Print edition : February 14, 2020

Prakash Bhoir’s cottage in the Keltipada hamlet within Aarey Milk Colony, also known as Aarey Forest. Photo: Anupama Katakam

The hut in which Prakash Bhoir’s parents and grandparents lived. Photo: Anupama Katakam

Pramila and Prakash Bhoir in their field. The skyscrapers that are beginning to surround Aarey are visible in the distance. Photo: Anupama Katakam

As more and more land is being carved out of Mumbai’s Aarey Forest to satisfy the city’s requirement for space, the forest’s Adivasi residents are facing a very real threat to their existence.

Between two massive high-rise buildings on the Goregaon main road in Mumbai is a tiny lane that leads to the Aarey Milk Colony, also known as the Aarey Forest. It is an interesting if not a surreal experience to leave a concrete jungle and in minutes find oneself in the middle of a dense forest. It is certainly a pleasant change but makes one wonder how so much space in the city has remained largely untouched by urbanisation.

This may not be the case for very long as infrastructure projects and illegal encroachments are beginning to claim large tracts of land in Aarey. Recently, the Mumbai Metro rail project to build a shed on 16 acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare) of the forest land once again brought to the fore the issue of the importance of Aarey and why it must be saved. Apart from the forest being the city’s lungs and the obvious need to save the city’s green cover, Aarey is also home to an indigenous tribe whose ancestors were the original inhabitants of the island city. If Aarey is under threat, so is the Warli community, whose members continue to practise and keep alive a distinct and original culture. There are 27 Adivasi hamlets in the forested area. The issue of the Adivasis of Aarey raises its head from time to time, but it is now more than ever before that the tribal people face a very real threat to their existence.

Prakash Bhoir, a Malhar Koli who lives in the hamlet of Keltipada, is the face of the Aarey Milk Colony Adivasi movement. He said: “We are not slum dwellers to be shunted around. This is our ancestral land. We do not own anything else. Our village used to be part of the tribal belt, but things changed when Aarey was formed. Fortunately, we were not evicted as they let us keep our homes. Where will we go now?” Prakash Bhoir and his wife, Pramila, who is a Warli, live on a few acres of land that they till to produce their food and to earn a small income. Although he has built a small concrete home, he has preserved the tiny mud hut in which his parents and grandparents lived. Both structures are decorated beautifully with Warli paintings. The tribe is known for this ancient art form of Maharashtra. Prakash Bhoir’s family is among the few who continue to paint and keep the art form alive.

Prakash Bhoir said Aarey’s role in Mumbai was important. Because tribal people had been able to live in the forest, their heritage had been preserved, and the forest had provided Mumbai with green cover, ensuring that oxygen was generated in the city. He said the beauty of Aarey was that the community had been able to straddle both the rural and urban world. They live a village life surrounded by greenery and animals and enjoy the benefits of a modern city. Fortunately, the electricity board has given connections to the hamlets. In fact, Prakash Bhoir believes the city has been good to them. His children went to a city school and then on to college. His daughter, Resham Bhoir, who lives in a small cottage in the hamlet, teaches Warli painting and is invited all over the country to conduct workshops. Unfortunately, he said, everything could change as the land and location of Aarey are a draw for real estate sharks and the lack of vision of lawmakers put Aarey under severe threat.

A 2003 survey of the Adivasi families residing in Aarey, carried out by the Sramik Mukti Sangathan, found that there were 1,027 households in the colony. Aarey falls in Mumbai’s northern belt, bordering Thane district, which has a large tribal population. City experts said that the largest number of Warli tribal people were in this district. When Mumbai began expanding in the early 20th century, it spilled over into Thane district, which is why communities such as the Warlis reside in the city. The Borivali National Park (now known as Sanjay Gandhi National Park), which borders the two districts, eventually came to be in Mumbai.

In 1949, 3,166 acres of forest land were carved out of the Borivali National Park to create the Aarey Milk Colony in order to promote the dairy industry. It was Dara Khurody’s vision to make Maharashtra self-reliant in dairy. Towards this end, Khurody—a contemporary of Dr Verghese Kurien, who pioneered India’s White Revolution—worked closely with the State government to develop the industry. The Maharashtra government chose Aarey as the location for cow and buffalo sheds (locally known as gaushalas); 32 gaushala units were built across the forest, which produced 1.5 lakh litres of milk every day. Many Adivasi hamlets were encouraged to participate in the animal husbandry and dairy process, and this happy coexistence continued for several decades.

It is unimaginable that in the middle of a huge vertical city such as Mumbai there is a reserve such as this. A walk through the colony reveals a dense forest, a few small lakes, hillocks and grassy patches.

