The Pulse | Environment | Politics | South Asia

India’s Tribal People Fight to Save the Forests They Call Home

The fate of Aarey weighs heavily on Maharashtra’s tribal people.

By Tapasya for
India’s Tribal People Fight to Save the Forests They Call Home
Credit: Tapasya for The Diplomat

Coinciding with Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg’s calls for stronger action on global warming has been the struggle of some of India’s original inhabitants who may lose their ancestral land in a forest in the congested financial hub of Mumbai to the construction of a facility for a new metro rail project.

The Aarey forest is the only green patch in Mumbai and is famously called the “green lung” of the city, but the government of the western Indian state of Maharashtra plans to cut thousands of trees to make way for a car shed for the Aarey metro, which is one of several development programs proposed by the state government.

At stake is not only the forest, but also the culture of the tribal people who rely on it.

Aarey has been in news recently over plans to cut down around 2,700 trees. Protests were carried out all over Mumbai to oppose the move by Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited. On October 4, the Bombay High Court gave a go ahead for the cutting of trees in Aarey. Overnight, hundreds of trees were allegedly razed as protesters were detained. All the entrances to Aarey were blocked by the police. However, environmentalists, Aarey tribals, and the people of Mumbai opposing the move gathered at different locations – Powai Police Station, Thane Local Train Station, and Aarey Police Check Post – to protest and express their dismay at the demise of a thousand trees that give life to the city of Mumbai.

Aarey: A Respite From the City

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I entered the dense cover of Aarey on October 3. A friend, Yash Shetty, who lives close to Aarey, drove me inside on his motorbike. On the Poonam Nagar Junction road, he rode onto bumpy pavement and then into a stretch of narrow, zig-zagging street that could barely accommodate our movement. At the end of the street, a different world emerged; I could feel a drop in temperature. Muddy tracks were lined with trees on both sides, and small streams appeared every now and then.

From this periphery of Aarey, I could look across and distress myself with the sight of skyscrapers that tower above the roof of the forest. These buildings obscure the horizon and give the feeling of an ugly invasive concrete watchtower threatening the forest. It compared, in my imagination, with the yet-to-be constructed metro car shed, an extension of man’s hand fiddling selfishly with nature and its inhabitants. Anyone wanting a bit of nature’s lushness would need to look the other way, or cast their sight to the land below, where the foliage soothes and heals one’s constant battle with a floundering economy and the struggle to survive it.

After parking the motorbike in an open space facing a slum cluster, we took an uphill track to reach the paada (a hamlet) where Prakash Bhoir, a tribal activist from Aarey, resides. While waiting for him, I took a long stare at the art painted on the dwellings nearby. The renowned Worli art form, practiced by the tribal people in Maharashtra, depicts the Adivasi (Indian tribal) way of life. Little painted figures swirled before me in a spiral, suggesting communal celebration during festivals. Right beside, the image of a leopard intrigued me. “The tribals here revere the leopard; if a leopard is spotted, those who don’t see it consider it a bad omen,” Yash informed me, with a serious expression on his face.

After Bhoir arrived, I started with the issue concerning the cutting down of trees. Bhoir, in a calm disposition, went back to the history of Aarey. “In 1949, the Aarey Milk Colony was established. Land was taken from the tribals who were not well aware of their rights. Some of these people were given work in the dairies. Around 32 dairy units were set up, with around 800 or 1000 buffaloes each. The milk colony was to provide for the dairy needs of Maharashtra,” he said. With a worrisome tone, Bhoir continued, “However, afterwards, the state of Maharashtra has been giving away the tribal land for different projects. The film city came up, some land was given to the Bombay Veterinary College, some to State Reserve Police Force, and this land where we are right now comes under Force One, an anti-terror outfit of the Mumbai Police.”

What Is at Stake?

The serenity of Aarey holds itself despite a background of grief and apprehension. With developmental projects claiming patches of land one after the other, the tribals fear the loss of their land and related sources of income. Every household tills its own patch of land. They grow vegetables, fruits like papaya and mango, spices like turmeric, and many other crops and herbs. These are sold in nearby vegetable markets and are a source of additional income. The rehabilitation plans of the government, for the tribals displaced by developmental projects, do not take into account their way of living holistically. The proposals plan on providing small dwellings to each household with one ration card.

On this matter, Prakash Bhoir explained, “The authorities are suggesting that all the tribals scattered over 27 hamlets inside Aarey be relocated at one place where they would be provided with necessary amenities. However, what they are giving us is a house for a house, not taking into account the land we farm and all the trees we have grown. People here also have cattle, what about that? Where will they go?” He added, “We do not have separate ration cards. Joint families that live in different dwellings on their land will be considered only one household. In case we are relocated, we will all be cramped inside one small apartment space they provide.”

