From a corporate job to a photographer, to a full-time activist, Rohit Joshi’s journey has been an interesting and an arduous one. Few people taking up the cudgels for change, as Rohit did, can inspire thousands more.
What started out as simple wildlife photography excursions led to deep insights into the extent of environmental degradation occurring in the city of Thane and the rest of Mumbai. Impressed by an award-winning photograph of an Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher clicked by his friend, he, too, launched on a mission to click it.
This migratory bird makes a nest in the same burrow where it had built it the previous year. He and his friend waited around that same tree for a lot of hours for a chance sighting and a picture. But they weren’t able to see it even once in the days that they waited.
When they tried to ask experts, he said that all the litter that is being collected in the Yeoor forest is responsible for the absence of the kingfisher. Upon further investigation, they found that there is a lot of garbage which flows in from the nullahs (drains) and gets collected in the forest. This was obstructing the cycle of this migratory bird. This proved to be a turning point for Rohit.
He started conducting research and realised that the problems of habitat destruction and human encroachment was taking a heavy toll on the environment.
Shocked, he and his friends decided to do something about it. For the whole year, they ran a cleanliness campaign and got volunteers to clean up the dirtiest spots in Yeoor regularly. They were ecstatic to see that the bird came back the next year. With this proof, his faith deepened that if they decide to do something then they can bring about a sizeable impact.
So their interest in this field deepened. They continued to conduct research and study more on this subject.
After this point, he formed an organisation called ‘Yeoor Environment Society’ or YES which is an umbrella organisation, and all the NGOs working on the environment are part of it, from Mumbai and Thane. As part of their action plan, they met the tribals living near the forest and told them that even they should be a part of this clean-up mission. Their expertise and knowledge can effectively be utilised to take this movement forward. The tribals supported this wholeheartedly and together, they met other citizens to create awareness.
The school-children staying there was also a target group. Rohit said, “They were explained that this forest is yours, you only have to protect it and if the urban people are trying to destroy it then please stop them. We tried to teach people that respect nature and the forest when they go there for outings and not to destroy it.”
The Indian festival of ‘Gatari’ was proving to be especially destructive to forests like Yeoor due to revelers. YES Foundation started an event called ‘Green Gatari’ which is in stark contrast to the Gatari celebrated traditionally, where people drink to their hearts content, go to a waterfall and create a lot of garbage and throw thermocol plates, glasses, etc. Rohit said, “We created awareness about this harmful effect and told more people to not do this. We got an amazing result and last year, we found a decrease in the number of tourists going there for parties by 90%. Now we go there and hold tree plantation and clean-up drives. Now when you visit the same place after 7 years, you will see the presence of police and also the forest department has sealed 70% of the path going leading to that place. You see the preservation happening and the wildlife inside prospering. Now you wont see any plastic or trash inside it. This was a very big achievement for us and this has inspired us to try and replicate this elsewhere too.”
Rohit’s passion for the environment has led him to support and take up other causes which no one else was ready to address. Two years ago, he had filed a petition to stop debris from being dumped into nullahs in Mumbai. According to Coastal regulation Zone regulations (CRZ), some activities are banned from being done in coastal zones. The Thane Municipal Corporation (TMC) under their ‘Smart City’ program, did some projects and some 260 crore Rupees were spent. But they started dumping heavy amounts of debris from the construction in the CRZ notified areas, especially the wetlands in 13 spots in Thane. Rohit and his friend met and wrote to several departments like Maritime Board, CRZ authority, the police, the Zilla Parishad, that this was unlawful according to what the CRZ regulations say. Rohit remembers, “For two months we followed up a lot with these departments and explained. We told them about the harm that would come due to such reckless action but they weren’t in any mood to listen.” This bore no fruit and they went to Bombay High Court on July 2017.
Mumbai, since some years, has had bad patches of waterlogging during monsoons which brought the city to a standstill. Thane also was suffering the same fate. In 2017, a big stretch of the highway in Ghodbunder road near Gaimukh was shut one day due to a lot of waterlogging. “I have been telling this exact same thing to these concerned departments but they didn’t do much. Due to this event, people staying there had to undergo a lot of difficulties. A lot of vehicles were destroyed. This is the reason that these illegal activities, of dumping debris in sensitive areas, were prohibited. The rules are meant for us, for our benefit, but some unscrupulous elements and general ignorance has led to a heavy loss of property, life, and nature. That is why I finally filed a petition in High Court” he said.
“The High Court on the first day of filing the petition itself instructed the TMC to stop all activities. They asked the TMC if they could stop all the dumping and tell the reason why it was happening?” Rohit said. They replied saying that there is debris of certain hutments and construction that was there at that spot. Rohit and his friend gave videos they had shot, to the court about trucks filled with soil and debris actually going there and dumping every single day. The HC saw the lies that TMC was telling.
The High Court instructed the TMC to submit a detailed report in 3 weeks.
Similarly, in an area called Kopri in Thane, dumping used to happen regularly, which Rohit noticed when he used to go there for bird watching. This is an area which has a rich cover of mangroves. He complained and after a few days, he saw a pukka road (cemented road) being built there. He then decided that some serious action had to be taken. The TMC gave in writing that they weren’t doing it and they didn’t know who was. “I brought up the same matter with the Wetland committee. There were lots of cases related to wetland destruction. The High court again made a committee, put a lot of important people and experts in it and they gave authority to them to look after this case.” Rohit says.
