Why tribals and locals are up in arms over development at Aarey Colony

After almost five years of protests against deforestation in Mumbai’s Aarey Colony, residents have begun to demonstrate again. Civilian protests first started when the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Ltd (MMRCL) announced that 2,300 trees would be felled in the area to make space for a metro car shed. Now, residents, especially tribal communities, are protesting against a BMC-proposed zoo in Aarey Milk Colony, Goregaon. 

Around 200 people belonging to tribal communities gathered for the Aarey protests organised by the Adivasi Hakk Sangharsh Samiti, reports the Indian Express.

Protesters are proclaiming that they will not leave their homes in forested areas. At least seven settlements will need to be relocated for this zoo, they say. Moreover, families dependent on the farmland in the area for livelihood will also face severe financial pressure.

“This march is to reiterate that we have been residents of Aarey colony since generations and are not willing to leave our homes,” said Prakash Bhoi of Keltipada, one of the organisers. 

Civic body to build a zoo in Aarey Milk Colony

In June, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) signed a memorandum of understanding with the Maharashtra government for building a zoo on 100 acres of land. This zoo will be an extension of the one at Byculla and include a jungle safari and a breeding centre for endangered species.

The Adivasi Rights Conservation Committee organised a protest against this in Goregaon and hundreds of people, including tribal families, attended.

Also read: Explainer: Supreme Court evicts over a million people from forest areas

Mumbai Congress Chief Sanjay Nirupam said he and other party leaders will participate in the Aarey protests because the colony is the lungs of Mumbai.

“First, the government denotified 33 acres of land for Metro III car depot against the requirement of only three. Now, it wants to use a bigger chunk of land in the name of the zoo. Today, the government is talking about zoo, tomorrow there will be hotels, malls, and residential projects. We will not let this happen,” said Nirupam, according to Mumbai Mirror.

Metro line to go through Aarey Colony

Mumbai residents first came together in protest in November 2014 after the MMRCL announced its decision to cut around 2,300 trees to make way for the car shed.

Some reports put the deforestation at over 3,000 trees. 

In December, some citizens filed complaints against the MMRCL deforestation in the Bombay High Court and asked the BMC commissioner to relocate the car shed. In 2015, the court ordered the MMRCL to provide citizens with an Environmental Impact Assessment report of the Metro 3 line.

Civilians, Apna Mumbai Abhiyaan organisation, Aarey Conservation Group, and the Aam Aadmi Party all protested and organised awareness campaigns and rallies.

After these protests were attended by thousands of people, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis ordered a committee to recommend alternative locations for the car shed.

Even the National Green Tribunal (NGT), a court established to fast-track environmental cases and disputes, designated Aarey Colony a no-construction zone with a 100-metre buffer.

However, after pushback from the MMRCL, the HC lifted its order, making way for the car shed to be constructed there.

Aarey Conservation Group says, “The Hon’ble NGT orders that it does not have the jurisdiction to declare Aarey as a forest and asks us to move the High Court or the Supreme Court… It directs us to withdraw our petition, which we will do and start steps to file a petition before the High Court.”

Impact of the deforestation in Aarey Colony

One of the most obvious and devastating impact of construction in Aarey Colony will be the loss of flora and fauna.

Down to Earth says that if the metro becomes a reality, Aarey Colony will lose vital species, like scorpions, tarantulas, birds, butterflies, leopards, and amphibians. DTE argues that the government and BMC simply promising to replant trees in a different part of the city or country is not a strong enough solution, because it does not compensate for the destruction of unique habitats and wildlife.

With the loss of green cover and increasing concretisation, Indians are set to suffer from high levels of heat stress that will result in loss of productivity and around 34 million jobs, says a recent report by the International Labour Organisation.

Also read: Air pollution killed more Indians than smoking in 2017: Everything you need to know about this reality check

Forest dwellers and tribal communities are instead saying that the government needs to first realise other public demands, including their own for electricity and other facilities. On the list of priorities for the Maharashtra government, a state-of-the-art zoo and car shed is not urgent, they say.

Other recent development initiatives in Mumbai, like the coastal road project, have also been criticised for irreparably altering marine habitats and breeding grounds, and displacing fishing communities with no viable alternatives. 

Environmentalists and forest dwellers are calling for Aarey Colony to be official designated a reserve forest and green zone, preventing the government from encroaching via construction and instead forcing it to conserve the region. The state government, however, seems to be driving forward with its plans, but at what cost? 

Rhea Arora is a Staff Writer at Qrius

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