Free Press Journal

Tribals in Mumbai! Exploring the city’s incredible yet unknown diversity


Mumbai’s incredible diversity remains unfortunately unknown, says Mallika Iyer

Mumbai is a complex paradox. Nowhere else in the world do 20 million people share a city with over 40 wild leopards. No other city could boast of a fifth of its land being a dense green National Park. No other metropolis could account for over 4 lakh adivasis or indigenous people living side-by-side with modern skyscrapers and malls. Unfortunately, the story remains largely unknown and uncelebrated.

Warlis. Mahadev Kolis. Konkanas. Dublis. Dhodis. Katkaris.

These are names of Adivasi tribes residing in western Maharashtra. Not in remote jungles or the hinterland. But in Mumbai, India’s financial hub. As the city rapidly transforms in its race for modernity, these indigenous tribes are facing a battle for survival. Marginalised in their own home, their traditions and their lives are at threat in a city that dreams of becoming the next Shanghai.

A City of contrasts

“The Forest Department denies us permission to construct toilet blocks in the jungle,” explains Prakash Bhoir, a member of the tribal community, referring to the absence of basic infrastructure, “We are forced to use the open jungle which puts our lives at great risk from the leopards. We do not have permission to break a single twig! But tell me, have the tribals not protected the forest for centuries? Why deny us basic and inherent rights?”

That ought to give a snapshot of the lives of tribals in Mumbai. Denied their traditional rights of farming, fishing and hunting once the area was declared a protected National Park, they increasingly find even their identity being called into question.

“City people want the forest and the animals. Not the tribals, who have been living here much before it was declared a National Park,” adds Neelima Bujad, a member of the Warli community, as she prepares for the celebrations for Adivasi Diwas (celebrated across the world as the International Day of Indigenous People) on August 11. “In fact, the administration was not even aware of the existence of so many tribals in Mumbai until we organised ourselves and took out a protest march at Azad Maidan a few years ago.”

The Warlis and Mahadev Kolis have been living in parts of the city like Aarey and Sanjay Gandhi National Park for years. Yet, they are not provided with transport or electricity. Children who live deep inside the jungle in areas like Chunapada near Kanheri, must walk 20 kms each day to and from school. They do not have permission to build toilets inside their homes or construct a pipeline for water. They do not have the rights to carry on their traditional agricultural practices. If this sounds like a scene from a backward village in the hinterlands, well, it’s not! This is reality for many of the sons and daughters of Mumbai’s soil!

World of the Warlis

When one enters a pada (cluster) in Aarey or SGNP, it is hard to believe one is within the city of Mumbai. Neat little mud homes with intricate Warli motifs can be found within the thriving dense jungle surrounded by the plaintive calls of koels and bulbuls. It is surreal.

“Our Warli Art has become famous all over the world. Thanks to Soma Mashe and some other artists who took this art form out of our mud walls into art galleries. But little is known about us otherwise,” explains Bhoir, as he describes the various Warli beliefs and rituals.

The apex deity of the Warlis is Wagoba (interpreted both as tiger and leopard) while a host of other deities like Kansari, Palghata and Hirwa Deo add to the pantheon. The Warlis believe in propitiating Waghoba to keep him pleased, including with an annual customary goat sacrifice at the Waghoba shrine deep inside the jungle. “Just like city children are trained to be careful while crossing the road, Warli children are trained to be careful while treading in the forest,” explains Nikit Surve, a researcher who has been studying inter-connections between leopards and tribals. “They do not fear wild animals or wish them away. They respect them and live in harmony with all jungle creatures – including snakes and leopards that are otherwise perceived as threats.”

And yet, these tribals who have lived in close harmony with nature and preserved the city’s thriving jungle for centuries, find themselves at the receiving end from a society that is pushing for modernity and progress. Many of them understand the complexities involved. But they feel cheated. “When our land was declared a National Park, we were promised we’d be allowed to continue farming there for a token amount of Rs. 1,” says Bhujad. “But the Forest Department now refuses to issue us the receipt for this. They want to erase all records of our presence.”

Tribals, leopards and a metropolis. This incredible diversity is a heritage that Mumbai ought to be proud of and celebrate. Unfortunate indeed it is, that few people even know about it!