This committee gave TMC enough time to explain and also to remove the debris. When they didn’t do it, they set a deadline of two months and within this period they were asked to remove the 11,000 metric tonnes of debris which was lying there. For two months day and night work was happening there and the TMC was compelled to remove it all. As a precaution, TMC had to install Cctv cameras in that location. Anyone attempting to dump debris would immediately be recorded, and the police would reach to arrest them. They also installed barricades so that no heavy vehicles could enter the area.
Due to Rohit’s efforts, new mangrove saplings flourished and regenerated, and whatever destruction of mangroves happened was nullified to some degree. This is an achievement. Rohit exclaimed, “Nature has the capacity to regenerate. You just have to stop interfering with nature and we, humans have to stop interfering with it.”
Rohit’s petition was responsible for more than 5000 trees being prevented from being cut. In October 2017, a ‘Tree authority’ was formed, and about 5626 trees were sanctioned to be cut for some development project. “Right now Thane city has approximately 5,00,000 trees and about 1% of them would have been cut due to decisions taken in just one meeting,” he said. Its members had the responsibility to go and see whether any trees really needed to be cut, how many there are, and how to suitably preserve the ones which don’t require hacking. They were also supposed to give suggestions in the development project- changes in alignment, design, etc.
“No one really tried to save the trees. This was my biggest issue. If you are an expert, you should have objected to that decision” Rohit said. He decided that he will have to challenge this. If experts were not talking about it much, then maybe we don’t need these experts, he thought. “When I started researching into these so-called experts’ background, I realised that they are not really experts but political party workers. Whereas the HC mentioned that the experts that should be on the panel should be the nominated members from NGOs. They even gave criteria about qualifications, these people didn’t have them. That’s why they absolutely didn’t have any insight into what harm can come if the trees are hacked. As I am a Thanekar, I felt that it is my duty to challenge it. The court decided that whatever has happened, it is illegality,” he says.
The court observed this, stopped the hacking, and thus 5626 trees were saved. “Next time when the tree authority meets, it will at least think a 100 times about hacking mindlessly. They will feel that even if even one tree gets hacked, some Thanekar will raise their voice. I am not just doing this for me but for the upcoming generation,” he says.
He is also part of the Save Aarey movement happening in Mumbai and is one of its chief petitioners. The movement intends to stop the Metro car shed that is being built there by the government. Aarey forest is an eco-sensitive zone and the government is in the process build a car shed there. The National Green Tribunal’s (NGT) permission needs to be taken for such plans. It is home to hundreds of endangered species.
“All we were saying was that choose a place where there are no trees which will be cut. Do it in some wasteland. Take the land which is already in your possession, why are you cutting the forest? Save Aarey is a citizens movement. The core committee sat down and we checked the alignment of the plan, the metro, distance and where does the car shed come in the entire alignment of the plan, etc. We did a detailed study and gave a proposal to the government, that there are about 7 spaces available to the government which are in exact alignment in the metro line and route. So don’t make it there but preserve the bio-diversity of this forest and make it in these other alternative sites. Aarey colony is the last remaining lung of Bombay. It is actually 1/4th part of Mumbai. They could have used other pieces of land. The biggest point is that the BMC has written in their proposal that if they build the shed in Aarey, they will also be able to use it for development in future as they will get some scope for it. This means that they have thought of destructing it further. So as a citizen, I am really concerned and this is not sustainable development” says Rohit.
They had moved NGT and also the High Court. For the last 4.5 years, the Save Aarey group has been able to stall the government from constructing there. It is still a work in progress and still a people’s movement where thousands of citizens have come together and protest from time to time. He wishes and hopes that it will come in favour of the city.
When asked about the nature of development and the path that it is taking in our country, Rohit said, “When we are talking about the environment, it is also about peace of mind and not just nature. We need newer ideas to make the efforts sustainable. It’s important to start growing vertically now, instead of horizontally. Whatever norms are there, they need to be changed, there need to be rules such that there is balance and that it shouldn’t harm the environment and the ideas of development should be met. This goal is attainable, it is possible.”
“People don’t really want to get into activism. They tend to be happy to see others take up the issue. The social problems that exist now, the problems that are around, it is important to fight them. The public doesn’t prefer fighting it themselves. That’s why they feel that someone else…” he says.
He tells that “Now it is the need of the hour to do some ‘Individual social responsibility’ instead of ‘Corporate social responsibility’. There are a lot of things that an individual can do. If as an alert citizen you see some trees being cut, then what can you do about it? The ‘Tree Act’ protects all trees whether they are in a Municipal location or in housing societies. If they need to be cut, then there are some guidelines stipulated. You should ask for permission. If they aren’t showing you any letter of permission then you immediately need to dial 100 and inform the police. Then the police will check, the concerned department will be informed and legal action will be taken against it. For people who want to get into activism but cite the reason of not having time, they can at least write an email to the concerned authority about such acts of environmental destruction, or give some of their time to NGOs or people working on this issue and bolster the movement. There are always ways to contribute”.
Rohit Joshi was just an ordinary man but seeing the destruction of precious nature around him made him into an activist. His story proves that if you have the fire in you, you can light up the world and create a blazing impact. May there be more like Rohit amongst us!