Over 1,000 tribals marched to the office of the Aarey Milk Colony CEO to protest against the surveys being conducted by the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) to identify illegal settlements in the colony. They demanded that they be excluded as they are not illegal residents but have the rights to live there as per the Forest Act.“The government plans to resettle us in SRA buildings. The officials have begun visiting our homes. They ask for proof of residence. While there are many illegal slum settlements in Aarey, we cannot be counted with them. We have been living here for centuries and are the original inhabitants. They can rehabilitate those illegal residents but they should leave us alone,” said Prakash Bhoir, Vice-President, Mumbai district, Shramjeevi Sanghatana.
The tribals living in 27 padas across Aarey Colony do not wish to live in SRA homes as they feel it will take away their land from them. Currently they grow trees and cultivate paddy and vegetables in these padas and sell their produce to earn a livelihood. They pay a rent of Re.1 per guntha to the Aarey Dairy for the cultivation. They also have small sheds for their livestock. “Moving into flats will snatch our livelihood from us. What will we do to earn a living?” Bhoir asks. They also protested against the extension of the Byculla Zoo in Aarey. The land allocated by the state government for the zoo is a low-lying area used by tribals of six padas for paddy cultivation in monsoon and vegetable cultivation during the rest of the year. “They have already begun constructing the compound wall for the zoo. We have told the Forest Department to put the work on hold till they have discussions with us. The zoo will take away the livelihood of the tribals of the six padas,” he adds.
For the extension of the zoo in Aarey the Forest Department took over the land required for it from the Dairy Development Department in 2014. The officials of Central Zoo Authority (CZA) and Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) visited the proposed site and gave their approval as well. However, there has been very little progress beyond that. The tribals marched from the Picnic Point to the Aarey CEO’s office in their traditional attire and handed over a letter with their demands to him. The demands included that the SRA survey should include a survey of their land, their trees and their livestock to understand their culture and how intrinsically they are attached to these forests. They also sought basic amenities like toilets, water supply and electricity. The demand to stop the zoo construction was only made orally. “They have submitted their demands and I will forward them to the state government. They want their survey to be separate from the encroachments. So if the tribal department looks into it they can conduct their survey,” said Nathu Rathod, Aarey CEO.
The protest was supported by the Aarey Conservation Group (ACG) as they have already submitted a petition in the NGT to recognise Aarey as a forest land. “We are already fighting a legal battle to recognise Aarey as a forest land and to protect the rights of the adivasis under the Forest Rights Act, 2006. So we stand by them and will continue to support them,” said Amrita Bhattacharjee, a member of ACG. “I am not aware of the developments with regard to the extension of Byculla Zoo,” said Dr Sanjay Tripathi, Byculla zoo director. While in the 2015-16 budget the BMC Commissioner had stated that the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the State Forest Department and MCGM has been prepared and sent for approval to the state government for establishment of an international zoo at Aarey Milk Colony, Goregaon (125 acres), DMC Sudhir Naik says there has been no progress on the project from the BMC’s side. “No land has been allocated by the government for the zoo and so there is no question of constructing a wall. There has been no progress on the project from the BMC’s side so far,” he said.