Gender and climate change: Meet the women of Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Aarey, and beyond

An important goal of the UN climate summit in Glasgow that starts on October 31 is to curtail deforestation. In India, including at the 'Save Aarey' movement in Mumbai, women have been at the forefront of resisting threats to biodiversity in the name of public transport and other infrastructure projects

Sumaira Abdulali
Published: Oct 25, 2021 01:20:56 PM IST
Updated: Nov 3, 2021 06:34:28 PM IST

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

Rafia Abdulali’s support of her husband Humayun Abdulali, my father-in-law, was crucial to his being “singlehandedly responsible for crafting one of the most unique protected areas in the world,” the 104-square kilometre Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) locatated in the heart of Mumbai. His sustained interest over many decades since the 1960s to craft SGNP, to document its birds and to ensure its long-term protection from a highway in 1975 would have been impossible without her: Rafia always accompanied him on his Sunday birdwatching jaunts. She was in charge of the tea. As an honorary wildlife warden tasked with bringing wildlife poachers to justice, frequent visits to the police station and magistrates’ courts were part of their regular beat. 

Today, the role of women defenders of the environment is recognised as vital and goes far beyond serving tea or providing support to men. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, under-secretary general of the United Nations (UN) and executive director of UN Women, said on World Environment Day [June 5], “Women and girls must be at the heart of the fight for climate justice.” 

SGNP, the most visited national park in the world, is home to two lakes, Tansa and Vihar, which supply drinking water to Mumbai, and the 2,400-year-old Kanheri caves. Indigenous wildlife, including 254 species of birds, 40 species of mammals, 78 species of reptiles and amphibians, 150 species of butterflies and over a staggering 1,300 species of plants, thrive within it.

In recent years, as threats to SGNP’s buffer area—the 12 square-kilometre Aarey Milk Colony and the Powai lake beyond Aarey—have intensified, numerous women have engaged with a multi-faceted and prolonged struggle, becoming a force to reckon with in the ‘Save Aarey’ movement.

In 2014, to ease congestion in overcrowded suburban railways, Mahrashtra state government, with funding from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), began construction of multiple metro-rail links between parts of Mumbai that lack rail connectivity. Along metro rail routes, potted palms and the message, “Mumbai is upgrading”, were displayed.

However, in a 33-hectare plot within Aarey, a biodiverse forest with 5 lakh trees where leopards and poisonous snakes are among the 290 species who live alongside traditional forest dwellers of the Warli Adivasi Tribe, 2,298 trees were marked for cutting. The car shed for Metro-3, which runs from South Mumbai to Aarey, required this tree-cutting and was bitterly opposed by thousands of people, including many women.

At a recent site visit, Amrita Bhattacharjee, a prominent voice of ‘Save Aarey’, pointed to a high fence that obscured from sight the place where, in 2019, thousands of trees were cut overnight amidst intense conflict. She explained “We do not want the car shed to be within Aarey and destroy its biodiversity.”

In the eye of the storm after the tree-cutting incident, Ashwini Bhide, the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer who was then the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL) chief, emphasised the valuable role the metro would play in reducing pollution. “The trees cut make way for public transport which is a long term & sustainable solution for pollution,” she tweeted.

However, since forests are important carbon sinks, absorbing more carbon than they release, and since concrete is one of the largest carbon emitters, concretisation of the forest may not be a holistic solution to reduce air pollution.  

Research by Shweta Wagh, associate professor, Kamla Raheja College, also highlights that “Aarey is an important catchment area of the Mithi River, which originates in SGNP and flows through Mumbai.” Saving Aarey helps save Mumbai from increasingly recurrent floods and other environmental catastrophes. These realisations have served to strengthen the collective resolve to fight to preserve Aarey’s biodiversity.

The existential threat of climate change includes interconnected threats from loss of biodiversity, land degradation, and air and water pollution. ‘Making Peace with Nature’, the UN’s most comprehensive blueprint on climate change released this February, emphasises that “it is essential that these problems are tackled together”.

In the six years since Bhattacharjee first became involved with the Save Aarey movement, she has filed litigation in the Bombay High Court and Supreme Court, faced successes and reversals, but has not given up.

Bhattacharjee has been particularly effective in creating grassroots momentum, gaining diverse support from hundreds of Warli forest-dwellers and young people she helped to organise. As a result of protests, the Maharashtra state government announced in 2019 that it would shift the car shed away from Aarey. However, Bhattacharjee laments that despite waiting for two years, the car shed area remains barricaded. “I will continue my struggle to save Aarey until we succeed,” she says.  

She even stayed up all night to support enthusiastic youngsters who protested tree cutting on a Friday night after the Bombay High Court dismissed a petition (filed by another activist) to stay deforestation. Hundreds of people were unexpectedly herded into police vans and detained at the police station, 29 of whom were arrested and jailed. “I attended court hearings until orders for exemption from mandatory quarterly appearance before the police station were passed.” Bhattacharjee explains. Cases against all arrested people have recently been withdrawn. 

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 evident

Pramila 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 motorable

Protests 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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