As part of the Save Aarey protests, Warli adivasis from 27 hamlets in Aarey Milk Colony protested outside the Aarey Dairy office on May 28 2019 against plans to resettle them in rehabilitation buildings to make way for various development projects; Image: Satyabrata Tripathy/Hindustan Times via Getty Image
Pramila and Chaitali Bhoir sit outside their home, a brown mud hut decorated with Warli paintings. On every painting, love for their home and their fear of its loss was evidentPramila and Chaitali Bhoir, a Warli mother and daughter-in-law, were among those arrested for protesting plans that would mean loss of the forest they have always considered home. Pramila kept smiling as she told me of the two nights she spent in jail, “This was a first for me!” Prominent among those who were arrested that night were numerous urban and young people, many of them women, who have throughout been a driving force of the Save Aarey campaign. Even political leaders were detained, including former mayor Shubha Raul and leader Priyanka Chaturvedi.The struggle to ‘Save Aarey’ has been one of India’s most prominent environmental battles and has brought together young and old people, men, women, housewives, tree lovers, students, researchers and activists. Writers, designers, illustrators, artists, all have contributed to making ‘Save Aarey’ a true citizens’ movement. In 2020, while Covid-19 lockdown made on-ground activism impossible, the young people never gave up. They went online to communicate their message through social media where Instagram posts from ‘Youth for Aarey’ thanked Warli women, “The true guardians and protectors of #AareyForest.” An early initiative of the motley new group to Save Aarey in 2015 was the ‘Aarey Mahotsav’, which consisted of a tree walk, music and art to create awareness about Aarey and to encourage people to visit and see for themselves. Surjit Kaur is a 72-year-old woman who loves running and organised the first ‘Run for Aarey.’ “My generation has ruined the environment for our children, but at least we can now help in preserving what remains for our grandchildren,” she says.As the movement continued to gain traction, tree-lover Renee Vyas held tree walks and the group acknowledged trees as family members when they tied rakhis to them on the festival of Raksha Bandhan. They invoked protection of Lord Ganesha, with artist Aparna Bangia painting Ganeshas on trees during the Ganpati festival and producing the ‘Chipko Re’ song that channels the Chipko (tree huggers) movement.Warli women like Vanita Thakre, who carries prominent claw-marks on both elbows from a leopard attack on her, even invited urban residents to experience tribal meals and the forest for themselves. Former MMRCL Chief Bhide tweeted in September 2019, “Early commissioning of a safer, faster, more comfortable and environmentally more sustainable #PublicTransport for #Mumbai is need of the hour.”Environmental hazards contribute singly and collectively to the earth’s climate emergency. They are irretrievably intertwined. Neither forests nor air pollution mitigation can be at the cost of the other. While Mumbai needs public transport, it also needs Aarey’s biodiversity. Alternatively, less environmentally damaging sites are available for the car shed. People and the environment, however, continue to suffer: From deforestation and concretisation in the midst of felt effects of climate change; from the threat of eviction from homes and loss of livelihood; from non-completion of the metro even after hundreds of crore rupees have been spent.In the meanwhile, the most promising alternative space at Kanjurmarg is enmeshed in a prolonged court battle to determine ownership between the State and Central governments, while previously short-listed, technically feasible sites at Kalina, Cuffe Parade and BKC have not been reconsidered recently.The Save Aarey movement has spilled over to its immediately neighbouring area, Powai Lake, an artificial wetland immediately beside Aarey and connected to Tulsi and Vihar lakes within the SGNP. On a site visit, I observed stones being laid across a narrow dirt trail in dense undergrowth bordering the lake for a new ‘bicycle-track.’ With a width of 6-8 meters, the new road is certainly wide enough to be motorable.Walking ahead of the construction, a brown cobra slithered past. I caught a glimpse of a golden oriole above. Among its diverse biodiversity, this beautiful spot is an important breeding site of the Schedule 1 protected species, the marsh crocodile.A new bicycle track being laid across a narrow dirt trail in dense undergrowth bordering the lake, with a width of 6-8 meters, is wide enough to be motorableProtests against the ‘bicycle track under rapid construction were joined by Powai residents, including Pamela Cheema, ward Coordinator of NGO Agni, and others. Although bicycles are an important way to reduce pollution, even bicycle clubs and cyclists opposed the ‘bicycle track, spurring the government to set up an expert committee to study environmental impacts, though unfortunately, it was too late to prevent its hasty construction. An important goal of COP26 [or the 26th Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change], which begins on October 31 in Glasgow, UK, is to “curtail deforestation”. In the name of public transport, bicycling, and prevention of pollution, irreplaceable biodiversity continues to be destroyed around SGNP. Women are prominent in the resistance.Amrita Bhattacharjee first moved near Aarey in 2001 and was devastated to realise it would be destroyed by the metro car shed in 2015. “I just could not bear to know that this beautiful forest will be chopped down for an infrastructure project even though there are less ecologically damaging land options available in the city,” she says. While women of Reini, Uttarakhand, who first hugged their trees decades ago to save them from cutting and initiated the Chipko Movement remain inspirational, the importance of mainstreaming gender in formulation of climate strategies is recent. It is reflected in an Agenda item of the United Nations’ Climate Change Conference (COP26), ‘Gender and Climate Change’, which calls for sensitive planning “integrating a gender perspective into their processes”Within Aarey, I watched as Pramila and Chaitali Bhoir stood in front of their home, a brown mud hut decorated with Warli paintings. On every painting, love for their home and their fear of its loss was evident. The central panel on their main door depicted the metro line; cars; a chimney spewing smoke. Trees were cut down, their trunks lay on the ground. Above this dismal scene was a group of Warli people holding up the earth, animals, and birds clustering around a spreading tree on its top. Pramila pointed to an older, happier scene. I turned and saw a tree alive with frolicking monkeys. A leopard sauntered by underneath while another one climbed up its trunk. People carried baskets on their heads. They stood atop a cobra and swung high up in the branches of a tree. “We paint what our life is. For generations, we have lived alongside leopards and snakes and consider them part of our community. It is this new concretisation that we fear,” she says.Returning after I met the Bhoirs at the Warli village in Aarey, I saw a hoarding for super-luxury housing. In a lush forest with children and animals, it was headlined: “Why live in a concrete jungle when you can live in a forest?” The next day, I read in my newspaper about a new 4.5-kilometre highway planned through SGNP. Similar to the one my father-in-law successfully opposed in 1975, for which biodiversity and trees within SGNP would be destroyed, “mitigation measures” are being considered. As they did every weekend, my parents-in-law, ornithologist Humayun Abdulali and his wife Rafia, were birdwatching at the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) on one Sunday over twenty years ago. On the verge of the deserted road, a battered thermos containing hot, sweet tea lay on the bonnet of their car. The binoculars around their necks were raised upwards, focused on a hornbill in flight. When Humayun collapsed suddenly after miscreants appeared from the undergrowth and threw a stone which hit him on the head, his wife, a frail woman under five-feet tall, stood up bravely and threw little stones in retaliation. In 2021, it is twenty years since Humayun died after prolonged complications of a stroke following the attack on him within SGNP. He would be delighted to know that women, young people, Warli adivasis, and so many people across so many different interests, professions, and life situations still work to make his life’s mission on this earth worthwhile. They protect the irreplaceable biodiversity of our city-forest today. Thanks to them, Humayun Abdulali’s legacy will endure.(Sumaira Abdulali is the convenor of Awaaz Foundation)
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