Tribals in Aarey have also been worried about the slum settlements mushrooming around the area. Bhoir said that the tribals, who were earlier the only inhabitants of the forest, now comprise only 10 percent of the population in the area. There have been allegations of widespread corruption in the allocation of land for slum dwellings. Tribal people I talked to told me how officials took huge amounts of money from people and allowed them to illegally occupy land around Aarey.

Bhoir’s wife Permila, a tribal woman and activist, was fierce about the corruption. “They are trying to snatch away our lands and trees and relocate us. They should instead put a curb on the expanding construction of slum dwellings. The people living in the slums should be given a better place to live. We have our lands and some people have large paddy fields. Why are they taking away our way of life and reducing us to nothing but a small space that would hardly be enough for us to live?” she asked, adding, “We have grown these trees and plants. We have cared for them. They are a part of our lives and we are deeply attached to everything that grows here.”

A recent tussle with authorities occurred when the Slum Redevelopment Authority came for a survey and wanted to include the tribals in their data collection. The tribals stood against it and did not acquiesce. “We did not let them conduct the survey on us. We have an organization called Adivasi Haq Samvardhan Samiti (Association for Tribal Rights and Development). We all united under this organization and resisted the move,” said Bhoir.

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Bhoir explained that tribals don’t fall under the category of slum dwellers. “We are moolnivasis (original inhabitants) of this place. If a survey has to be conducted involving us, it should be done by the Tribal Department, under the Tribal Research Center. It is important that the survey should, apart from the houses, also include our land, trees and crops that we grow, and the cattle that we rear. They should also collect information about how long we have been residing here. Everything has to be recorded,” Bhoir argued.

What Has Changed?

Over decades, the forest cover has reduced drastically in Aarey. Leopards and other animals that were rarely spotted have started entering the hamlets. The tribal residents pray to the leopard deity, which they call Waghoba. Sheetal, Permila’s daughter, while working on the field with her mother, told me that she wasn’t afraid of leopards or snakes. “This is their home also. We have been living with the creatures that inhabit this forest. We can tell from the sounds that animals make that a leopard might be approaching. We can distinguish between poisonous and non-poisonous snakes. These animals are afraid of us. Snakes get scared and crawl away. Many people have been bitten by snakes when they stepped on them. However, this is something we have no problem living with. Aarey is a forest, and this is how lives are lived in a forest,” she said.

Prakash Bhoir recollected his childhood and how festivals were celebrated by the tribal community in Aarey. Weeks prior to a festival day, people would start humming songs while doing their daily chores. The humming would get louder as the festival approached nearer. People would join in the singing and a calendar was established through music. People would also gather in the evenings, and on festive occasions, and dance in circles. There was jubilation in the air and peace in the soul. “Nobody sings that way now,” he said with a tense face. “The singing has gone because there is no joy in our hearts. Our lives have become a battle to protect our identity and culture. Everybody is in stress. I stay anxious most of the time. Earlier, I used to plant a lot of trees. Now, it has become a dilemma. I do not know if they would survive. I do not know if I’d be able to protect them.”

The Struggle to Save Aarey

“Everybody should come and join the protests. What are the people of Mumbai doing to save this forest? Are we (tribals) the only people who breathe air? This forest is vital to the whole city. We, tribals, do not have marked possession over trees, so the authorities think they can swoop down here anytime and start destroying the forest. We will not let that happen,” said Permila, holding a sickle in her hand.

On October 7, a special bench of the Supreme Court ordered authorities to stop the cutting down of trees in Aarey and release the protesters that were detained. The hearing was passed on to the Forest Bench of the Supreme Court, which stayed the cutting down of trees until the scheduled hearing on November 15. Aarey is considered an “unclassified” forest and its status as a forest will be decided by the apex court.

Meanwhile, protests by environmentalists, Aarey residents and the people of Mumbai carry on, with local tribal women on the frontline.

Permila and her daughter expressed concern that they couldn’t devote enough time on the farm as they are preoccupied with the struggle to save their home. Permila said, “I come to the fields at around 7 a.m. after my kids leave for school and my husband goes to work. I work here for a couple of hours. I come back again late in the afternoon. I take the vegetables to the nearby market. In addition to working at home and in the field, I find time to fight for Aarey. It is a priority right now. Everything will remain only if Aarey is saved.”

The future of Aarey will speak volumes about the seriousness of the authorities and Indian people, in the times of high debates over climate change and sustainable development, toward preserving natural habitats and the tribal people who are an inextricable part of these spaces.