26, Oct 2018 | Sushmita
Adivasis in Aarey at risk of losing their land, their homes, and their livelihood due to the proposed Metro shed, which is also a threat to Mumbai’s precious green cover. Even as the fight to preserve the city’s limited tree cover is waged, the rights of the Adivasis in the area must be protected.
The Aarey forest, located in the Northern suburbs of Mumbai, is the only green cover in the region, and is known for its lush greenery, with tall trees, grasslands and rocky hills. The Aarey land has consistently faced onslaughts from many development projects. Government after government has not shown any sensitivity towards the flora and fauna of the area, and the fact that these forests are important for the environment. Firstly, the Aarey Dairy farm was established here in 1950s, and eventually ran into losses. Subsequently, the land was also given to State Reserve Police Force (SRPF), Force One (Mumbai Police), and Film City, among others, leading to the division of forest land into smaller fragments. The latest in this series of onslaughts is the Metro project, which is not only threatening the environment, but is also a huge concern for the locals residing here, most of them belonging to the Warli Adivasi tribe. Adivasis live in harmony with the forest area and are completely dependent on the forest for their survival.
Massive felling of trees in Aarey
An order passed by the principal bench of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in New Delhi cleared the “decks for the construction of a car depot for Metro III project in Aarey,” The Wire reported. The Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL) expedited the felling of trees in the Aarey region following this order. In September 2018, in a matter of two days, the MMRCL felled more than 200 trees. In fact, it claimed that it had permission to clear 2,700 trees in the region.
Four years after a city based NGO, Vanshakti, approached the NGT. protesting against the Metro shed/depot for the 33km line between South and North Mumbai, the petition was disposed off. Reportedly, the NGT had asked the petitioner to approach the High Court or the Supreme Court, saying that it did not have the jurisdiction to decide whether Aarey is a forest.
However, the Bombay High Court (HC) passed an order on October 24 preventing the Tree Authority (TA) from granting permission for the felling of trees in the city. The Court observed that the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) Commissioner may grant permission in some urgent cases where the trees pose a danger to property or life. However, it said that panels of experts must be constituted as laid down by the law. The petition in the case was filed by Zoru Bathena, an activist who sought to restrain the authority from adjudicating applications seeking permission to cut trees.
This massive tree felling is dangerous, because it interferes with the delicate natural balance between the forests and the atmosphere. Studies show that tropical forests contribute to regulating river flows, regulating both dry seasons and high rainfall events, and hence minimise risks associated with water scarcity and floods. Trees in the process of growing take water from the soil and release it into the atmosphere. They also act as interceptors, catching falling rain that eventually evaporates and results in rain precipitation elsewhere.
About the Metro III project
The Metro III project is going to cost around Rs. 23,316 crore, and the depot is planned to be built on 34 hectares of land. Despite activists’ claims of alternate land being available, the authorities have gone ahead with felling trees. In a petition filed in 2018, Preeti Menon of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has alleged that this is illegal, “since the purpose of entering Aarey or extending the Metro 3 line up to Aarey is to create a Metro Station and Car Shed inside it. So far, no tree felling permission has been granted to MMRCL for its project of Metro Station and the Metro car shed. It is mandatory that all permissions needed for such an activity are obtained before doing any activity on the ground.” The complete petition may be viewed here.
Moreover, not only are the Aarey forests the only green cover Mumbai has, but they are also home to Adivasis, mainly Warlis, who have been living in the area for generations, building slums and cowsheds that supply milk to a government-run dairy situated in the middle of forest. D. Stalin of Vanshakti, which is active in the area, had argued that Aarey is actually a forest and therefore cannot be touched.
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Each time the tree authorities grant permission to cut trees, the order has to be put up on the BMC’s website in order to invite opposition and suggestions.
Constantly in survival mode
The Aarey forest dwellers have had to wage several struggles simply to assert their existence on the land. One of the earlier protests that firebrand leader Prakash Bhoir remembers is one in 1982. In June 2017, around 1,000 Adivasis gathered in the Aarey Milk Colony to protest against the proposal of a zoo, an extension of Byculla Zoo, and the state government’s plan to demolish the existing tribal houses and transform them into a Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) building.
In June 2017, Prakash Bhoir, the leader of Shramik Adivasi Sangathana, when speaking to The Afternoon Dispatch & Courier, said, “Every now and then, they are coming with infrastructure and recreation projects,” and alleged that the authorities were continuously cutting the forest trees for development projects.
Around 27 Adivasi settlements are spread across Aarey. The Adivasis in 2017 alleged that more than 60 hutments near Navshad Pada lack electricity and water supply.
The civic authorities come down to the settlements without any prior notice. The Adivasis who are the native residents of the area have said that they have even been paying taxes at the rate of Rs. 1 per guntha (1/40th of an acre) of land. At the time of the protest against the zoo, they questioned where they would rehabilitate their cattle, and what would become of their farms.
Per the Adivasis in the region, earlier, a major area of the green cover was already lost to an NSG training centre, Film City, and housing complexes. The Adivasis have been living in the area since before the dairy was set up in 1951.
As of today, there is a need for an urgent intervention by environment also human rights groups in order to protect the rights of Warli Adivasis who stand to be displaced and are at risk of losing their livelihood because of the Metro project.