For around 7,000 Adivasis or tribal voters living in the 27 padas (hamlets) in Aarey Milk Colony, felling of trees by the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL) for the Metro car shed was ‘betrayal’ they cannot put behind as polling day draws closer. Amid the vociferous protest by Adivasis and environmentalist, the MMRCL had cleared the Metro car shed site of the 2,141 trees till Monday. Adivasis believe that the government betrayed them, again.
“Our rights were strangled in a day. We are not even allowed to step outside of our houses while they encroached upon our land. On the day (when trees were cut), it felt like they killed our families. Government will pay its price,” said Santosh Dalvi from Gaodevi pada, a tribal hamlet just 200 metre from the car shed site.
Shyam Bhoir, 27, from Kelti pada, whose mother was among the 29 arrested by the Mumbai police said, “It was not just a protest. It was a fight to save our home. They entered our houses at night and looted us. They (government) never cared about us all this while and now they see this open land and want to encroach it fully.”
After the feeling of trees, the fear of being evicted is looming over them as now, the state government plans to shift them to buildings under the Slum Rehabilitation Scheme (SRA). Some 7,000-odd voters from the colony have put up banners across these padas for the candidates coming to campaign, declaring that they do not want eviction, but want to be given the basic facilities on their own land where they have lived for generations.
No candidates have yet come for campaigning in these tribal hamlets. However, the tribals are ready with their questions — “Why were the trees cut for the Metro car shed? Why are they being threatened with evictions? Where are the basic facilities?”
Spread over 300 acres, Aarey remains deprived of most welfare schemes and the need to assert their claims for individual and community rights is more acute after the approval to Metro car shed, felling of over 2,000 trees and rapid development plans inside Aarey Colony. After notices were sent to some hamlets for surveys under the Slum Rehabilitation Authority, assurance of no eviction is on their top demands from candidates this election.
Laxmi Nimble, 65, from the Navschapada, lives under constant fear of eviction. “Some years back, they (government) asked us to fill a survey form for the rehabilitation scheme. Every few years, they come with such proposals and survey our padas. They lure us with dreams of better houses, water supply, but in reality what they want to do is grab our land and construct fancy buildings for outsiders. We want basic facilities but it should be made available in our pada. I do not want to go and live in highrise buildings, I will die there,” Nimble told The Indian Express.
The state government has planned a rehabilitation scheme for Aarey and Sanjay Gandhi National Park tribals in the Aarey Milk Colony area. However, the proposal was met with fierce objections from the tribals. The posters put up a banner outside each pada, warning, “Aadivasis are not fools, we are demanding what is our right and not seeking alms”.
Aarey Colony falls in the Jogeshwari East assembly constituency, which is represented by Shiv Sena’s Ravindra Waikar. Waikar, a two-term MLA from the constituency, said, “The project is proposed so that tribals get basic facilities of water, electricity, toilets and good houses. We don’t want to evict them from their land, that’s a misconception.”
The tribals are, however, miffed that their demand for basic necessities have fallen on deaf ears and never made it to the election discourse. As women and children from Navschapada huddle around a sole water tap available in the pada for 75 families, Prashant Pawar, who belongs to the Warli tribe, said, “There are no toilets in the area. The MLA had got two bio toilets in 2011 but now they are defunct. We have been requesting water supply, but no one has paid any attention.” In 2017, increased leopard attacks on the tribal residents of Aarey, who had stepped out to relieve themselves in the open, had highlighted the lack of public toilets in the area.