The jubilation in the city’s northern suburbs is palpable. The Supreme Court on Thursday had come to the rescue of some five lakh residents in Thane, Mulund, Bhandup, Nahur, Mahul, Borivali, Kandivali, Virar, Badlapur and Ambernath who were on the verge of being evicted from their homes. They had invested most of their savings for a roof over the head. The apex court acted sensibly when it struck down the 2008 Bombay High Court judgment, which had gone in favour of the Maharashtra government. It also directed the state to return crores of rupees that the housing societies and builders had paid as fines in an effort to regularise the plots — classified as forest land under the Indian Forest Act of 1927 — on which residential buildings had come up over the years.
The eight-year-old problem need not have snowballed if the state government had showed common sense. All this while, it had failed to recognise its own role as the chief architect of the crisis.
The migration to the suburbs — beginning as a trickle in as early as the 1950s — turned into a torrent in the 1990s when the Indian economy opened up. People from other parts of the country flocked to the city for employment. By early 2000s, prices of apartments within city limits soared, and reached the peak in 2005, leaving the middle class with no option but to settle in places like Borivali, Kandivali, Virar and Ambernath, which were connected to the city centre by trains. Huge tracts of land in and around the forest area were cleared for human settlement and factories. Over the years, the government built roads, flyovers and offered other incentives to lure people to these areas to take the pressure off Mumbai, which was already bursting at the seams.
Now, after decades of development — with even the thriving suburbs now reaching the point of saturation — if the government suddenly wakes up to the fact that forest land has been encroached upon, and tries to render lakhs of people homeless, it deserves more than a rap on the knuckles. The SC was right in castigating it for its “Rip Van Winkle-ism” and trying to take refuge under the Maharashtra Private Forests (Acquisition) Act, 1975. The government surely was in a deep slumber for a lot more than the proverbial 20 years while doling out all the necessary permissions for rampant construction at the behest of a thriving nexus of politicians, corporators, civic employees and builders.
Some of the most tell-tale signs of shrinking forest area have been the eviction of tribals and increased incidences of man-animal conflicts. Leopard attacks in and around Sanjay Gandhi National Park continue to make headlines, as does the depleting green cover on the city’s fringes. Elsewhere, along the coast of the island city, the hunger for land had claimed the mangroves, triggering a movement by conservationists and nature lovers.
Understandably, some of the biggest builders are happy at the apex court’s ruling as they had bought huge swathes of land long ago at throwaway prices, as long-term investment. They are soon going to reap dividends to the tune of thousands of crores.
One is inclined to believe that with the scope of development expanding, real estate prices would come down. That’s just wishful thinking. In no time, the 6.4 lakh hectares, freed up by the SC verdict, will turn into a concrete jungle, leaving no trace of the flora and fauna it once nurtured.