What comes to your mind when you hear the word forest? For me, the word forest triggers a whole host of images, all of which are green – not the city green (which is sparse and tired) – the dense green – the ‘as far as the eyes can see’ green. This green is alive and healthy and vibrant and oh-so-heartbreakingly beautiful. It breathes life into everything it touches. It is quiet but musical, fierce but protective, old but resilient, wild but peaceful and most importantly, it is a refuge for all who seek it. It is innocent and pure and like all that is pure, it too is powerless and vulnerable.
For people who live in and around Mumbai, forests must seem like those far away spaces, something to be associated with villages rather than cities. But there is a forest, smack in the middle of Mumbai city. It’s a big expanse of land, something we all know as the Sanjay Gandhi National Park and adjoining this national park is the Aarey Milk Colony, which is also a forest.
If one visits the Aarey colony, we can see the two – Sanjay Gandhi National Park and Aarey Milk Colony – blending into one another. There is no distinction in the topography of the two lands. The only difference is that the land demarcated as the Aarey Milk Colony has not been identified as a forest. Or in other words, it is an unclassed forest (it is a forest but it has not been identified as one on paper).
This forest in the city of Mumbai has been protecting its surrounding areas from recurring floods, providing it with clean air, functioning as a carbon sink and providing refuge to the tribal population that has been residing there for more than 150 years. It is also home to a wide variety of flora and fauna, including leopards. It’s what botanists and environmentalists would call a biodiversity hub.
Please keep in mind the difference between a collection of trees and a forest. A forest is not merely a collection of trees. It is a complex ecosystem (of which trees are merely a unit) that takes hundreds of years to evolve and develop into a forest. So chopping it down and planting saplings at random locations is not going to work. Chop Aarey down and the city will lose its forest cover forever. Wisdom dictates that this land ought to be left alone for all the aforementioned reasons and that it remain untouched by modern day ‘development’.
However, MMRCL (Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited), an offshoot of the MMRDA (Mumbai Metropolitan Region Developmental Authority) has been trying since 2015 to demarcate a parcel of land within the Aarey forest for the purposes of building a metro car shed and real estate projects there.
The MMRCL wants to carve out around 33 hectares of land from within Aarey and has been arguing that it cannot locate the project anywhere else in the city. Over 3,000 trees will be cut if this car shed is to be built.
Currently, a citizen’s movement is all that stands between the forest and the MMRCL. These citizens have challenged MMRCL’s argument about no other land being available for building the metro car shed. The citizens say that land is available at Mahalaxmi, BKC, Mumbai University (Kalina campus), Kanjurmarg, Back Bay and a couple of other locations as well.
The citizens are not against the metro being built, they are merely arguing that forest land not be destroyed for building a car shed. Since alternatives are available and the metro car shed may be built at any of the above-mentioned locations, the destruction of forest land at Aarey is not only needless but irresponsible.
I have been following the Aarey story since it first began. I read about how a few citizens then pushed back and forced the authorities to reconsider. I thought that they had won, that Aarey would be left alone from then on. But three years on, the struggle continues, those citizens are still pushing back and I realize that the authorities have no intention of leaving Aarey untouched. And so I decided to get involved.
I decided to lend a hand and do what I could to spread awareness and gather support for this is a cause I believe in. I started talking about Aarey with friends, relatives, acquaintances, family, neighbours, strangers – to anyone who will listen. But I realized something, that everyone I spoke to about this looming destruction of a forest is pessimistic about this struggle.
“You can fight how much ever you want, they will win like they always have – your efforts are doomed to failure,” is what they told me. I realized that my outrage is solitary; it is not shared by those with whom I speak. It is strange, I think – this kind of cynicism. It is strange because it comes from people who have never actually ever raised their voices to defend anything. It comes from people who have never bothered to interact with the system. It comes from people who do not realize that our unwillingness to participate is precisely the reason why “they win”.
If we concentrate only on the cases where the system has failed us and ignore all the other cases where it has worked, then the joke is on us. Cynicism, I think, is a right of only those who fight and fail, fight again and fail again and then fight some more only to fail again. The rest of us are not entitled to cynicism. So those amongst us who think that the battle for Aarey too is doomed to failure should reconsider. I think we should try – just this once – and raise our voices, speak up, shout out – and see what happens.
And when it comes to Aarey, the battle has already commenced. All we have to do is join and extend support to those who are already fighting. I urge the residents of this historic city to raise your objections with all your might.
Take to Twitter, Youtube, Facebook, Instagram. Distribute fliers, talk to your friends and family, sign the online petition, and shout from the rooftops! Do whatever it takes but do not allow that beautiful forest to be destroyed. And if this article does not convince you, I beseech you to visit Aarey and breathe the air there. Let its peace fill you up. Experience its beauty first hand and decide for yourselves if it is worth saving.