Aarey Forest – victory for art, music and rhythm?

June 9, 2021

This week, an obscure institution known as the Aarey Dairy Development Corporation handed over 812 acres of forested land wedged between inner-city Mumbai and the hills of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) to the state forest department. If it was not the end of the battle to save Mumbai’s ‘green lung’, it may at least be the beginning of the end.

Aarey Forest is 1288 hectares – 3183 acres – of forest, grazing land and scattered settlements in the heart of one of the world’s megacities – Mumbai. I have made two research trips there over the past two and a half years, the most recent ending on the day Covid arrived in India and days before the UK went into its first lockdown. The future of the forest, its peri-urban leopards, endemic invertebrates and 500,000 trees, was in doubt and I was there to gather first-hand stories from local activists.

On hearing Monday’s news, I opened a small, black notebook which contained all the reminders I needed of my two visits to Aarey, including a record of my conversations with its Adivasi inhabitants – members of the Warli and Kokna tribal groups. It was their activism, drawing as it did upon traditional art, music and dance, that I wanted to learn more about.

Warli mural, Sanjay Gandhi National Park

I turned to my notes for 21 October 2018, when I visited Vanichapada, a Kokna tribal hamlet in Aarey Forest. I had gone there with my collaborator Krishna Tiwari to continue my series of conversations with local people about their relationship with the famous urban leopards of Mumbai. Local leader Chandu Naushya Jadhav explained, with Krishna interpreting, why he was fighting to save his forest homeland.

“Over the years, Aarey Forest has suffered from development. First it was eighty acres, now it’s 165 acres of encroachment, real estate development. There is lots of cutting of trees, so there is a lot of disturbance to the leopards. So the leopards move around and come for easy prey. If a leopard takes a turkey, takes a dog, I don’t hold a grudge, but I’ve started locking up the livestock at night.”

photo: Villiers Steyn (Shutterstock)

“When I was a child, this forest was very lush, green, thick,” continued Chandu. “There were hardly any slum encroachments, plenty of wildlife, prey for the leopard, so obviously there were no attacks. But now, there’s garbage, the dogs come to feed on the garbage, and they attract the leopards.”

Chandu Naushya Jadhav, Vanichapada hamlet

The latest threat came in the form of a proposal to clear 30 hectares of trees for the construction of a car shed as part of Mumbai’s new Metro Rail Project. First announced in 2015, it had been repeatedly delayed. Then in August 2019, long after I had returned to the UK, the Metro plan was finally confirmed. Thousands of protesters took to the streets, forming a human chain near the site of the proposed works, while activists filed injunctions in the courts. On Friday 4 October 2019 the Mumbai High Court rejected their petitions and cleared the way for the felling of 2,646 trees.

Within hours of the High Court order, under cover of darkness, the Metro company sent out their operatives who worked through the night, cutting down four hundred trees. As the Adivasis (tribal groups) who lived in the forest and activists across the city learned what was happening, hundreds of protesters poured into Aarey to save the ‘green lungs of Mumbai.’ In the morning, police arrested 29 protesters and detained around 200 others.

By the Monday, 2,134 trees had been felled. That day, in response to a petition from a group of law students, the Supreme Court in Delhi ordered a stay on tree felling in Aarey, pending a hearing due later in October to decide on a fundamental question: is Aarey Forest, in legal terms, a forest at all? It was a question that had arisen several times during my visit the year before.

During my visits to Aarey forest I became aware of aspects of Warli Adivasi culture that seemed to me to be of great interest and importance in themselves, but peripheral to my research at the time. I soon realised that was wrong, and that traditional art is central to Warlis’ expression of their connection to nature. It was natural that it would play a key role in their protests. Their distinctive murals seemed to be everywhere.

On the wall of an information centre in the SGNP I noticed a simple but striking mural of plain white paint on a surface of dark, ochreous red earth. It was about three feet wide and extended from floor to ceiling. What at first sight resembled an abstract – if naturalistic – arrangement of triangles, flowing lines and densely-arrayed dots, resolved into a complex landscape of trees, grassland, hills, a cave and a river with its waterfall, along with numerous animals.

As more reports came through of gangs of Metro operatives descending on the forest to clear more trees, and of the peaceful protests that greeted them, the importance of art in the fight to save Aarey became clear. I decided to return to Mumbai, which I did in February 2020.

It was already afternoon when I arrived back in Mumbai. It was good to see Krishna again; he met me in the suburb of Goregaon and we took a rickshaw the short distance along the Aarey road into the forest. The area is known variously as Aarey Colony, Aarey Milk Colony and Aarey Forest. That it is a de facto forest is beyond debate: its 500,000 trees of numerous different species are sufficient testament to that. That it is also a de facto suburb is purely a matter of terminology: however it might be described it is home to around 10,000 Adivasis in 27 padas or hamlets while in more recent slum encroachments there are thousands more inhabitants. The official name Aarey Milk Colony was coined in 1949 when 16 km2 of land was demarcated to attract cattle herders and dairy producers to a dedicated area where grazing, husbandry and milk production could be concentrated.

