Destruction of Aarey, Mumbai’s last green lungs, started 70 years ago

MUMBAI : WITH THE Supreme Court clarifiying earlier this week that it had not stayed construction work at the rake shed site in Aarey Colony, the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL) is now expected to begin readying the site for the Metro 3 car shed. The officials of MMRCL, which has come in for criticism for felling over 2,000 trees to make way for the car shed, said that they have begun leveling the land on which the trees earlier stood.

The public uproar over the need for preserving the last green bastion of the city is, however, not the first time that Aarey has been in the eye of a storm, nor will it be the last. The sprawling green area, spread over 3,000 acres, has over the last 70 years been steadily been eaten away at its edges.

A housing complex, 40 state and central institutes and security installations already exist in Aarey Milk Colony. When the upcoming car shed, a proposed zoo, and Metro Bhavan — for which the bhumi pujan was performed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi last month — are completed, 77 per cent of land in Aarey or 2,470 acre will be developed.

Aarey, which was once on the fringes of the city, with adivasis and cattle farms as its residents, is now a prime locality along the bustling western suburbs. It now has a multi-storey residential complex, educational institutes and like any other locality of this city, a traffic-choked road piercing through its heart.

Chandu Navsha Jadhav (69), a seventh generation member of his family living in Aarey, said he has seen more destruction in the area than he can remember. When 29 residents were arrested for protesting against the felling of trees by MMRCL on October 5, the swift move by the corporation was a repetition of a chapter from Aarey’s history.

In 2000, when former chief minister, late Vilasrao Deshmukh, had allotted 20 acres from Aarey for Whistling Woods — the film school that Bollywood director Subhash Ghai’s wanted to set up — 30 adivasis, including 23 women, were arrested and kept in custody for two days. The land allotted was encroaching Devi cha Pada, one of the 27 tribal hamlets inside Aarey. It led to protests for over a month.

“We were protesting against the encroachment of our pada (hamlet) and talks were going on. Suddenly one day, police were deployed on the site and 30 adivasis were arrested. The government went on to flatten the rice and vegetable plantations and barricaded the area, displacing the adivasis,” said an adivasi from Devi cha Pada who was arrested.

Adivasis in 27 padas, who said they have lived for over 100 years in what became Aarey Milk Colony in the 1950s, claimed that the destruction began when the dairy was set up there in 1949-51.

In 1806, A’reyn or Aarey — a series of village land holdings — was given to Parsi merchant Ardesar Dadaji in exchange for land he owned in the Fort area of Mumbai. Over 100 years later, the government of India acquired 3,000 acres, including the Aarey village from Byramjee Jeejeebhoy group, one of the big nine landowners in Mumbai, to set up the ‘Aarey Milk Cooperative’. In 1949, trees were cleared to set up 40 cattle farms and a dairy.

“When I was 15, I used to accompany my father to carry vegetables and logs of wood to sell in the Andheri market. We used to cross the lane, which was lined with cashew trees on both sides. Now I see scores of people coming in and out of hideous structures and no cashew trees,” said Mohan Shankar Dalvi, a tribal from Gaondevi Pada.

After the dairy, projects picked up pace in Aarey from 1980s with the construction of the Film City. The milk colony now has low-cost housing projects, an electric sub-station, BMC’s water treatment plant, and most recently, the headquarters for Force One — the elite commando force established after the 26/11 attacks.

Other than the Metro car shed, Aarey Colony has been in the eye of several storms since the 1990s — be it the land rights of tribals, the BMC’s Development Plan 2014-2034 that earlier proposed a “growth hub” around the padas, or the creation of a wing of the city’s Byculla zoo here.

Jadhav said, “We had to protest in the 1990s to retain our tribal status. The Dairy Development Board (DDB) had refused to recognise us and even called us encroachers. All the tribals lived in Aarey even before the dairy board was envisioned.” Jadhav said he has land records going as far back as 1861.

For the Katkaris, Mahadev Kolis, Mallar Kolis, Warlis and others who live in the hamlets inside Aarey, the approval of the car shed, brings new concerns. They are particularly worried at the prospect of a zoo, which will take up 120 acre. “If the zoo comes up, I will lose my livelihood. I have 90 gunthas, where I grow vegetables and have rice plantations,” said Dalvi, as he pulled out a 1992 receipt for the 90 gunthas. Dalvi stays in Gaondevi Pada, one of the six hamlets affected by the zoo.

Till 1993, the DDB collected Rs 1 per guntha from the tribals for cultivating government land. While the board stopped collecting rent, the tribals still rear poultry and several dozen trees, including banana, chikoo, jackfruit and guava, and cultivate rice.

Dalvi’s younger brother sees builders’ hand in the rapid growth of projects in the milk colony. “Real estate value in Mumbai has skyrocketed. Builders are now eyeing this green, untapped pasture of land. Metro and zoo are just the beginning.”

The tribals are also worried about the proposal to use Aarey land for rehabilitating slums. The state has marked 90 acre in Aarey Colony to rehabilitate the shanties from the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. There is no data with the DDB about land encroached by slums.

Activists and locals peg the number inside Aarey at around 30,000 slum dwellings. “We have faced continuous harassment from the state government. They want to mark us as slum dwellers and shift us to one of those congested SRA buildings. At present, there are 50 illegal huts around my house but no action has been taken against them,” said Ravi Khandve, a Warli tribal, who lives with his wife and two children at Kelti Pada.