It has been over seven years since Surekha and her family moved into the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) building at Aarey Milk Colony. Her 1-Hall-Kitchen apartment (where the hall becomes a bedroom at night) covers only 225 square-feet, but houses four adults. It is small by most standards but the family has mastered the art of organizing their lives to fit into a cramped space.
In Goregaon’s Aarey Milk Colony, a battle unfolds. Whose home and whose rights prevail when it comes to this critical green lung of the city?
Text and Photos by Akshay Panse
You walk up a small grassy lane to meet a 64 year ‘young man’. He puts on his prosthetic leg and takes you into the woods to show the different plant species he has sowed. Sharing his knowledge about the medicinal usage of some plants, Chandu Jadhav says, “We adivasis are used to living in the jungle under the open sky. This forest is everything for us, but it is in danger now. I was the first person to cry foul when the Metro yard plan was released.”
Jadhav, an adivasi activist and a former Aarey Dairy employee, is the man who initiated the exercise of documenting and surveying all the adivasi padas (hamlets) within Goregaon’s Aarey Milk Colony (AMC). “We have to struggle for our basic needs, face natural calamities, and as if this was not enough, we now have to be prepared to combat the corporate forces which are now on our edges,” he says. Vanicha pada, the place where he lives, is one of the 31 adivasipadas with a total population of around 8,000 in AMC.
But Jadhav is not the only person who is upset with the government’s decision to use Aarey’s land for developmental purposes. When in early 2015, Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL) announced its plan to build Metro line 3 – Colaba-Bandra-Seepz – cutting across some parts of AMC, people nearby and from across the city rose in protest. They came together under the banner of ‘Save Aarey Campaign’ (SAC) to save the largest ‘lung’ of the city. The proposed car shed for the Metro rail in Aarey is on 70 acres of land and 2298 trees were marked for cutting down or transplantation.
Though the Metro rail yard plan has been put on hold for now, many other developmental projects are still in the pipeline. These include a proposed ‘international-grade’ zoo on 200 acres, another 180 acres for the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) and some land for the Aarey road widening project. Already in 2002, 95 acres of land was set aside for a center and training facility for Force One Commandos.
Meanwhile, Aarey’s original status as a place to house the metropolitan city’s dairy is also under threat. Essentially established in 1949 to shift dairy sheds from the congested island city, Aarey today has 30 tabelas (animal sheds) with 16,000 buffaloes which provide around 1.25 lakh liters of milk per day.
The state government’s Central Dairy, which has functioned here since 1949, was given the task of processing and packaging that milk and supplying it across the city. Today with less government support that milk supply is much reduced and restricted mainly to some western suburbs. Critics feel it’s because indirectly the state government is supporting rival private milk producers.
C. K. Singh, leader of the Aarey Milk Producers Association (AMPA), supports any protest to protect Aarey land. “We are aware of the fact that this encroaching attitude of the government will one day also swallow us,” he notes with concern; “and it’s not just us who will get affected by developmental activities such as the metro, there is a chain of people whose livelihood is dependent on the milk production here.”
Such as the 29-year old tabela worker Mohamamd Karim. “One person looks after 10 buffaloes – including their fodder, cleaning, milking, etc. and there are around 100 buffaloes in this tabela,” explains Karim, who has worked at Tabela No.6 for the past eight years. “My practical experience has also trained me in injecting the buffaloes with medicines and conducting a general medical check-up for them.” Mohammad is from Bihar and lives inside the tabela in a small quarter which he shares with his co-workers.
From an original area of 3000 acres, Aarey today has shrunk down to 2000 acres, thanks to the government’s generous land distribution for varied activities to different groups. With the change in the Proposed Land Use (PLU) policy of AMC from primary activity of dairy and fodder growing grasslands to a residential and commercial zone, the controversy around AMC shows no signs of getting resolved any time soon.
Though the ‘Save Aarey Campaign’ was initially organized against the Metro rail car shed, it has now widened its ambit given the many threats to the area. The group, which has garnered much social media attention, is fighting to preserve the overall ecology of the area. “We are a group of environment lovers, activists and local residents who have joined hands under the umbrella of ‘Save Aarey’ to defeat the government’s sinister agendas. First they are trying to kill Central Dairy step-by-step and then in the name of development they plan to sell the land to the corporate lobbies,” explains Biju Augustine angrily. He is a civil engineer whose workplace is in the nearby Royal Palms estate, a property that is in fact considered an early ‘encroachment’ on Aarey land. He adds, “Through SAC our message is that not a single inch of Aarey’s land is negotiable, and we are appealing to all the Mumbaikars to join us in our protest activities.”
The group has organized various activities including a film festival, a human chain, and walking tours of Aarey. “By organizing different events, we want to catch the attention of Mumbaikars and want them to know that Mumbai city has a huge green space within its boundaries and one doesn’t have to go to Lonavala to see greenery,” say Priya and Kripa, both enthusiastic SAC volunteers.
Aarey’s importance for Mumbai – a city with a dismal open space per person ratio – cannot be overstated. Besides, Aarey acts as a water shed to Vihar lake which is a chief contributor to the water supply of Mumbai city. It is also known for its varied flora and fauna with different species of amphibians, butterflies, moths, spiders and reptiles are found here. Only time will tell whether the efforts by the residents of Mumbai to protect this green lung of the city is successful. Meanwhile the trees bear witness to change.
THE OTHER AAREY RESIDENT
The Aarey landscape hosts a small resident population of leopards (Panthera Pardus). Ecology functions on the prey-predator density ratio. As conservationist and naturalist Sunjoy Monga explains, “There has been a sudden and impactful change in the lifestyle of the locals. This is causing an ecological disturbance because the leopard population increases when there is a sudden abundance of unnatural prey in the area.” While talking about pragmatic solutions, he emphasizes on the need for controlling the stray dog population and the livestock in tabelas. Both of these are attractants for leopards. He also said that other measures such as spreading awareness about leopards, maintaining cleanliness, street lighting and fencing would help.