sustainable urban transport system in the financial capital of the country, involving a significant investment of USD 2,500 million. Every day some 80,00,000 commuters use the city’s suburban rail system, enabled through more than 2,800 trains a day. The network is severely overcrowded during peak hours when the number of passengers exceed the network’s carrying capacity by more than four times, leading to numerous safety hazards.
Last year witnessed a massive protest for saving the Aarey milk colony located in suburban Goregaon (“Aarey’), a green belt with over 5,00,000 trees, a rarity in the concrete city. The construction of a metro car depot on the flood plains of the Mithi river at Aarey for expansion of metro services in the city received much wrath from environment activists, citizens and even courts for cutting down 2,600 trees overnight. While there is a stay on cutting more trees until the matter is sub-judice, the construction work of the Metro Project was not stopped, until the outbreak of a worldwide pandemic, COVID-19 or Coronavirus.
The existence and development of adequate infrastructure is essential for sustained growth of the Indian economy. If we were to look at the Metro Project from a long-term perspective, it is evident that it will eventually reap multiple benefits by encouraging public transport and thereby saving valuable resources. It has been claimed that the Metro Project will lead to reduction in consumption of petrol and diesel by 3,54,593 litres per day. The Metro Project will help in reducing pollution emission due to reduction in the number of vehicle trips by 9,907 tonne per year. It will also provide for a faster, efficient and safe conveyance for lakhs of people who travel daily. This will also help ease the existing overburdened Mumbai local network, which has resulted in multiple disasters/accidents especially during monsoons.
The Aarey controversy is not the first of its kind. There have been multiple cases in the past where the courts have heard parties argue over development of infrastructural projects and its effect on the environment. In one such case, the Hon’ble Madras High Court also held that it has become an urgent need of the day to switch over to the metro rail in Chennai for the convenience and comfort of the public and that it is the only solution to mitigate traffic congestion and air pollution. In this context, the Hon’ble Madras High Court allowed the Chennai metro rail project to be completed, subject to certain conditions.
Similarly, the Hon’ble Calcutta High Court also said that the construction of the metro railway project is also a public project for the welfare and benefit of the public. However, such developmental work should also work harmoniously with the environment, causing as less harm to environment as possible.
There are multiple precedents that showcase that the courts have given enough thought in allowing development projects that are of public importance even if that entailed the opportunity cost of affecting the environment. Mumbai, being a city with ever increasing residential and commercial development, is in dire need of an infrastructure that can meet goals such as environmental sustainability, hygiene, energy efficiency and social/economic inclusiveness.
Currently, India is facing a situation that requires it to develop better infrastructure in order to promote ease of doing business and attract foreign investors to boost economic growth. On the other hand, clean energy is crucial to India’s commitment under the Paris Agreement on climate change to reduce carbon emissions relative to the gross domestic product. Thus, it is very important to strike a balance between developing infrastructure for promoting ease of business and at the same time take measures to reduce carbon emissions.
No doubt that our forests are disappearing. The forest fires in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, the bush fires in Australia and even the cutting down of trees in Aarey for that matter are all reflections of the fact that climate change is real and is happening because of deforestation. The continuing loss of forest cover globally is putting over 70% of the world’s forests at risk of total degradation.
Given that India is a developing country and there is a constant need for economic growth also, the idea should be to encourage projects of great utility and public welfare that are safe and reliable with minimal impact on the environment. The idea should also be to weigh the requirement of a project while it is being conceptualised to understand its feasibility and to promote the notion of sustainable development. India is the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases and in order to keep up to its commitments at the international level, it is necessary to step prudently in the coming years.
The outbreak of this global pandemic has caused great turmoil in multiple sectors of the country and infrastructure is one of them. There has been a complete halt on construction activities, along with shortage of labourers, construction workers, supply of essential construction material, which might lead to consequential effects like delay in completion date of the project, hike in the prices. Currently, the primary concern of all stakeholders is to focus on the healthcare sector and ensure that the global community comes out of this crisis at the earliest. Needless to say, when things get better, the Metro Project will form a crucial part of a robust, safe and hygienic mode of transport in the city of Mumbai. A clean environment and the safety of commuters are the most primary and essential facets of the Metro Project.
Mumbai Urban Transport Project, The World Bank, September 22, 2015, Available at: https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/india/brief/mumbai-urban-transport-project
Environmental Benefits, Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited, Available at: https://www.mmrcl.com/en/project/environmental-benefits
B. Ramesh Babu v. Planning, Development and Special Initiatives Department (2011 SCC ONLINE MAD 649)
Subhas Dutta v. Union of India (2001 SCC ONLINE CAL 178)
 Who will save the Amazon and Aarey forests, Nidhi Adlakha, The Hindu, September 07, 2019, Available at: https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/who-will-save-the-amazon-and-aarey-forests/article29360084.ece1/photo/1/