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This IAS officer is trying to change the perception that Mumbai Metro 3 is a ‘demonic’ plan

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Ashwini Bhide, head of Mumbai Metro 3, has had to work hard to build political consensus and prove the project will not destroy the city’s green lungs.

Mumbai: For Ashwini Bhide, a Mumbai-based bureaucrat, 24 September was an important day.

Bhide heads the organisation constructing Mumbai’s costliest metro rail corridor, also touted to be the country’s longest stretch of underground metro rail.

24 September was the day the project recorded its first tunnel breakthrough — seeing the proverbial light at the end of a 1.26-km underground tunnel.

Bhide and her team had to navigate through several hurdles to reach this stage, and even as they applauded the first breakthrough — a grand affair in the presence of Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis — they were conscious of the fact that there are a few more battles to win before they can get the metro running.

Also Read: Mumbai moves to get past its creaky, colonial local train network with new metro lines

The ambitious Colaba-Bandra-SEEPZ Metro, popularly known as Metro 3, has been very contentious in Mumbai’s political and activist circles, and Bhide’s scope of work as managing director of the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRC) has grown much beyond a bureaucrat’s typical duties.

The Rs 23,136 crore Metro 3 project involves building a 33.5-km underground corridor, rehabilitating residents of 1,780 hutments and 709 legal title holders on private land, and building a car depot in the ecologically sensitive Aarey Colony, one of Mumbai’s few green lungs.

Constructing the metro line is just one aspect. For Bhide and her team, one of the main challenges has been to counter the negative perception of the project being a “demonic” plan that will gobble up the city’s green spaces, and that its implementation team is intolerant of larger public opinion.

Bhide’s widening scope of work

Fadnavis put Bhide, a 1995 batch IAS officer, in charge of Metro 3 in January 2015, as part of his first major bureaucratic reshuffle after taking the reins in Maharashtra.

Under the previous government, Bhide had aggressively pushed forward showpiece projects such as the Eastern Freeway, which involved building a complex urban twin tunnel and securing permissions to build near salt pans and mangroves.

She also handled the rehabilitation of nearly 5,000 families displaced by various projects of the state government.

However, speaking to ThePrint, Bhide said the metro project is different from the others she has handled due to its sheer size and complexity and the fact that it is fully underground, which is the root cause for confusion and misinformation among people.

“Unlike roads and overbridges where one can see what’s going on, in case of Metro 3, people cannot comprehend what is happening behind the barricades underground. This also gives an opportunity to some elements to create problems because they can easily mislead,” Bhide said.

The MMRC team has tried several off-track measures to be able to directly talk to people and emphasise the features of Metro 3.

For instance, the organisation has recently started a series called Know Your Station, where it periodically gives out information on social media about each of the 27 underground stations, including updates on construction and photographs of the actual work going on. All posts are peppered with hashtags such as #MakingMumbaiAwesome and #AamchiMumbaiMetro.

Bhide also organised a series of radio shows on the FM stations of All India Radio, answering frequently-asked questions.

Besides, she and her team members have been going around the city, visiting Rotary Clubs, the Mumbai Press Club, the Cricket Club of India, citizens’ groups and so on, giving detailed PowerPoint presentations on Metro 3.

Hurdles before the project

The biggest hurdle is the stringent opposition by residents, activists, environmentalists, as well as some politicians to building a car depot at Aarey Colony over 34 hectares of land.

The Bhide-led MMRC recently won a four-year battle when the National Green Tribunal cleared the decks for the government to build a car depot in Aarey. The tribunal told the petitioner, a city-based NGO, that it did not have the jurisdiction to decide whether Aarey was a forest and the petitioner should approach either the Bombay High Court or the Supreme Court. The NGO, Vanashakti, has moved the Bombay High Court.

Recently, citizens and activists filed nearly 40,000 suggestions and objections with the civic body’s Tree Authority regarding the felling of 2,702 trees at Aarey for the metro car depot.

Stalin D., director of Vanashakti, said those protesting against the car depot at Aarey are not against the metro line, but simply want Bhide to engage in a dialogue with them to find other options. However, in the four years that his NGO has been fighting in court to get the car shed moved, Bhide has met Stalin only once, he said.

“The problem is that she is more an autocrat than a bureaucrat. She does not believe in discussion. She has blocked all activists who want to engage in a conversation with her about the Aarey car shed on social media,” Stalin said.

“We have been begging her to have a public interaction, but she has not bothered. She is very symbolic of this government’s reluctance to talk to people.”

The government has maintained that it has considered alternatives, and none of them are feasible if the project is to be completed in a time-bound manner.

“We don’t want to counter their propaganda. We are simply waiting for the civic body’s Tree Authority now to complete due procedure and take a call on giving us permission to cut trees in Aarey,” Bhide said.

The Metro 3 team is also embroiled in a court battle with members of Mumbai’s Parsi community who are seeking a change in alignment as it passes directly under two fire temples and Atash Behrams (sacred fires).

Protesting Parsis say the construction will lead to desecration of the holy fires, affect the structural stability of their religious buildings, and cause the wells in the temples to run dry because of tunnelling work. The court has wrapped up hearings and a judgment is expected soon.

Besides, the MMRC had locked horns with some of Mumbai’s most affluent residents living on the southern tip of Cuffe Parade. Work on the project was stalled during night hours for several months as residents complained of noise pollution and took MMRC to court to hammer out a solution. The issue has now been resolved and work is progressing smoothly at the site.

