The Aarey Forest, often called Mumbai’s ‘green lung’, is a massive stretch of land located in the city’s northern suburb, Goregoan. This last surviving green patch in the bustling metropolitan has been in the news for the past few years now, but the forest has been at the centre of much debate and dispute for longer than that. It was once a part of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. In 1949, more than 3000 acres were given away to the Aarey Milk Colony, where you would find a milk factory, cattle and several dairy farms. While the forest land in Aarey remained a No-Development Zone for a long time, the State government made it a Development Zone in 2014, which gave way to the encroachment of the forest land, most of which, according to environmentalists and ecologists alike, was irreversible.
What kicked things up a notch was the State government’s November 2014 proposal to build a car shed for Metro III on 30-hectares of the forest land. Due to the general confusion surrounding the question of whether Aarey is a formally recognised eco-sensitive area or just plain forest land everyone can get their hands on, the amount of encroached land only increased. Over the years, the government has drawn the ire of environmentalists, ecologists and Mumbaikars alike over its proposal of felling more than 2,000 trees in the forest land for building the car-shed. Jhatkaa, along with the Aarey Conservation Group started a petition against the State government’s proposal in the year 2017, which, as of today, has garnered 2,93,564 signatures.
What was then surprising was the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s (BMC) Tree Authority approving a proposal to remove 2,646 trees on August 29. The decision was met by huge public uproar and led to Zoru Bhathena, a Mumbai resident, filing a petition in the Bombay High Court challenging the same. Amidst the furore, Shashirekha Sureshkumar, WWF-India member and an expert member on the Tree Authority’s panel, submitted her resignation and shared with The Hindu that she thought that the panel was voting “for an adjournment“. On 5th September, the BMC assured Bombay HC that no trees would be cut until formal permission is granted to the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL), after the court had sought its reply on the plea filed by Bhathena. The next court hearing on the Aarey Forest will take place on 17th September.
While the forest land in Aarey remained a No-Development Zone for a long time, the State government made it a Development Zone in 2014, which gave way to the encroachment of the forest land, most of which, according to environmentalists and ecologists alike, was irreversible.
Adivasi Lives Threatened
While it is good to see Mumbaikairs fighting tooth and nail in this battle to save the Aarey Forest, what we also must not forget is the fact that as much as it is important for the Aarey Forest to remain an ecologically protected zone and be preserved amidst alarmingly worsening climate crisis, it is also important to acknowledge the ties that bind the Aarey Forest and the Adivasis that call it home, together.
Yes, the Aarey Forest isn’t just full of fascinating flora and fauna, it is also home to the members of the Warli Tribe, who are possibly Mumbai’s oldest residents. The Warlis are an indigenous tribe who inhabit the mountainous as well as the coastal areas of the Maharashtra-Gujarat border. Numerous Warli tribals have been living in the Aarey Forest since ages, but have time and again bore the brunt of the constant encroachment of their land by the administration as well as multiple corporations. Today, part of the forest land is given to the Film City. Tomorrow, another chunk to the State Reserve Police Force.
Under the guise of several rehabilitation programs, like the Slum Rehabilitation Scheme, the government has displaced many Adivasi families from their farms and hamlets to 270 square feet apartments in the city. Eco India, an initiative by the Scroll and the Deutsche Welle to find ‘solutions for a greener, healthier and more inclusive tomorrow‘, spoke to one such Adivasi woman from Aarey.
Lakshmi Gaikwad, an ex-resident of Aarey, told Eco India, “I lost more than one acre of land. I have fallen sick here in this house. When I lived there, I would be out and about collecting firewood, planting vegetables and trees. I had coconut, guava, and mango trees. They cut it overnight. When I went one morning, there were no trees left. Back then I used to sell my crops and make around ₹200-300. It would help me run my house.“
There is uncertainty and fear amongst the Warlis over the fate of their farms and trees. The lack of documentation of ownership often makes them the target of harassment by authorities. Asha Bhoye, an Aarey resident told The Quint, “… So now, I have suffered major losses. We are tensed all the time. We are scared to even go to work. What if they just come and cut down our trees? What if they take over our land in our absence?”
as much as it is important for the Aarey Forest to remain an ecologically protected zone and be preserved amidst alarmingly worsening climate crisis, it is also important to acknowledge the ties that bind the Aarey Forest and the Adivasis that call it home, together.
While frequent leopard attacks in the Aarey were used as an excuse by the government to displace Adivasis, several Adivasis have learnt to live in harmony with the majestic cats that roam around in the forest, learning to recognise their sounds and not get in their way. This only goes on to show the government’s ignorance and disrespect of the Adivasi lives, their customs, and traditions.
Zaman Ali, an advocate, who also talked to The Quint, explains what a good move by the State can be, “Basically, the government is supposed to come up with an Indigenous Peoples Development Plan (IPDP). IPDP is supposed to show where this rehabilitation is going to take place. Rehabilitation has to be ‘house to house’ and ‘land to land’ for this community.”
As Mumbaikars join hands, form long human chains and step onto the streets as support from numerous Bollywood celebrities also pours in, what they mustn’t fail to remember is that they need to fight for the rights of the Adivasi communities even harder.
Prakash Bhoir, an Adivasi activist and Aarey resident, talked to The Times of India and explained how integral Aadivasis are to Aarey, “I have grown over 500 jackfruit, mango and coconut trees on my property alone. Now, imagine how many trees all the Adivasis in Aarey have grown. Together, we’ve created an oxygen factory for Mumbai.” The fight for Aarey cannot be fought without recognizing the struggle of the Adivasis that have lived in peace with the forest, looked after it, and made it what is it today.
Featured Image Source: Indian Express