Save Aarey: The Trees Are Gone but the Whataboutery is Here to Stay

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Save Aarey: The Trees Are Gone but the Whataboutery is Here to Stay

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

On Friday night, the protestors who had gathered at Aarey Colony over their shared fondness for breathing, lost the battle against metro authorities and the Maharashtra government, and were made to watch as the trees they had vowed to protect began to fall. The Save Aarey movement, which has been arguing that Mumbai needs that small last patch of forest to prevent a host of environmental calamities, seemed to have breathed its last, as police officers swarmed, and imposed Section 144 in the colony the next morning before men with chainsaws started taking down trees. Among the 30 people detained/arrested on site were environmental activists (criminals, the lot of them), 21-year-olds (shouldn’t have been out so late anyway), and Shiv Sena spokesperson Priyanka Chaturvedi (…umm?). 

For one section of society, that we’re officially referring to as the “what-about” community, this couldn’t have been better news. Finally the one thing standing between Mumbai becoming a world-class city of the future and the dystopian nightmare it is today, had been eliminated.

The whatabouters reared their heads soon after the first protests were held, not shying away from labelling every protester who spoke about the forest a “vacuous anti-development hypocrite”. Their main point — Mumbai needs a metro to reduce carbon emissions much more than it needed protesters travelling in cars to Goregaon every day. Ignoring the thousands of clarifications from the Save Aarey movement that it was in no way against the building of a metro shed, and that it was only suggesting it be moved to another plot, the “whatabouters” continued to sneer at the “tree-huggers”. 

For a casual bystander, this may seem like a complex problem, that some decent city-planning should be able to solve. But for the whatabouters, who’ve now gone almost 300 days without seeing a major bridge collapse, the entire movement became as simple as “protestors vs metro”. After ignoring the initial round of protesters, they went on to personally target celebrities who decided to join in the movement, such as Farhan Aktar and Dia Mirza, reminding them that their whole careers depended on another independent plot of land in Goregaon, Filmcity. The celebs were asked to take trains (like Akshay Kumar), and stop buying SUVs if they wanted to have an opinion on the city. 

Finally the one thing standing between Mumbai becoming a world-class city of the future and the dystopian nightmare it is today, had been eliminated.

When they were done with that, the whatabouters trained their eyes on Royal Palms, another colony built in the heart of the forest. “Where were you when they built that,” they asked, without answering their own question, of course. All this while, an entire community of self-sustaining villagers, sat in silence as everyone else decided it was time their lives got an upgrade (from thousands of square-feet land in Goregaon to a tiny hovel somewhere in Virar. Sounds legit).

Eventually, it took only six hours after the High Court delivered its judgement for the trees to start falling, which activists are pointing out — according to the official order — should have waited at least three weeks. This is not suspicious at all, considering Mumbai authorities have a reputation for being on time to fix everything… Still activists are pointing out that the upcoming Maharashtra elections, and an NGT hearing on October 10 may have something to do with this sudden urge to cut down the trees, and disregard all the points raised by protesters. Typically, as the Supreme Court was hearing the petition today, the Maharashtra government nobly replied that it had cut all the trees that needed to be cut anyway, and the activists were freed. So that’s the end of that. 

Mumbai authorities have gotten away with this for years. As the “whatabouters” rightly pointed out, no one has been around to protest years of municipal mismanagement, zero city-planning, heavy-handedness by municipal workers, and haphazard building that has led us to the Arabian sea reclaiming some of our land. The coastal city has almost run out of mangroves, requires capeless crusaders like Afroz Shah to clean a single beach, and boasts of the worst rehabilitation hellhole in the world, Mahul. To put it simply, the people in charge of Mumbai aren’t exactly known as much for their history of taking environmental norms into consideration, as their love for gender-fluid yoga statues at every turning. 

So obviously the first time the city comes together to save something it loves, and wishes to save (especially since there was another option), it only makes sense that they are targeted anti-development, and the only reason Mumbai doesn’t have a metro yet (Gurgaon has two already, bro). In the end it seems like all the whataboutery has done is enable authorities to have their cake and eat it too. Now they can come across as champions of the environment, and also the saviours in a metro-starved city. This is best illustrated by Shiv Sena members, who continue to be in positions of power, and bemoan the loss of the forest land on Twitter. Win-win. 

In the end it seems like all the whataboutery has done is enable authorities to have their cake and eat it too.

Sadly, years later, when this haphazard construction gives rise to more congestion, and hundreds of other problems in an already collapsing city — and the activists finally get a chance to say, “I told you so” — the whatabouters will have already come up with newer justifications for Mumbai not being a world-class city. Such as, “Pune is worse”, or “Who asked Salman Khan to buy five cars”. And so the cycle will continue.

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