Pune citizens petition to CM for taking back 55 hectares of forest land from ARAI
The Automobile Research Association of India (ARAI) perched atop Vetal Hill, the highest green plateau in Pune refuses to part with 53 hectares of forest land. Even the Forest Department had recommended that the land be taken back, as revealed under an RTI query
Vetal Tekadi (hill), perched at a height of 2,600 feet, makes it the highest point in Pune. It is also the main lung of the city, considering its thick forest. Ironically, Automobile Research Association of India (ARAI) is located within this nature’s enrichment, its building, occupying a little over 1.5 acres, but sitting pretty on 53.74 hectares of precious forest land, which it refuses to part with.
Recently, members of Deccan Gymkhana Parisar Samiti (DGPS), who have been campaigning for protecting the hill, used the Right to Information (RTI) Act to procure copy of a letter written by Jeet Singh, Conservator of Forest, Pune. The letter has revealed that he has recommended to the Principal Chief Conservator of Forest, Nagpur that 53.74 hectares of reserved forest land on Vetal Tekdi, which is currently held by the ARAI should be returned to the Forest Department and that only the two hectares, which house their offices and laboratories should remain with them.
Earlier in 2011, the state government had issued a notification allotting this large tract of land of ARAI. It stated that:
* This land, owned by the Forest Department has now been granted to the Automotive Research Association of India (ARAI) for construction of laboratory building and vehicle testing track
* After consulting the Director of Town Planning, Maharashtra State, Pune and after making necessary enquiries the Government is of the opinion that for granting permission to ARAI for laboratory building and vehicle testing tract it is necessary to delete the said land approximately 20 hectares (to allow existing built up areas 24265 sq meters plus proposed built up area 35,435 sq meters) from Hill Top/ Hill Slope and include it in Public/ Semi-Public Zone
* The government is also of the opinion that the said modification is in the public interest and hence, it is necessary to issue notice under Section 37 (IAA) of the said Act by the government to incorporate the above changes in the sanctioned Development Plan.
This move was stalled after objections from citizens and Mr Singh’s letter was a sequel to that. RTI documents also reveal that until now, there has been no change in the development plan (DP), as suggested by the state government, in its notification. Hence, ARAI has no authority to occupy it.
The DGPS petition to the Chief Minister state the reasons why Mr Singh has recommended so as per the information they procured:
There appear to be many irregularities in the initial allotment, continued occupation of, and expansion of ARAI on forestland
Large numbers of Puneites who come to the tekdi regularly for exercise are strongly opposed to the presence of ARAI on reserved Forest Land
Though the land was given to ARAI by the Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF) in 2009, no use of it has been made in the last six years.
The proposal for which ARAI needs the land will involve destroying 18,287 trees.
Since past several years, a valiant citizen campaign has been going on in Pune. Noted political leader and environmentalist, Late Mohan Dharia and renowned astrophysicist, Dr Jayant Narlikar and noted environmentalist, Madhav Gadgil, steering the campaign.
Mr Dharia had stated in 2009 that, “ARAI should be shifted to the auto hub region with no permission for further development. Around 80,000 citizens have objected to it and if the government goes ahead with the plan, we will launch an agitation.”
Dr Narlikar had stated, “The hills cannot be recreated. They are nature's gift and we should preserve them. It is a premiere research institute set up by humans so it cannot be larger than the public interest.”
Dr Sushma Date, a prominent member of DGPS says, “Such commercial enterprises, especially ones which cause sound and air pollution, should not be on hills or in forests but should be relocated to the industrial belt outside Pune.’’
Noted environmentalist Sujit Patwardhan said, “The Vetal tekdi is one of the few remaining green spaces in the heart of the city. It should be protected and preserved as a natural heritage site so that our children and grandchildren can have access to this oasis of serenity in the midst of urban clutter.’’
The Chief Conservator of Forests Jeet Singh has recommended to the Chief Minister that ARAI should return 53.74 hectares of forest land back to the Forest Dept.
Following are the contents of the online petition
Shri Devendra Fadnavis
Chief Minister, Maharashtra
Subject: Return of 53.75 hectares of Reserved Forest Land held by ARAI to Forest Dept
Automotive Research Association of India (ARAI) located on Forest Land on Vetal Tekdi, Pune, had received permission from the Ministry of Environment and Forests to build test tracks and labs on 55 hectares in 2009. The expansion of ARAI activity on the tekdi received sustained opposition from local residents, backed by senior scientists Shri Jayant Narlikar and Shri Madhav Gadgil as well as Vanrai founder Shri Mohan Dharia (See related news
Consequently, ARAI has not utilised the land for the purpose it was taken.
Further, in January 2015, ARAI cleared and levelled approximately 2 acres of Forest land adjacent to its premises to construct a parking lot without the knowledge of the Forest Department and without obtaining necessary Environment Clearances. This shows that ARAI has scant knowledge and respect for the precious biodiversity of the Forest land it is occupying.
DGPS recognises the need for automotive research and testing but we feel that such industries should be given alternative land in the industrial belts around Pune, instead of our valuable forests, where such activity will impact the fragile ecology and wildlife in the area.
We submit that the tekdis of Pune are the last remaining green spaces in the heart of the city and need to be preserved for future generations.
We urge you to approve CCF Shree Jeet Singh's recommendations regarding reclaiming Reserved Forest land from ARAI. By reclaiming the forest land for Punekars, an excellent precedent will be set and future generations will be eternally grateful to you.
Sumita Kale, Dr. Sushma Date, Cdr. Lele, Suvrat Kher, Adv. Madhavi Rahirkar, Chetan Mehendale and other members of DGPS
Here is the link for the online petition:
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, and also convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book "To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte" with Vinita Kamte and is the author of "The Mighty Fall".)