Some time last year, when Prakash Bhoir visited a forest department office in Sanjay Gandhi National Park, he spotted taxidermy models of animals, preserved and displayed in glass cases lined up in a row outside a bureaucrat’s cabin. “I told him, very politely, that they need to ready slightly taller glass cases, for Mumbai’s adivasis will have to be soon displayed similarly,” Bhoir says, with little signs of bitterness.
In his late 40s, Bhoir is an employee of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, but better known in Keltipada, a tribal hamlet in Aarey Colony, Goregaon, as the go-to person when the Katkaris, Mahadev Kolis, Mallar Kolis, Warlis and others need to mobilise themselves.
Aarey Colony has been in the eye of multiple storms in recent months. Whether it was the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s Development Plan 2014-2034 that earlier proposed a “growth hub” around the padas, or the controversy over handing over a large plot of land in Aarey for a Metro Rail carshed or the bizarre proposal to move the city’s sole zoo here, Aarey Colony, originally twice its current size of 1,000 hectares and hugging the national park’s hilly southwestern boundaries, is clearly Mumbai’s most seductive large green lung. For adivasis or tribals who live in the 20-odd hamlets inside Aarey, however, the coming years will see a wave of development more rapid and brutal than in the past.
One of Bhoir’s 50-odd neighbours in Keltipada, one of the hamlets, points out that the tribals lost land first to the Aarey Dairy when it was set up in 1949-50, then to Film City, to builders, and more recently to Force One, the elite commando force established after the 26/11 attacks, and now possibly to infrastructure projects. They say the Slum Rehabilitation Scheme, the sole mechanism to rehabilitate tribals who may be moved out of their hamlets, is an urban beast they can never hope to live with.
“We pay rent to Aarey, per guntha, for cultivating on government land. We rear poultry, some of us have goats. I have several dozen trees — banana, chikoo, jackfruit. That’s how we make our living. How do we move our land and chicken and goat into a 300 sq-foot flat?” asks Bhoir.
Part of Keltipada, including land on which Prakash’s home sits, was demarcated for the Force One training ground. While there hasn’t been any recent move to oust them, it’s still a hardscrabble life for Keltipada’s residents: Water trickles out of a stolen line or gathers in a muddy and shallow well, electricity came four years ago to Keltipada while at least two other hamlets remain unelectrified. Prakash’s wife now sells her fresh produce of radish and spinach at the morning bazaar near Jogeshwari-Vikhroli Link Road — before these suburbs grew, she’d have to walk to Andheri with her basket of greens.
For now, following vociferous protests, the Development Plan’s previous proposal for a growth centre in Aarey is on the back-burner, the zoo may be a non-starter and flat-owners’ protests may have stalled the arrival of a Metro carshed, but Bhoir and his friends are gathering regularly to prepare themselves for coming onslaughts. Bhoir’s daughter Shital, 22, a professional artist who paints traditional Warli designs on canvas and other material, has mobilised a group of youngsters from padas across Mumbai. There are 222 in all, she says, some of them frozen in idyllic settings like in Keltipada, others reduced to slums over the years.
“There are tribal hamlets in Gorai, Andheri, Malad, Manori, in the national park. We’re trying to get youngsters to look at various issues pertaining to our lot ranging from getting caste certificates to land records,” she says. In Keltipada itself, the process of urging residents to get their caste certificates in order has begun — application forms have been signed and submitted, Shital expects to follow up with the tehsildar’s office soon.
The youngsters are also trying to revive and fine-tune traditional art forms. Shital herself is looking for space to teach other tribal children how to paint Warli designs, others her age choose to celebrate community events with a traditional tarpa dance instead of Bollywood songs. When a friend from a Manori hamlet calls to seek advice on an upcoming college presentation on tribal life, Shital and Prakash tell her to talk about how development has pushed some of the city’s original residents to its fringes, geographically and socio-economically.
On his Samsung smartphone, Prakash tells the teenager: “Why does development always have to be cutting a few hundred trees and building a tower? Why not demolish a few towers and build some open spaces? And if the latter is not possible, why not save the little open space there is left?”