"Hee jagah amchi, naahin tumacha bapachi" (This land is ours, not your fathers), is the Marathi slogan with which the tribals of Aarey began their protest against the construction of a metro car shed on their land.
In November 2019, several protesters, including students, activists, and the Adivasis of Aarey forest, thought that they had won their battle in saving the "green lungs" of Mumbai, after the former Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Uddhav Thackeray, announced the scrapping of the metro car shed construction at Aarey, and declared it a 'reserved forest' in 2020.
But, the 'Save Aarey' movement came into force again after the newly formed Shinde Government in Maharashtra reversed the previous government's 2020 decision of relocating the car shed project from Aarey to Kanjurmarg.
The Aarey Forest
Aarey is situated close to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park and is stretched over 1,300 hectares of forest land in the northern suburb of Goregaon. Aarey or Aarey Milk Colony, often known as the 'green lungs' of the city, is home to a number of indigenous tree species and a wide variety of flora and fauna.
As per the Aarey Conservation Group, there are over 77 species of birds in Aarey. A total of 34 species of wildflowers, 86 species of butterflies, 13 amphibian species, 46 species of reptiles, some of which are listed on Schedule II of the Wildlife Protection Act, and 16 species of mammals, including 9 roaring leopards. Aarey has a total of 27 tribal villages, called padas, which inhabit over 10,000 people, mostly the Adivasis.
The Metro Project
The controversy began in 2014, when then Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan laid out a proposal to build a servicing facility for metro coaches for the 33.5KM underground Colaba-Bandra-Seepz Metro project in Aarey. BJP's Devendra Fadnavis, who took over as the new CM, later that year, decided to continue with his predecessor's plan. The Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL), a joint venture between the Government of India and Maharashtra government, is currently in charge of carrying out the project.
The decision of the Maharashtra government triggered several protests from environmental activists, citizens of Mumbai, and the resident tribals of Aarey. People decided to go ahead with the 'Chipko Movement' by hugging the trees of the forest.
Vanashakti, a local NGO of the city, consistently filed pleas and approached the High Court of Mumbai in regards to the felling of trees in Aarey. Despite their efforts, Mumbai's civic body's Tree Authority (TA) ultimately approved the proposal to cut 2,185 trees in Aarey, in August 2019, for the construction of a metro car shed.
The 'Save Aarey' Movement
Protests in huge numbers erupted after the TA's decision, intensifying the 'Save Aarey' movement in the city. Students, parents, activists, and even celebrities came out to the streets in order to save the last green lungs of Mumbai. Soon, the police imposed section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) in Aarey, which banned the unlawful assembly of the protesters. Several protesters were detained and kept in the lock-up for a few days. But this hardly brought any change in the numbers of people protesting on the ground.
The protesters along with tribal residents, held a solidarity meet near the Birsa Munda Chowk in Aarey, where they lit candles in solidarity with the trees that were cut in the middle of the night, as per the TA's order in 2019. The Adivasis of the villages in Aarey, worshipped their 'Leopard God' for the well-being and safety of the inhabitants of the forest.
The Tribals of Aarey
The Quint spoke to residents of Aarey, including Prakash Bhoir and his wife, Pramila Bhoir, who are tribals of the forest's Kelti Pada and have been a significant part of the 'Save Aarey' movement since the decision of the metro car shed construction first came out in 2014. Pramila was also detained by the police for over three days, when the protests were at their peak in 2019.
Bhoir, who was born in Aarey said, "My father, grandfather, and great grandfathers have lived here in Aarey. We are not immigrants. I've been here since the city was Bombay before it subsequently changed to Mumbai. The city, which is now India's most populous metropolis, was a jungle back then. The Majas Depot at the JVLR road, used to be a beautiful lake, where my father would go for fishing. Then, my mother and I would go to the Jogeshwari market to sell those fish. There used to be tall trees, that once stood in place of the tall buildings like Greenfields and Namaskar, which have replaced them now. I have lived through all these changes, and it is very painful for me. Now the concretization has come closer to our homes."
"The development has now gotten in the way of our forest and our family members — the nine leopards, the birds and every other small organism that lives here in Aarey. We never tried to seize the city, but the city has come to steal our homes. Everything is being taken away from us, including our freedom and culture. Now, they've come to steal our trees, the water, and our land. That is why we are protesting."Prakash Bhoir
The tribals of Aarey, follow a tradition where they do not touch any plants or trees after the sunset, as they are said to be asleep at the time. One of the residents, told The Quint, "Even if we need to cook, we would not touch the plants after sunset, because it would hurt them. And, these people (the government officers) cut down 200-year-old trees, in the middle of the night. The people of the city say, 'if we are chopping down a tree, we will plant 10 more in its place.' The truth is, they can't plant trees. They will only plant a sapling. It takes 100-150 years and appropriate climatic conditions for a sapling to mature into a tree. People mistakenly believe that they have merely eliminated a tree. But in reality, they have also destroyed the homes of hundreds of such insects and birds who nested there."
Bharat Chaudhary, is a local resident of the Khadak Pada, who works in a private sector job and does farming in Aarey in the months of monsoon. He told us, "Since the day I was born, I have lived here. This is where my forefathers also resided. We are entirely reliant on the forest. We can't even think about leaving this place. We never imagined that anyone would even attempt to remove us from our homes. We won't be able to survive if we are ever moved elsewhere. We will continue to protest until our last breath. We will not leave Aarey. If they want to build a metro car shed here, they will have to proceed over our dead bodies."