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Thursday, October 22, 2020

Activists, tribals, political parties say city will benefit from Aarey preservation

This is the first time in recent memory that a government has given in to a people’s protest against an infrastructure project.

Written by Srinath Rao , Sadaf Modak | Mumbai | October 12, 2020 12:09:46 am
aarey car shed, aarey metro project, Aarey forest, Aarey Milk Colony, Mumbai forest, Uddhav Thackeray, Forest in Mumbai, Mumbai newsProtests broke out last year over the felling of over 2,000 trees to make way for the Metro car shed in Aarey Colony (Express photo)

THIS KIND of thing hasn’t happened in Mumbai in a long time, said environmentalist Shashikant Sonawane after the state government Sunday announced the Colaba-Bandra-Seepz Metro car shed will be shifted from the Aarey Milk Colony to Kanjurmarg in the eastern suburbs.

This is the first time in recent memory that a government has given in to a people’s protest against an infrastructure project. On Sunday, the Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray also said the cases against activists who protested against the felling of trees for the project had been withdrawn.

Last year, on October 4 night, when the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL) started felling trees at Aarey Colony, hours after the Bombay High Court had allowed the construction of the car shed on the land, Sonawane was among several hundred people who had rushed to the site from across Mumbai and Thane to document the incident even as the

Mumbai Police and local security tried to keep them out.

The first call for the protest to save the greens had come from the Adivasi padas within the Aarey Colony, Siddhi Shelar, a lawyer who was also a part of the protest, said. “We received calls from people from the padas when they heard loud sounds from the proposed site. Many rushed to protest. There were sit-ins. People were being stopped at many spots and taken to police stations. While many were detained and later allowed to go, complaints were filed against 29 people, including six women. We immediately filed for their bail and they were released a day later,” Shelar said. She, along with others, represented the 29 in seeking their release.

Environmental activist Zoru Bathena, who had campaigned against the previous government’s decision to fell trees at Aarey Colony, said, “We are thrilled to hear the government has agreed that there is an easy way to move the depot out of Aarey. Citizens will get the priceless benefit of better Metro connectivity. The government will benefit from lifelong cost savings from merging depots. And Mumbaikars will forever benefit from the preservation of the Aarey forest. It is a win-win for everyone.” The only question that remains unanswered, he added, is why the previous government had “refused to act for the overall benefit of Mumbai when all these benefits were known way back in 2015 itself”.

A statement issued by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) said the party “welcomes the shifting of the Metro III car shed to Kanjurmarg… A united citizenry has always triumphed… Chief Minister Shri Uddhav Thackeray has kept his poll promise and freed Aarey from the rampant concretisation that would have been the direct fall out of the Metro car shed.”

The statement added, “The most important aspect in this change is that it proves beyond doubt that viable alternate sites were always available and the only thing that drove the Devendra Fadnavis government to use Aarey forest was its greed for real estate and it’s a blatant disregard for the well-being of Mumbaikars.”

Prakash Bhoir, a member of the Adivasi Haq Samvardhan Samiti, whose wife Pramila was among those arrested, said the decision of the state government to shift the Metro car shed was a “long-fought-for victory” for the community. “We had fought for five years to protect the area. When the decision was made to fell trees, we would form human chains every day with participation from women and children, too. On that night (October 4), we left in the middle of our dinner when he heard the sound of machines felling trees,” Bhoir said.

He recalls how his wife was among the people detained for sitting in protest at the site and was later shown arrested. “I returned home with my children at 3 am. While many others were allowed to go after being detained for a few hours at the police station, my wife had to spend a night in jail before being granted bail,” he said. The government’s decision to withdraw cases, he said, has brought relief “as we’re only protesting to save the forest”.

More than 100 people, detained on October 4 night, were taken to at least three different police stations. The arrested persons were booked on charges of unlawful assembly and assaulting police officers. The next morning, leaders from the Shiv Sena and Aam Aadmi Party had protested against the MMRCL’s alleged haste to fell trees.

Sonawane, too, had rushed to Aarey from his home in Virar that evening after hearing that the police had detained local Adivasi men and women protesting against felling of trees. Having protested against projects adversely impacting the environment for the last two decades, when Sonawane was detained by the police that night, he had expected to be released soon after.

“I have been detained by the police for protesting against a proposed nuclear power plant at Nanar, proposed Wadhawan Port and bullet train corridor in Palghar. On each occasion, I was released after some time. But last year was the first time I was placed under arrest,” he said.

The arrested persons had to spend a day in jail before being released on bail. After coming to power, Thackeray had announced that the charges against the arrested protesters would be reviewed.

“After the government formed a committee to examine the charges, we had some hope. But then nothing happened for a long time and we had to put a lot of pressure on the government. Our demand since the outset was to shift the car shed out of Aarey. Once that happened, the charges against us would immediately be dropped,” Sonawane said.

Freelance art director Akshay Patankar, who was among the arrested protesters, too, expressed surprise and jubilance after the Sunday’s announcement. Last year, the 29-year-old had dashed out of his house in Andheri East at 9.30 pm after receiving a video of the MMRCL felling trees. Like many of those who had spontaneously joined the citizens’ agitation that night, Patankar said could not hold himself back as his association with the forest had only grown over the years: from school picnics to trekking and pursuit of photography, and then attending the weekend human chains to save the green zone.

According to Sonawane, it was the spontaneous nature of the protest that had made it a success. “There was a cross-section of people who had turned up. There were no anti-social elements who could have diverted attention away from the core issue. I have attended so many protests but never been a part of a people’s protest that has been successful. It is very unusual for Mumbai,” he said.

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