Mumbai’s metro dream trumps over centuries-old natural ecosystem — Aarey forest. Despite severe protests by the green crusaders and the tribals living in the vicinity of Aarey Milk Colony, the Maharashtra government and Mumbai Metro Rail Corp Ltd (MMRCL) cut around 2,185 trees in the Aarey forest. The MMRCL took up this fight with the locals and protestors to achieve the dream of building a multi-level parking unit for the metro in place of the forest area. This has angered the environmentalists and Adivasis of the Aarey colony, many of whom were detained illegally over several police stations farther from Aarey Police Station.

Manisha Dhinde—an Adivasi college-goer detained twice due to protests

While as many as 29 activists were detained, the group included two Adivasi girls from the Aarey colony. One of them claimed that she was detained not once but twice when she left her house to go to her college to sit for her exam. The 20-year-old Manisha Dhinde described the entire incident in detail, “When they started cutting the trees on Friday night (October 4), I along with some other friends, we went to the area to protest against it. Since the High Court had quashed the petition against cutting the tree and basically directed us to the Supreme Court, we asked for the letter which stated that they could cut the trees but they denied us. We protested there all through the night while they continued to ignore us and cut the trees mercilessly.”

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“They had seen me protest and raise my voice the previous night and so they recognised me and detained me again”

Dhinde and others were asked by the police officials to leave at 3 am in the night or they threatened to beat them up with sticks but they refused to move. On asking what it is the protestors were doing which was unacceptable to the police, she responded by saying that they raised slogans and sang songs of protests and saving trees which did not go down well with them. Dhinde was accompanied by at least 150 other people from the colony. “They arrested us under Section 144 and took us to Dahisar police station instead of Aarey police station. We asked the lady constable in the car to tell us which police station we were being taken to but she kept ignoring me. We were 29 in strength. Despite the fact that our lawyers had come to the police station at 4 am, we were kept detained until 8 am,” she said adding that the policemen condemned them of illegal protests. She then raised the issue of illegally cutting the trees thus upsetting the policeman who then snatched their phones.

Children protest in Bandra

Dhinde had exams the next day so after she was freed from the police station she went back home. When she came out again on the streets to catch a shared conveyance to get to her college, she was again detained by some other lady constables at around 12.30 pm the same day and was taken to Dhindosi police station. “They had seen me protest and raise my voice the previous night and so they recognised me and detained me again,” she recollected.

Dhinde was part of a large group of detainees who were harassed repeatedly by the state police for protesting to save the trees. However, she managed to reach the exam centre on time and give her exam. Dhinde’s family has been living in the Aarey colony since ages, and they say, “Humara jal, jungle, jameen sab Aarey par hi nirbhar hai.”

The larger impact of stripping of Aarey

MMRCL is not the only agency that has its eyes on the Aarey land, there are several other projects being planned out in the verdant strip. The state government on June 6 allowed clearing a 40 hectares land space (99 acres) of the 1,300-hectare forest to build a zoo, complete with a night safari.

But people like Dhinde of the Aarey Conservation Group—a citizen’s movement to save the forest and the natural vegetation it encompasses—aren’t scared of the government or the arrests. “We knew this would happen so the detainments don’t stint our movement but what brings sorrow is the number of trees cut in the name of development. All that we did, we couldn’t save the trees,” she said adding that there were a total of 2,702 trees out of which 2,185 have been felled now.

While the Supreme Court took up the petition at once on Monday (October 7) and directed the Mumbai government not to cut any more trees but the truth is that the MMRCL had already cut all the trees they needed to build the metro parking lot.

Amrita Bhattacharjee, who has been committed to the issue of saving Aarey forest through Aarey Conservation Group, explained the deal with Aarey being a colony or a forest area. “Aarey area is a forest area and there are reports submitted by tree experts who refer to this area as an area which is ecologically sensitive because of its biodiversity. This report was released by environmentalists of the technical committee which was appointed by the CM of Maharashtra to explore our option for Metro construction. In this report, environment expert strictly mentioned that if we destroy this area then it will lead to further flooding in Mumbai. Air pollution will increase and further increase in temperature in the city and reduce the groundwater level,” she says.

Bhattacharjee says, “The way MMRCL executed it, it felt like if they don’t cut the trees during the night itself then the entire city will face challenges.” She says that the narrative of the environment versus development has to change and development shouldn’t happen at the cost of the environment. “We cannot live without oxygen and water and people need space to walk around during monsoon in Mumbai because of the flooded roads,” says Bhattacharjee.

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“If the Supreme Court can see merit in the case then what was the High Court doing all this while?”

Future goals of Aarey Conservation Group

Another activist, Yash Marwah questions, “If the Supreme Court can see merit in the case then what was the High Court doing all this while?”  He added that it wasn’t an issue of lesser gravity like money laundering etc., “it is murder.” Marwah contention now lies in bringing the illegal manner in which the agency cut the trees to be brought to book. “The whole point of these people showing strength is that they can shut us out and that we will get silent. That’s what they want to indicate. And that’s exactly what we are not going to do now. It’s not only about Aarey but so many other forests across the country and since so many people are getting inspired by us and by the Save Aarey campaign. We don’t want to show that we can be silenced by muscle power.”

Soon after the activists were detained by the police, the Save Aarey Campaigners were swift enough to start a crowdfunding campaign to get the detained activists freed. They successfully raised the amount they estimated would be required in less than a week. Henceforth, Marwah says that their future goal is to set a precedent and make everyone responsible for the massive loss accountable.

Picture credit: Aarey Conservation Group

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