We wandered into Gowdevipada, a Warli hamlet where I noticed another traditional mural. It was, as usual, painted in white rice flour paint on a dark red wall, on a windowless building set at the edge of an open area. A musician, playing a bottle-gourd fashioned into a wind instrument called a tarpa, was at the left-hand edge of the mural. He was, like all the human figures, drawn of two white triangles joined at their tips, at the figure’s waist. The two precariously-balanced shapes gave a sense of life and movement, like a body bent forward as he played, his matchstick arms and legs and forward-tilted head appearing almost to move to the rhythm of his instrument.

Gowdevipada mural

Something that looked like a diamond-backed snake emerged from the bell of the tarpa. It was, in fact, a line of human figures, 87 people meticulously placed in a spiral, at the centre of which the person at the end of the line was holding a staff. It was a line of dancers, performing the traditional tarpa dance, one of the more frequent subjects for traditional Warli painting. The tarpa is played in turns by different village men. Men and women entwine their hands and move in a circle around the player. The dancers then follow him, turning and moving as he turns, never turning their backs to the tarpa. The musician is like a snake charmer, and the dancers become the figurative snake, whose coiled shape is intended to resemble the circle of life.

The dancers took up exactly half the mural; opposite them was a very different scene, more loosely drawn, dominated by a tree. In the tree was a peacock and a bird’s nest containing three chicks. Their world was about to come crashing down – literally, as the tree was leaning over, at the point of falling, cut down by two people at either end of a two-man saw. A broken circle of eleven more people had been trying to defend the tree, but arrayed before them were police and their barricades. A crowd of protesters were cheering on the human chain, arms aloft, or were maybe shouting in protest at the police. In the distance, life continued, a ploughman and his two oxen, a flight of cattle egrets. Separating the foreground with its police and protesters and the distant normality, was a train, riding the unfinished Metro Line 3.

Three women activists

I was to meet three women who, in their different ways, are in the forefront to save Aarey. Amrita Bhattacharjee joined what she called ‘the movement’ in April 2015. Originally from Assam, where she grew up near Kaziranga, one of India’s best-loved National Parks, she studied engineering before moving to Mumbai. She now runs a company that helps women launch second careers as engineers. I began by asking Amrita if there are many women involved in the campaign to save Aarey.

“Yes, I first got involved when I met a tribal woman, Vanita Thakre, who lives in Kambachapada, here in Aarey. When I heard her talk about her life here, how she had been attacked by a leopard, how she carves a living out of the forest, and how she had become a campaigner when she started to fear for her way of life, I decided I wanted to be part of it too.

“In fact initially it was mostly women, older women, doing the campaigning. The last couple of years, more young people have got involved and they came with technology. They instinctively knew how to make stories go viral. So as a result many people from other cities support us directly. We formed an informal group that anyone can join so we have sports people, creatives, people like me from a corporate background, students, all connecting with Adivasis. I organised visits, to bring groups of people to see Aarey for themselves. Tree appreciation walks are popular, identifying the different trees and the uses they have in traditional medicine, food and so on. This movement works because it is a heterogeneous group from all walks of life.”

Amrita Bhattacharjee (L) and Aparna Bangia (R)

Another activist, Aparna Bangia, explained that she first got to know the forest through a project in which she was helping people obtain native trees to grow.

“Organising seed-sharing and so on”, she said. “Then one day one of my colleagues said, ‘let’s invite schools to come and see what we do’. For some of the kids who have spent all their life in Mumbai they had never experienced a place like this. Even if they live in the pretty parts of the city like Marine Drive they come here and notice for the first time that the sky is blue. They were amazed at the beauty but they were also angry at us, wanting to know why weren’t doing more to save it for them. And the kids who live in Aarey itself: it’s interesting, they have dual lives. They go to school and college outside the forest but they have grown up here, and they have a deep respect for where they live. They pray to the leopard because they know they have to honour the king of the forest. They don’t come from that space where he is our enemy. They are more fearless than people who have encroached from the slums. Their conversation is very different, they always have a lot to share about what they have seen in the forest, this bird, that bird. They have much greater harmony in them.”

“The protests involved a lot of singing every Sunday. It was not based around anger, it was more like an Aarey song festival. Families would come and the singing would keep their spirits up in the rain. It happened every Sunday for a few months. I really understood the rhythm when I danced with them, it’s such a beautiful rhythm. All of these people are not angry people, they are just shaken. They think, why don’t people understand this is important?”

Aparna and Krishna took me to meet tribal activist Vanita Thakre at her hamlet, Khambachapada.

“I am the third generation of my family to have lived here in the forest. In the monsoon we grow enough rice to feed ourselves for the year, also bitter gourd and wild vegetables. The rest of the year we grow other produce to sell using the run-off water from the buffalo sheds. No chemicals, it’s all done with composted vegetation. For me the forest is my gold… “

Vanita Thakre

Krishna broke off to clarify what she meant by this: “Her asset, she calls it her ‘gold’, like they’ve invested their lives in making the forest work for them. They used to have farming licences but they stopped issuing licences so now it’s illegal, it’s like they’ve been robbed of their gold. Originally the Adivasis were given official rights to crop the land in the forest but the licencing system has quietly expired, removing any security of tenure. They want to drive people out this way.”