Also Read: It took 6 years to build a metro line in Mumbai, but authorities say 3 will be ready by 2021

A political priority opposed by politicians

For Fadnavis, Metro 3 is an important part of the infrastructure palette he is trying to leave for the city in his name, aiming to show significant work on ground and drive the project to a December 2021 completion.

Metro 3, which was conceived under the previous Congress-NCP government, has, however, been a political hot potato, and Bhide has been working hard trying to build a political consensus.

At one point of time, members of all political parties, including the ruling Shiv Sena and BJP, were protesting against various aspects of the Metro 3, though members of all the four political parties had vetted the project at one point of time or another.

Politicians, especially from the Shiv Sena under the leadership of scion Aaditya Thackeray, were fiercely backing the anti-Aarey car shed movement. The issue of rehabilitating residents from some of Mumbai’s oldest areas such as Kalbadevi and Girgaum too had turned into a political potboiler with leaders from both the Shiv Sena and the BJP flexing their muscles, demanding a change in alignment.

Bhide’s team put together a special Rs 700-crore redevelopment plan for the 19 buildings to be demolished in the Girgaum-Kalbadevi belt, and the political opposition has since then quietened.

Bhide said the MMRC has managed to build some political consensus now. Senior politicians, including Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray — as well as several MPs, MLAs and corporators across parties — have visited Metro 3 construction sites and the MMRC has attempted to explain the project in detail, she said.

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  1. To the editors: Is this a paid “plug?” Because if it is, there are more legal/ ethical ways of calling it an ‘advertorial,’ etc. which more established publications use when they tailor their reporting for for their ‘clients,’ when they require funding from paid ‘articles’. If it isn’t meant to be an ‘advertorial,’ then the press -style promotional tone of the article is questionable as journalism.
    It is important to be clear in this case, because the Aarey Colony metro car dept land plot you referred to in the article involves allegations of a Rs 30,000 crore real estate scam (the central issue in this story, which your reporter has oddly chosen to bypass), , involving both the Metro3 CEO Ms Bhide and Maharashtra’s current CM.
    If this was not a paid plug, then the money involved, combined with the glowing praise for Ms Bhide and factual omissions don’t reflect so well on this website’s integrity and/or the journalist’s reporting. Not the best direction for a new publication trying to establish a reputation.

  2. Very first, the headline is misleading. I thought it will say how the lady has pointers about how the project will hv positive impact on Mumbai. Also, they hv made her the hero and de-sensitised value of ecology.????

  3. Its joke that their are no alternate location for Metro shed except for Aarey. Speez and MIDC has lot of abounded factories and car shed would have found perfect location in Industrial zone.

    Mumbai Definitely needs Metro, but not at cost of Aarey. Ashwini Bhide is just trying to please her political masters, who are being funded by Bulider lobby.

  4. The government apparently doesnt realise the ecological significance of Aarey. So very mindlessly it has given a portion of land from Aarey for the metro shed even if there were other options. The merciless cutting down of trees illegally only shows how insensitive and greedy the goverment has become. There is absolutely no dialogue between the environment activists and MMRCL. And the NGT hasnt given a go ahead for the commencement of Metro work in AAREY.

  5. The article seems a PR tactic of the MMRC. Very clearly the article has been 95% about the government, government and government. Just about a paragraph about the activist’s perspective. Bhide talks about the Tree Authority but who talks about its illegality? NGT has not cleared the decks for MMRC, it is simply ditched the petitioners after 4 years. Try and not portray a particular party to be superior and ethical. The picture used is of Bhide and none of the chopped trees, it’s playing the perception game. Who will speak about the other plans in the pipeline to destroy Aarey?

  6. Please understand the so called educated people of Mumbai , we are not against the Metro , but we are against the Metro Car Shed in Aarey Forest, destroying a Forest in the name of development is no where going towards progression ! Snakes , insects etc are crawling n creeping inside the houses of residents staying close to the places where the Trees have been chopped , the transplanted Trees , has anyone ever bothered to cover the news on their health n how are they ? The extra trees that have been planted , can someone please show us the progress on that ? 4 years ago if MMRC wanted to they could have easily planted quality Trees n even built houses for the Tabelawalas, but no nothing of that sort is done , the intention is very clear , they want the Metro Car Shed in Aarey only to make it more concretised n have it as a commercial area ! If really Miss Bhide wants to help and see that all is well , she should have been open to meeting us all and explaining , please check the facts always before you guys print , you all are responsible media channels where you all must showcase the fact no matter what !

  7. Recently, citizens and activists filed nearly 40,000 suggestions and objections with the civic body’s Tree Authority regarding the felling of 2,702 trees at Aarey for the metro car depot.
    Please there’s also a dark side of this whole project put some light on it.

  8. This article while pretending to be neutral, is biased and has severely distorted the facts, portraying Ashwini Bhide as a good person when in fact she has been causing a lot of problems, including misleading people and criminal acts. This article’s reporting of the whole situation is severely manipulated.

  9. The Print has completely missed the real issue reg Aarey.
    The only reason mmrcl wants to build a Car Depot inside Aarey is to exploit the Real Estate potential of this Forest land.
    The Govt of Maharashtra has notified this in black & white- i.e. lands at Aarey will be commercially developed to fund the metro project (because the Govt has no money to contribute)

    The Metro3 project is not about Metro development, it is Mumbai’s largest land grab scam.

    I must comment that your article has been very poorly researched.

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