What Social Media Debates Get Wrong About the Save Aarey Campaign

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What Social Media Debates Get Wrong About the Save Aarey Campaign

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

They detained those who questioned them. They detained political leaders. They detained a harmless adivasi girl who was just stepping out to give her TYBMM exams. And these were just the lucky ones who were later allowed to go. An unlucky 29 people, including women and college kids, were arrested and put in jail overnight. “Don’t ask questions. Just sit in the van!” they were told. Their crime? Protesting against the cutting of thousands of trees, the pulsing lung of a teetering city, in the dead of night. They stood up for our city, its wildlife, and its children, while fellow citizens passed judgement online, calling them idiots, paid puppets, and anti-development fanatics.  

But the inconvenient truth is that the Save Aarey activists are neither paid puppets with a hidden agenda or overly woke anarchists. It has always been a citizen’s movement for the past four years. Various political parties have taken uneven stands on it in the past as per their convenience and celebrities have lent their voices to it, but at the heart of it are people like you and me who have jobs to do, bills to pay, and are just as worried that this city will completely implode one day. People like me, who’ve never considered themselves to be “krantikari” types… I signed up for the movement after coming across a video about it, and became seriously worried about the city’s fate. That led me to join the Save Aarey movement on Facebook and sign up for their WhatsApp updates, affording me an insider’s view of this fight for the city’s natural wealth. No politics, no agendas; we are just sick of watching our city destroyed in the name of haphazard development.

Development has become the sticking point for both sides of the debate. But the Save Aarey movement was never against the metro. It was against building the carshed at Aarey. The authorities had at least one other possible option to build it in Kanjurmarg. Even experts had recommended this option was viable before, but this was not explored further citing reasons like the land is under dispute (their own lawyer later confirmed in HC that it was never so), that it will need a 10 km extension track to reach, and cost an additional 1,700 crore (a baseless claim, because Metro 6 is already assigned a depot at Kanjurmarg. Metro 6 and Metro 3 tracks intersect at a point and Metro 3 trains could use the same tracks to get to the carshed in Kanjurmarg). If we as a country can develop the engineering marvel of Mangalyaan, we can surely find ways to build a train’s carshed while retaining our ecosystem? If Delhi’s metro can change it’s tracks to save 13,000 trees, why not Mumbai?

Aarey

This is not just about about cutting down 2,700 trees – this is about fighting against the agenda to open up the entire Aarey forest for various other projects.

Photo by Pramod Thakur/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

The fight to save Aarey was a long, hard battle fought over four years by many, but the movement has taken some unprecedented turns in the past few months. In 2018, BMC had received 40,000 objection letters against Tree Authority’s notice to cut 2,298 trees at Aarey for the Metro 3 carshed, and this went up to 80,000 letters next year when the number of trees to be axed went up to 2,702. Citizens even went to multiple Tree Authority hearings presenting their case. But roughly a month later, the same Tree Authority voted in favour of cutting the trees, in what was widely claimed as a fraud by some of TA’s own members. It was a farcical and rushed meeting where members were not allotted time to speak on the matter. In fact the two experts on board the TA resigned right after this, accusing the body of foul play. 

The Bombay High Court was roped in to challenge this. While they dismissed the case against the Tree Authority, the HC refused to grant a stay until the matter was heard in the Supreme Court. Under the law, the permission letter to cut trees has to be first published in the public domain for 15 days before the actual cutting. There even has to be a tree officer present on site to ensure the right number of trees are cut, following proper procedure. 

But the folks at Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL) and the state government, exploiting the fact that SC was shut for a few days and using the Mumbai police as muscle, chucked that procedure out of the window. The same night as the order of the Bombay HC, around 8.30pm, phones started buzzing with the news that MMRCL had already arrived at the site to cut trees. Panic erupted, and everyone who could reach the carshed site did in the next one hour or so. Gradually, hundreds made it in the dead of the night to defend the trees, including some residents from far-off Navi Mumbai and Chembur. But they were met with lathis and brutal force by the police. Women manhandled, dragged into vans, and taken to police stations in the name of “maintaining order”.

The Save Aarey movement was never against the metro. It was against building the carshed at Aarey.

This was a kind of authoritarianism I have never witnessed in Mumbai before. Imagine the government of the financial capital of the largest democracy, ordering its men to sneak into a forest at night to cut down thousands of trees, knowing fully well that thousands of citizens were against it and that they had to wait for 15 days. They even refused ambulances sent by animal welfare groups to rescue birds and other creatures affected by the tree cuttings from entering the site on Wednesday morning (October 9). Their actions had the clearance from the HC, but the matter had been passed on for hearing at the SC (which has since ordered a stay on the felling). What was the hurry?

Has the BMC and Maharashtra government ever shown this level of alacrity, dedication, and efficiency toward fixing our potholes? Or cracking down on illegal encroachers? If they can cut full-grown trees at night, surely they can visit your place at night the next time you complain about a stinking pile of garbage that’s not picked up in front of your house? If we’re meant to appreciate the development that the metro represents, surely we can also demand better civic administration.

This is not just about about cutting down 2,700 trees – this is about fighting against the agenda to open up the entire Aarey forest for various other projects. Beyond the carshed, there is a 32-storey Metro Bhavan, an RTO office where thousands of cars will come everyday to do their tests, a freaking zoo, one SRA project to rehabilitate slum dwellers and adivasi residents, and a Force One training academy. Meanwhile, the builder’s lobby is already lining up to get a piece of the Aarey cake. Getting approval to build the carshed is just them getting their foot inside the door. In fact, there are various proposals for infrastructure projects to come up in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, mangroves are proposed to be cut for the bullet train, and the salt pans are being sold off to real estate developers. Without these support systems, Mumbai will become a concrete jungle. It is already one of the most densely populated cities in the world that barely has one tree for every four people, whereas there should ideally be seven trees per person. Can we afford to lose anymore green cover in our city? Especially when it is avoidable?

Are we meant to just sit around while ministers take decisions that affect our lives, our future, our families, and the generations to come? Or are we meant to step up and intervene? I decided to give the second option a chance. I would go to the court hearings or the protests when I could, because a common purpose had brought Mumbaikars together, and it was a chance to show my solidarity. I made new friends on the WhatsApp group who are aware about the city’s problems and are ready to fight for it. There are people from all walks of life: Some take up social media duties, some coordinate with the lawyers, some organise meets, some make music videos, while some design posters. They do it because this city means so much to them. We are just normal Mumbaikars, standing up for what we believe.

Many trees have already been cut, and we cannot reverse the damage. But what we can do now is try to ensure that we do not let this happen again. We need to come out on the streets, make our voices heard, actively read up on the issue, and ask questions. We need to band together as a city, because only we can save our city. No one else will.

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