“My forefathers all depended on forest products, and used to barter firewood for fish down at the quay, 7 or 8 km away. They made their houses from khavi [Cymbopogon grass, which is lemon-scented and has insect-repellent qualities]. All the old documentation is lost because they had nowhere to store documents so no-one can prove we have a right to be here.

“We always pray to the leopard to protect the farm and to protect us from other leopards that are not so good with people. We offer them food; whenever we eat anything, first we offer food for the leopard.”

Earlier, Krishna had told me that Vanita was once attacked by a leopard, and I asked her to tell me what had happened.

“It was early in the morning, I was weeding my field. The grass was green, and when the grass is green, you cannot hear a leopard approaching. It was sitting just behind me, lying low to the ground. When I noticed it, it growled; my mother in law saw and called me to run. I ran like mad, and the leopard ran after me; I fell twice but got up and kept running, running, running. The dogs were barking and people shouted and threw stones but it didn’t go. Eventually I reached to within 20 yards of my house and collapsed, and lost consciousness. While I was unconscious the leopard didn’t attack me but just sat there breathing like this…” Vanita imitated the deep, hoarse menace of the animal’s breathing, leaning her head and shoulders forward and back to the rhythm of the sound. “When I woke up I had to plead with my boys not to scare it in case it attacks them. Eventually it just walked off.”

While the protests continued on the ground, the campaigning organisation Vanashakti took the fight to the courts. A year on, there had been a change of government in Maharashtra and newly elected Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray ordered a stop to the construction work on the shed. It was one of the promises Thackeray had made while campaigning in the state election which took place the previous October, at the height of the protests to save Aarey.

I visited the offices of Vanashakti, for a return visit to meet their Director, Stalin Dyanand. Stalin had called to see me at my hotel a year earlier for a conversation about the complex web of deals between property developers, state officials and assorted shadowy figures, that were, he asserted, the real driving force behind forest destruction.

Since we last met there had been three major developments, Stalin reminded me. “The Sunday gatherings, including the arrests of students, whose fate is still not resolved; the Supreme Court demanding that the government actually declares what its plans are for the excess land that has been transferred, over and above what they claim to need for Metro car shed; and the new Siva Sena government in Maharashtra state which was elected on a pro-Aarey manifesto and is now sharing power with two other pro-Aarey parties.”

After I had again returned home, to what within days would be a locked-down Britain in a locked-down world, the Supreme Court sat. Vanashakti had challenged the 2016 declaration by the Ministry of Environment and Forests of an Eco-Sensitive Zone that expressly excluded around 407 acres of Aarey Forest. An ESZ serves as a ‘shock absorber’ for protected areas and regulates mining, construction and industry around national parks and wildlife sanctuaries to minimise impacts on fragile ecosystems. I was still receiving regular updates from India and learned that on 16 June 2020 the Supreme Court dismissed Vanashakti’s appeal, clearing the way for infrastructure development across the disputed forest area. At the same time the court heard the NGO’s application for an interim order to halt what they described as illegal tree-felling and forest burning that had taken place under the cover of lockdown. On this, the Court ordered a report from the state forest authorities.

It was a story that seemed unlikely to end any time soon, and I wrote up my research from Mumbai and other parts of India in my book Leopard Moon Rising, published at the beginning of this month. I concluded the chapter on Aarey with the fate of the forest and its wildlife sucked once again into a party political whirlpool, and the 10,000 Avidasis who live in the padas back on the sidelines, to await their fate.

Then came the news, this week, that the Aarey Dairy Development Corporation had handed over 812 acres of land adjacent to Sanjay Gandhi National Park to the state forest department.

Biodiversity in Aarey needs to be conserved and protected. Nowhere is there an 800-acre jungle in an urban set-up. Mumbai has natural forest cover. We know that jungles are converted to cities, but here, a city is converted to a jungle.

Uddhav Thackeray, Chief Minister of Maharashtra

The government invoked Section 4 of the Indian Forest Act, 1927, which means the government intends to declare the land as reserve forest by appointing a forest settlement officer (FSO). Following the acquisition by the state forest department, the FSO will survey the area to inquire into and determine the existence, nature and extent of any rights claimed over the land by its inhabitants and other interested parties. Meanwhile, Thackeray directed that while deciding on the reserved forest area, the rights of the tribal community should be kept intact. It is believed that the eventual aim is to incorporate the final area into the adjacent Sanjay Gandhi National Park, giving it higher protection.

Responding to the Times of India, Vanashakhti’s Stalin Dyanand said, “Crucial time was lost in this handover. Many encroachments have come up during the last one year… Having said that, hopefully now the forest department will proactively conserve the forest and the wildlife in it. But this should be the beginning of the process to conserve Aarey, not the end. More areas need to be surveyed and protected.”

Essay adapted from Aarey, chapter 7 of Leopard Moon Rising – distant views of India. Leopard Moon Rising was published on 1 June 2021 by Gritstone Publishing.

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