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‘Aarey was never shown as a forest in our records’

The recent fire in the forested area around Aarey Milk Colony has once again shifted the focus on one of Mumbai’s last green lungs. Aarey Milk Colony Chief Executive Officer N V Rathod talks to The Indian Express about the various challenges the agency faces

Written by Laxman Singh |
December 10, 2018 3:41:41 am
Aarey, Aarey Milk Colony, N V Rathod, Maharashtra news, Indian express news N V Rathod in his office. (Express photo by Dilip Kagda)

After a fire in a plot adjacent to Aarey Milk Colony, residents and activists have alleged the area was purposely set on fire to clear greenery for development and that it also engulfed some of Aarey’s biodiversity. How do you respond to these allegations?

First, I want to clarify that the plot where the fire erupted is a private land close to Film City. It has nothing to do with Aarey Milk Colony. Though it spread near Aarey’s land, there was no harm to animals. We have not received any such complaint. I agree that the fire damaged the environment but what caused the fire and who is responsible has nothing to do with us, as it doesn’t come under Aarey Dairy area. If at all there was any damage to wildlife in Aarey, the forest department should have informed us.

There are allegations that every year several patches of Aarey are purposely set on fire to encroach or develop that land…

There are incidents of fire in Aarey but most are reported in summer, that too very small ones. If there are fires, we mobilise our machinery to douse them immediately. One of the reasons for such fires are people throw bidi or cigarette on dry leaves or dry patches. As summer temperatures are high, this sparks a fire in the bushes but it is brought under control immediately. As of now, no big fire has been reported in Aarey. We are prepared for any eventuality.

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Activists and environmentalist are fighting the proposed Metro carshed in Aarey, which they say could open land for further exploitation. Do you think handing over a huge chunk of land to MMRC will create more problems for Aarey’s wildlife and biodiversity? Also, has RTO been given land for testing tracks?

We have given MMRC about 180 acres for a proposed Metro carshed. The land is close to Jogeshwari-Vikhroli Link Road (JVLR), so it will have very little effect on wildlife and biodiversity. Also, the Metro is a government project, which will help reduce the burden on trains and vehicles.

Recently, we gave RTO land for a testing track and our dysfunctional Milk Transport System building for an office. The track is very small (250×60 metres). It was an existing small road used by us. No big land has been handed to them.

Environmentalists have always maintained Aarey is not just a Milk Colony, it is a forest so any such activity is a violation of the Forest Act. What do you think?

Aarey was never shown as a forest in our records. It’s not part of the forest. The government had established Aarey Milk Colony to provide people good quality, fresh milk. The purpose of Aarey was to bring all tabelas spread across the city in one place and they were given licence to produce milk and sell it. Aarey’s green space will not be disturbed. People call Aarey the green lung of the city and it will remain as it is. Already, it has been declared an ‘eco-sensitive zone’, so new development activities will not be allowed inside, except the Metro carshed. People approach us for tree plantation and we give them space. We also carry out tree plantation every year. Last year, we planted nearly 15,000 trees.

Aarey has 7-8 active leopards. What steps are you taking to avoid man-animal conflicts?

We have an association with NGOs working for the wildlife and forest department. Whenever we see extreme leopard activity at a particular location or if there is an attack we contact these people and they set up cages to capture it. We help NGO researchers and forest staff with all basic facilities to track leopard activity. Earlier, we have taken help from the forest department and met residents of the main tribal hamlets to improve awareness about leopard activities.

Many tribal hamlet residents are complaining that the Aarey authority is not giving them NOCs for basic repairs to their houses due to which they are forced to live in dilapidated structures…

We are waiting for details of legal and illegal structures in Aarey. The deputy collector (encroachments) had done a survey of illegal houses in Aarey. It’s almost in the final stage but has not been submitted to us. Once we get the report, we will have clarity on legal area of every household. Currently, there is a problem as, if we give an NOC, then there is the possibility of illegal extension by owners.

The internal roads, around 40 km, are in a pathetic condition inside Aarey. Why don’t you undertake repairs?

The condition of the roads is poor owing to lack of funds. We have sent a request to the Public Works Department to give us funds for repairs to these stretches. We are expecting to improve these stretches by next March. One reason for the poor condition of roads is also that a bridge had collapsed earlier and all traffic was diverted through the internal roads of Aarey. There was lot of load on these small roads which causes potholes and bad patches.

Why is the infrastructure of the only hospital inside Aarey so poor?

We have enough staff but it was constructed to cater only to daily workers. The population has increased and it doesn’t have beds for admission. For upgradation, the government had decided to hand over the hospital to the BMC but they are yet to do it.

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