“Dekho kaisa soona ho gaya hai (Look how empty it’s become),” says Shaukat Ali, gesturing towards Jamshedji Tata Road, down the length of which are placed brightly coloured barricades, indicating that work for the construction of Mumbai Metro’s Colaba-Bandra-SEEPZ line is on. “Mumbai is Upgrading”, announce the barricades in big, proud letters. The blaze of the afternoon sun, as it reflects off the shiny plastic surface, is punishing. Every day for the last 15 years, the 62-year-old has stationed himself under the shade of a tree, appealing to passers-by to stop for a look at the wares he’s hawking — gleaming new shirts and rolls of handkerchiefs inside plastic casings.
Every day, until May 20.
Now, Ali is crowded under another tree, cheek-by-jowl with other vendors selling plastic smartphone cases, sunglasses and earphones, while his banyan tree lies in pieces in the back of a truck. “I don’t know why they would do this,” says Ali, “The trees on this road have been such a relief to everyone — to us, to pedestrians and to the people who live in this area. How could they just bring them down like this?”
Across south Mumbai, where nearly 500 trees are being cut for the construction of the metro line, people are asking the same question. Passing by a felled peepul tree, environmentalist Stalin D, who works with city-based NGO Vanashakti, says, “I won’t call this anything other than carnage.” The activist cuts a brisk pace as he walks down Dadabhai Naoroji Road from Flora Fountain. He stops only to point at the various trees that line our path as we follow the route of the Mumbai metro construction. “Here’s one old banyan that will be chopped down,” he says, pointing at the red cross sprayed over the gnarled trunk of the tree. “We’re being told that many of the trees will be transplanted, as if a tree is a paperweight that can just be picked up and put elsewhere. The authorities say they will plant other trees elsewhere, to replace the ones that have been cut.
What trees could possibly replace these great banyan, peepul, gulmohar and peltrophorum (copperpod) trees? These are all trees that have a wide canopy, and provide the maximum amount of shade. Banyan and peepul trees are known to provide the maximum amount of oxygen. Are you going to replace them with date palms and bottle palms, which are just ornamental and not native to this region?” he asks.
Others are asking similar questions. A few metres from Astoria Hotel near Churchgate, sits 50-year-old Majnu Alam. Perched on a wooden crate next to the sheet on which he has spread the cut-rate sunglasses that he sells, Alam is trying to make it through the day, before he starts to worry about how the tree-cutting will impact his business. “And what is the use of thinking about it?” he says, “It’s not as if anyone listens to us anyway. We are at the mercy of the authorities, who can come and shoo us off anytime they want, and after this, we’ll be at the mercy of the sun and the rain.” Alam shares the spreading shade of his peepul tree with three other vendors, one of whom ambles over as we chat and says, “Think of our customers. Do you think anyone will want to stand here even for a second now, when it’s so hot?” Some distance down the road, two construction workers take a break to sit under a gulmohar that was lucky enough to have a green tick mark sprayed on its trunk. “See, everyone needs the shade of a tree, especially on a day like this,” says Alam, nodding towards the workers.
The chopping of trees during this particular time, before the rains, is especially distressing for another reason, says Stalin. “This is the nesting period for most birds. More than human beings, it’s these creatures who are becoming homeless. Those responsible say that there are many other trees on which birds can go and make a nest, but what about the nests that were already in the trees when they were brought down? No care was taken to see that they are safe,” he says. The loss of fruiting trees such as peepul and banyan is an additional loss because to birds like barbets and parakeets, these are also food sources. “When you cut a tree, you’re not just killing that one tree. You’re destroying an entire ecosystem of living things dependent on that tree,” says Stalin.
The loss of the tree cover hasn’t come without outrage — passersby and residents alike are stopping to take photos of leftover stumps and trampled leaves, and sharing them on Instagram and Facebook with messages to convey their sorrow. Others are more overt and vocal about expressing their grief, such as the activist who climbed onto a tree and refused to climb down for hours. Or the resident, who was filmed screaming at workers and refusing to let them near the 100-year-old tree outside his apartment block. But it hasn’t nearly been enough, says Frodo Bhujwala, who lives near Churchgate. “We (the residents) walked down Marine Drive, trying to recruit people for our protest, and while we got a lot of sweet smiles, we didn’t get much actual support. People are thanking us for taking on this cause, but awareness is not enough. We need action. Trees are being cut ruthlessly in south Mumbai now, but there will be more that will be felled along the whole line. And, the only way we can make the authorities take us seriously is if we all stand together.”