India's Supreme Court orders tree-felling project halted

India's Supreme Court has ordered the central state of Maharashtra to stop clearing a heavily forested area for a metro line project after protests by hundreds of people

NEW DELHI -- India's Supreme Court ordered the central state of Maharashtra on Monday to stop clearing a heavily forested area for a metro line project after protests by hundreds of people.

The court ordered tree cutting to halt at least until it holds another hearing on Oct. 21.

The Mumbai Metro Rail Corp. Ltd. started cutting the trees late Friday to build a train car maintenance depot at the end of a north-south metro line.

The Supreme Court held a special session on Monday, although most of its members were off for the Hindu holiday of Dussehra.

Justices Arun Mishra and Ashok Bhushan ruled that the area, known as Aarey Colony, is a no-development zone, the Press Trust of India news agency reported.

The area, a heavily forested 1,287-hectare (3,180-acre) former dairy production area now inhabited by tribal villages, is often referred to as the city's green lung.

Police blocked protests on Saturday and Sunday by imposing Section 144 of the criminal code, which prohibits the assembly of more than four people with intent to disturb the peace.

Twenty-nine protesters were arrested last week on charges of obstructing and assaulting police personnel in the clearing zone. State government officials told the court that all protesters had been released, PTI reported.

In October 2018, the Bombay High Court ruled that development of the maintenance depot, which requires 33 hectares (81 acres) of land, could proceed. The court maintained that position last Friday and rejected several petitions asking for a stay on the cutting of trees in Aarey.

The Metro Corp. has argued that Line 3 of the metro system will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 10,000 metric tons per year once it is completed and that the maintenance depot is an integral part of the line.

It will be the first underground metro line in Mumbai, with 26 stations, and Aarey Depot is to be its only above-ground facility. The line is expected to serve around 1.4 million passengers per day once completed, according to a 2014 estimate.

Activists, including some well-known Bollywood actors, are demanding that the area be officially declared a forest, which would protect it from development.