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We didn’t start the Aarey fire, it was always burning

Arun Janardhan
Aarey and the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Mumbai’s green lungs, have been continuously threatened for their land and resources. A recent fire brought the spotlight back onto the matrix of issues involved—of land, biodiversity, identity and development

It was supposed to be just another annual occurrence-a spark in an open field that would become a fire and eventually die out. This time though, on 3 December, the fire in a private property, which is part of the Aarey forest in Mumbai, did not die down immediately.

The resultant blaze, that lasted 14-18 hours and threatened to spread to nearby housing societies, brought to attention a number of burning issues-of land grab, biodiversity, habitation rights, builder-politician nexus and environmental damage.

The truth, still being investigated by a bunch of agencies, may never come out, believe seasoned environmental activists. But the truth, in this case, is just one part of a layered story that has seen people of differing interests and viewpoints at loggerheads over several decades.

Behind the walls

The road that goes past Goregaon's Oberoi Mall, just off the Western Express Highway, ends at the towering buildings of Infinity IT Park. But ride further to the right, past residential buildings and the Shivshahi bus depot and a weather-beaten wall marks out the plot under the spotlight. On the wall, a fresh new barbed wire fence without a trace of rust-which typically defines a metal's age in salty Mumbai-shines in the afternoon light.

Outside the wall is the glorious Aarey forest, marred slightly by the sight of Film City and other constructions within. To the left, on the inside and behind the plot, are parts of the 103 sq. km Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP). If this area gives the impression of being a desolate corner of the city, that belief is quickly dismissed by the most obvious symbols of human presence-plastic bags, beer bottles, paan masala sachets-piled up on the ground.

Uniformed guards watch out from the top-the wall snakes upwards towards a hill beyond which lies more of the city which can't be seen. The guards have a vantage point at the start of the ascent up the hill-they can see everyone coming in and going out from their position. The fields inside the wall are dark grey, ashen-the effects of the fire. A few shrubs survive, which an accompanying trekker says, sarcastically, will go during the next fire. Signs along the over 5ft wall declare this as a private property. A new set of guards arrive for their shift just then, and warn us against going to the other side.

The over 800-acre property-now held according to the terms of an agreement between FE Dinshaw Trust and K Raheja Realty, which has built the neighbouring IT Park-has been under litigation for decades. Those involved include the state government and the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC).

A person familiar with the realty company's affairs, who did not wish to be identified, said that the reason why another set of buildings has not come up on this piece of land is because the Mumbai “market is down” and sales are sluggish.

The Dindoshi police, who are investigating the cause of fire, are still waiting for some reports to turn up while the fire department has recommended the police investigate the possibility of trespass. Subhajit Mukherjee of nature organization Mission Green Mumbai, who claimed to have collected samples from the site and sent them for testing, said there was no fuel found on the site, ruling out deliberate attempt.

The builders have maintained that the fire was caused by miscreants or could have been an accident. The area is frequented by alcohol and drug consumers, as well as young couples who use the fields for privacy-it is possible that someone may have dropped a burning cigarette, they say.

But pro-Aarey activists are convinced this was deliberate. How could a smouldering beedi start a forest fire? How can the fire spread during this cooler time of the year when the grass has dew on it? How can anyone enter the grounds when there are about 60-odd guards manning the periphery?

“The developer has been trying to show it's dry (land) and not a forest. If one side is dense with vegetation, the other side can not be barren,” says Stalin Dayanand of non-governmental organization Vanashakti. The other reason why locals and activists are unconvinced by the builders' explanation is because for the last 7-8 years, there has been a fire at this time of the year.

Amlan Dutta, who lives in the neighbourhood, says the regularity of the event makes it unremarkable-except that this time, the fire turned out to be a bit bigger than intended and only when it threatened to engulf the housing societies on one side and SGNP on the other did the matter blow up.

“The evening light was different (that day) because the sunset's colour was on the wrong side,” says Dutta, a photographer with the ABP group, who had gone to a building terrace to shoot pictures.

Environmentalists say the monsoon brings back the vegetation every year and wild growth is cheaper and easier to burn than to cut. Also, if the vegetation grows into trees, it would be difficult for the builders to prove this is barren land and therefore make it cumbersome to get permissions to build on it.

“This is one of the projects that will benefit from the Integrated Township Policy,” believes Yash Marwah of the Aarey Conservation Group, citing a state government proposal in November to open up forest and tribal land for development.

To one side of the field is the forest land of Aarey. Photo: Tonoya Sen/Mint

Whose forest is it anyway?

Aarey and SGNP are extensions of the same forest land that makes Mumbai unique-it is probably the only city of its size to have a jungle in the middle of it. Starting from the suburb of Powai in the south, Aarey morphs into SGNP to the north, with the fire-hit plot somewhere to the south-west of this belt.

This vast tract of land has been a point of conflict for years between environmentalists and the state, keen to use the land for a number of purposes, including, most recently, a metro car shed.

