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‘Aarey Aika Na’: There Is A Price To Be Paid For The Govt’s Unabashed Neglect Of Aarey

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The axe fell on Aarey in the early hours of October 5. Months of peaceful protests and demonstrations were nullified in a swift move as the government began a reckless felling of trees. The protesting multitudes have been hushed and thrown into jails, their gagged mouth shall no more raise ‘anti-national’ slogans. Meanwhile, the bhakts can flood the internet with seemingly legit justification and perhaps even praise for the ‘good work‘ the government has been doing.

The shower of praises had already started to take the internet by storm even before the tree felling. The recent instance of BJP government’s strongest henchman in Bollywood, Akshay Kumar’s sudden praise for the Mumbai metros was a ruthless slap on the face of ‘save Aarey’ activists.

Numerous propaganda material has surfaced over a short period of time, in the form of social media posts, media reports, false testimonies in favour of the felling of 2,700 trees in Mumbai’s Aarey forest. Among them, #aareyaikana was a tactful move by assumably the state machinery for reversing the relentless work of the activists. The phrase that can be roughly translated to “hey listen” has indeed caught the attention of many social media users. I would say that scientifically incorrect and legally misleading information has been disbursed to the unsuspecting masses in this manner.

The Story So Far

Aarey, the green lungs of Mumbai has been in constant degradation since the British cleared a patch for dairy farming during colonial rule. Things have been going downhill since. Patches of the forests have been exploited for numerous commercial activities over the years. Large tracts of its land have been given away in the past to Bollywood, for the film city, the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, military base, etc.

The newly proposed car shed for Metro 3, according to activists (experts), requires only nine to ten hectares. But on paper, the requirement is mentioned as being 33 hectares. Making matters even worse, the 2,700 trees actually cover an area of 120 hectares (much more than 33). This raises several disturbing questions, which is conveniently being ignored by the government.

Apart from the proposed car shed that has grabbed media attention, a ‘Metro Bhavan’, a Slum Rehabilitation Area (SRA), a zoo, etc have also been planned on other patches of Aarey. This is a classic case of land grabbing and exposes nefarious designs of the state. Serious investigations may bring to light, questionable nexus between the state and corporate players.

Environmental Repercussions

These patches are ‘Ecological Sensitive Zones’ and are banned from being used for commercial purposes, especially for the construction of polluting industries. In a quick move, these regions have been denotified and downgraded to ‘Special Zones‘ enabling the government to make decisions regarding their use. The recent Mumbai floods owe its occurrence to policy decisions as unthoughtful as these.

The Methi river flows through Aarey and forms a catchment area in the forest. Construction activities initiated in Aarey to level the forest floor have reduced the water-absorbing capacity of the land, causing severe floods in its downstream areas. Apart from this, three other rivers originate in the forest, making it an important self thriving ecosystem.

The forest is also home to a number of leopards, other animals, a variety of birds, insects, spiders and numerous kinds of flora. In a bid to hush this point of contention, the government had proposed the construction of a zoo within the precincts of the forest. This blunder has however invited further wrath and criticism, rightly.

MUMBAI, INDIA – OCTOBER 2: Residence of Aarey colony and Aam Aadmi Party members protest against Maharashtra govt. for tree cutting to make Metro shed construction at Aarey Colony, on October 2, 2018 in Mumbai, India. The activists filed a petition to stop the indiscriminate premature felling of trees inside Aarey Colony till permissions have been obtained to construct metro car shed/metro station. (Photo by Satyabrata Tripathy/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Socio-Cultural Factors

Another major stakeholder consists of the Adivasi communities, who are also an essential component of the forest ecosystem. The SRA that is proposed to house them lays bare the government’s poor understanding of the needs of its people. The SRAs, much like the detention centres in Assam, are nothing less than the state’s dumping ground of its ‘human waste’. Numerous protests by these communities have been ignored.

People from Adivasi communities from Aarey protesting the extension of the zoo. Image source- http://www.asianage.com/metros/mumbai/210617/tribals-agitate-against-byculla-zoos-extension.html

Controversies

In spite of the sheer number of cases that have been filed by the various stakeholders, the adamancy of the government to go forward with its decision is rather fearful. Dissenters tagging the government as being ‘neocolonialists’ hence stands justified. Several discrepancies have also surfaced surrounding the petitions filed in this matter. The most controversial of these is the fact that the National Green Tribunal (NGT), with whom the case was initially taken up, has after four years, declared that the case doesn’t come under its jurisdiction.

The meeting with the Tree Authority of the municipal corporation on August 29, 2019, had also not resulted in the desired outcomes. Out of the five experts in the panel, only two were present for the meeting, of which one could not follow Marathi. There was also a news report that the experts had voted in favour of the tree-felling without knowing what they were voting for, has come under ridicule. The Congress representatives reportedly staged a walkout during the meeting, the NCP representatives changed their stance at the last minute. In short, the meeting was a disaster and we can say that to a certain extent, it was even scripted.

People’s elected representatives, bureaucrats, ‘experts’, have once again proved themselves to be mere puppets in the hands of bigger political players. This, however, is a dangerous game. What is at stake here is the environment. In a fight where humans should not take sides, the state has chosen to back the wrong horse. In a bid to perhaps garner more accolades and appreciation uninformed celebrities are also fighting the wrong fight.

With electioneering in full swing in the state, the government ought not to have taken such drastic steps. The very fact that the government is involved in this unabashed display of environmental neglection shows the stubbornness of the BJP-led government. This is a wake-up call to all the uninformed followers of the autocrat.

As long as democracy lives, this idiocracy should be resisted. And resist we will!

Featured Image Source: Twitter
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