Aarey | People for the Planet
Aarey Colony is Mumbai’s largest green space, amidst a wide expanse of concrete as far as the eye can see. Located off the Western Express Highway, Aarey is spread over 16 sq. kilometres and encompasses 27 tribal villages, amongst gardens, lakes, picnic sites, a pavilion and dairy plants, symbolising its origin as a dairy colony. It boasts of the presence of ‘Chhota Kashmir’, a picnic site frequented by tourists and urban-dwellers, alike. The Aarey Forest, also known as the Lungs of Mumbai, is as much a symbiotic colony of tribes and nature, as could be, with a normal day seeing children playing around and adults working through it.
The tribes residing in it have come to build a sense of harmonious kinship with each other and with the forest that provides them sustenance; but that’s not all the forest has to offer. The Warli tribe reveres the forest and are devout disciples of Hirwa Devi, the Green Goddess, immortalised in the trees planted by their forefathers. To them and to every inhabitant of Aarey, tragedy struck when a large number of trees were struck down overnight to pave way for a Metro project in October, 2019. The sense of collective pain could not be worded; not only had they lost their means of livelihood, they had lost family, they had lost their deities to a project that would socioeconomically exclude them from its exploits, and feed the privileged at the expense of those wronged.
A strict lockdown was implemented in the Colony in October 2019, with residents stripped of all dignity and respect, all activities monitored, movements hindered; identity cards demanded from people who had peacefully inhabited the colony throughout their lives. Communities directly impacted by the actions performed in their living space were stripped off the voice they had constitutionally wielded to protest against their plight.
Widespread mass-mobilisation against the cutting down of swathes of trees in the Aarey Colony gained traction, and in no time, the youth and conscientious citizens of Mumbai, stood in tandem with the tribes of Aarey to oppose the inhuman overnight felling of trees, with support pouring in online, from every corner of the country, and the world.
People rallied around the cause of conservation of the Colony and it took massive deforestation in an indispensable forest to awaken blissfully ignorant people and bring about a reckoning of sorts. Information about the Colony, the Aarey Forest and the Indigenous tribes that lived in it could be found on every portal, big or small, and every previously uninformed child began to find a voice in support of the Save Aarey campaign.
It took a tragedy of colossal proportions to draw public attention to the injustices that Indigenous tribes have been facing for generations, with growing privatisation and the audacity of corporations to attempt to own communally-upheld spaces, toying with the beliefs of Indigenous communities who believe that something with a spirit of its own can’t be bonded and owned. We are only latecomers to a cause that Indigenous communities have been championing alone, as the lone stewards of socioecological and equitable environment protection; and it is past time that they are given their due.