“All the fires around SGNP are part of the same exercise,” says Shardul Bajikar, a naturalist associated with SGNP. “Most are intentional fires, lit out of some grudge against the forest department or some such design.”

The threat to SGNP and Aarey, through fires or construction, are part of the same malicious intent, say green warriors, which is to usurp land. Aarey Colony, which was established in the early 1950s for milk production, has over the years lost forest land from the edges to structures like Film City (for movie shoots) and Royal Palms (a golf course and residences) among others.

The Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation's (MMRC) MML-3 phase that's currently underway, runs from Cuffe Parade in the southern tip of the city and ends at Aarey Depot, where the controversial car shed is to be built. About 10 km south of the fire-hit plot, industrial cranes are currently digging into the earth, uprooting trees, and altering the lifestyle of residents who live in the periphery of the forest. Local residents are angrier because the metro has taken up 33 hectares, and the authorities ignored suggestions for the use of barren land at nearby Kanjur Marg or Kalina for the same.

“A railway plot and station will turn Aarey into a bunch of Dominos (pizza outlets),” says Sanjiv Valsan, a photographer and regular protester.

A short distance from where the metro machines are drilling away, Asha Bhoye looks unaffected, at this moment. The anganwadi (a child care centre) worker, better known as Ashatai, lives on the southern edge of Aarey where a part of her property is under threat from the MMRC.

A temporary fence of aluminum sheets already blocks her view of the forest. The only solace is a small gap left underneath one of the planks that lets the residents of their block into the field that has coconut, mango and lemon trees, which they use.

Her husband, Kisan, and another relative, Bharat, who had shops that were sacrificed for the greater good of the metro, also shuffle around because they don't have much to do these days. The families live in a colony of kaccha-pukka homes in Prajapur pada, which now overlooks a giant pit surrounded by JCB earthmovers and cranes. After their homes here were demolished, some of Ashatai's relatives were given flats in Kanjur Marg, but they complain of not having water supply there and come back here to fret.

Ashatai has gone to court against the forced surrender of her land, saying she has the papers to prove her Adivasi status and claim to the land. She has to fight this in court because there are several residents who are not recognized by the government as Adivasis but as encroachers or slum dwellers.

“There are 27 padas (tenements) in the area but some are glorified slums and some are Adivasi padas,” says Cassandra Nazareth of WWH Charitable Foundation, who has been working with indigenous Adivasi communities.

“Encroaching happens when people are brought in here to increase the vote bank and Adivasis then become a minority,” says Luke Mendes of Bombay's Indigenous Peoples Association.

The metro, a much needed addition to public transport in the city, is meant to reduce the burden on roads and have long term benefits outweighing the loss of a few thousand trees-by bringing down fuel usage and air pollution. But environmentalists are peeved at the fact that more and more land is being used under this guise, which eventually become profit-making commercial properties.

“I am not against forest being cut for the metro, because of petrol saved. The correct attitude would be to look at pros and cons, and not what is being sacrificed for development,” says Dr. Parvish Pandya, director of science and conservation at Sanctuary Nature Foundation.

The new barbed wire on the wall warns intruders against entering the private property. Photo: Tonoya Sen/Mint

The forests' keepers

“You keep a parrot in a golden cage. You might appreciate the cage, but he definitely would not. Their (law-makers') vision of progress and development does not have to be mine,” says Prakash Bhoir.

About 2.5 km north of Ashatai's home, behind the glamorous high-rise buildings of Jogeshwari-Vikhroli Link Road, Bhoir lives in one of the padas that's not visible on Google maps. His three brick-mud rooms have walls covered in traditional Warli paintings, an interest he shares with his daughter. Banana, chickoo, mango, coconut, pineapple and drumstick trees surround their home and songs of birds replace noise from streets that are not too far away.

The artist is a vociferous defender of his rights and his property. He says his home is not the solid structure you see, but the surrounding trees, the snakes and leopards they co-exist with and the limitless oxygen they breathe in this wooded garden hidden in an urban jungle.

“Vikaas (progress) scares me, not leopards. Because that is our vinaash (destruction),” he says.

Bhoir's family has lived here for generations, once paying a tax to the government for the land they lived on, which is an additional proof of their Adivasi status. He says they are mistaken for jhopad-patti (slum dwellers) people, but they are not poor. “I don't have money, but I have the wealth of nature with me that feeds me. So I am fairly rich,” he says.

Bhoir, a BMC employee, is one of the people fighting for identity; fiercely holding on to what he believes is his land. “They want to bring all the padas together and give us a ‘better life'. That's not how I see it.”

But he feels he might be fighting a losing battle. The other day, some children playing in the fields started chanting out demands for basic amenities, aping the adults they had seen at a protest rally.

“I was so pleased to see that,” says Bhoir. “Then I realized this is not good. My father, before me, and I protested for years demanding water and electricity. The next generation needs something else to fight for, or it would mean nothing has happened in all these years.”

“We feel people will feel sorry for us, but they will not. Only we can save ourselves.”