Each hamlet is surrounded by small patches of farming. Lanes that meander through dense forest provide access to the hamlets. There are modern cottages made out of concrete and older mud huts. Sheetal Bhoir from Damupada said that the mud huts were uncomfortable during the monsoon, so the younger generation went in for cement structures. But, the hamlet residents keep mud as the facade of their huts in order to paint Warli art on them. Almost all have exterior walls painted with intricate art work.

“Even though the city is a few minutes away, I feel no temptation for that life,” said Nameeta Bhoir from Keltipada. She said she tended her patch of vegetables every morning and evening, and there could be no better life than what they had in Aarey. “We have our festivals, our songs, our traditions. Even our children do not feel they should go to the city.” Farming provides a livelihood or supplementary income to most of the Adivasis who live in Aarey. They grow vegetables and fruits, which are sold in the city. Now even outsiders who have settled in Aarey, such as the National Security Guard (NSG) commandos who are part of the Force One team that has a base in the colony, come and buy their produce. Prakash Bhoir said: “I have on my own grown over 500 jackfruit, mango and coconut trees. Add that to the thousands of trees the other Adivasis in the colony have grown. We have created an oxygen factory for Mumbai. They will realise our worth when it’s all gone. But we will fight to save Aarey as much as we can.”

Home to the leopard

The forest is also home to the leopard, and the Adivasi residents explain that the big cat has become a critical part of their culture. “We worship leopards as they are the protectors of the forest,” said Naresh Bhoir, a resident of Keltipada. “The animals, land, water, sun and moon are our gods. We do not worship idols.” According to him, if they do not hear the animal or catch glimpses of it, they worry whether one more has been killed. Because there are human settlements on the corridor leopards use, they kill dogs and poultry, causing the village residents much distress. Many leopards are beaten to death when they are caught. “We have been trying to save them, but sometimes it is hard to reason with people,” he said.

The harmony that existed between the Adivasis and the colony authorities began to erode when the city needed space to build a film city. Beginning from 1971, approximately 700 acres has been given for the construction of the film city, a veterinary college and a few other government establishments, including a training centre and housing facilities for the Special Reserve Police Force. The most recent allotment was to the NSG in 2009. Because it took the NSG a long time to come from New Delhi during the 26/11 terror attack, it was decided that Mumbai would have a base for an NSG contingent. Approximately 100 acres of Aarey were given to the NSG’s Force One unit. “They [NSG] have been threatening to evict us as Keltipada comes between their campus and the main road,” said Prakash Bhoir.

Although Aarey is still a forest, there are signs that the city has entered its confines. There are heaps of garbage piled near the entrance and tar roads criss-cross the jungle. In fact, a main connector road between the west and the east of the city goes through Aarey. An urban planner said it was an easy option for the city to use this land. The Metro shed is a case in point. There were other options, but they were too expensive, so Aarey became the chosen location. It is only a matter of time before it gets completely carved up.

“Sadly, the Aarey issue got narrowed to [that of] the Metro shed. It is much more than that. The mismanagement of the dairy [business], corruption which allowed slums to encroach and, of course, building campuses such as the NSG base,” said Rishi Aggarwal from the Mumbai Sustainability Centre. “Saving a major green zone should be a priority. This is just not the case with all the infrastructure projects currently in the pipeline.”

Asha Bhoye from the hamlet of Prajapurpada has perhaps faced the worst of the Mumbai Metro shed plans. In 2017, she came back from work one day to find that the land just outside her village had been cleared for Metro work. She said: “They [the authorities] had recorded our village as a slum and, therefore, were legally allowed to clear the premises. When we fought, they demanded the 7/12 land document. We don’t have this as we are tribal people. When we told them we are Adivasis, they said look at how you dress and most of you work outside, how can you be tribal people? As though we are supposed to be wearing native clothes.” She added: “The Metro work may have stopped because of a court order, but the damage has been done. Our village that once overlooked fields is now surrounded by the metal walls of the construction sites.”

Fortunately, the Adivasis of Aarey are protected by the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, which was enacted to protect the marginalised community and help balance environmental concerns with the right to life and livelihood. In Aarey, the tribal people have been paying a tax of Re.1 (since 1949) for the land they till, which Prakash Bhoir believes is enough official proof that they are original inhabitants. “But like in the case of Asha Bhoye, they find ways around these land issues. It is a much deeper fight but we will do what it takes,” he said.

Environmental groups have been criticised for their late entry into the fight to save Aarey. However, an activist said they would keep fighting because once the damage was done it could never be reversed. Any damage to Aarey will be catastrophic for the city. The biodiversity that exists within the forest is precious. The argument that something has to be sacrificed for the sake of infrastructure does not hold good here. But more than anything we need to save people, the activist said.

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