Mumbai: Thousands are flocking the gates of the Veermata Jeejabai Bhosale Udyanand Zoo at Byculla, popularly known as Rani Baug, to catch a glimpse of the Humboldt Penguins, the latest addition at the zoo. The last few days have been characterised by serpentine queues caused by the mad rush to see the penguins.

However, few people who visit the zoo to take a look at these unique birds, will perhaps know of the struggle of five women who have spent a good part of the last decade in ensuring that this green lung of Mumbai survives, unscathed by the tentacles of development and modernization.

The Save Rani Baug Brigade

Hutokshi Rustomfram, Shubhada Nikharge, Sheila Tanna, Hutoxi Arethna and Katie Baglie are five ordinary residents of the city who took it upon themselves to protect this crucial part of the city’s natural heritage when it came to their notice that Mumbai’s largest open green public space was under threat.

“When I first heard about plans for the redevelopment of the Baug to make way for an international zoo, it made me uneasy. I wanted to learn more about this plan,” says Hutokshi recounting how it all began when she read a news article in 2007 about BMC’s plans to revamp the zoo.

Persistent RTI enquiries and careful study of the materials obtained revealed details that exposed the risk the gardens were about to face. The city’s only heritage botanical garden that boasts of as many as 853 plant species was under serious threat. The proposed land use in the re-development plan revealed a sharp decline in the green cover and a sharp increase in the entry fee. This meant that the tree cover was going to shrink dramatically and also that the gardens would soon become unaffordable for ordinary citizens. Organising themselves into an informal group, these women swung into action.

From signature petitions to awareness campaigns, from RTI enquiries to public interest litigation, from vigilant watch to persistent intervention, these women did it all. From knocking the gates of the Bombay High Court in Mumbai to showing up at the door of the Environment Minister in New Delhi, they pursued every available avenue to save the heritage gardens.

“At one point, the BMC flatly denied the existence of a Botanical Garden!” recollects Hutoxi. This new challenge made them return to the drawing board with a renewed vigour. Starting from scratch, they had to prove the existence of the Botanical Gardens to the city’s municipal corporation. They poured over tomes of gazetteers and searched through volumes of historical data to establish their case.

“After five years of the campaign, the Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee and the Central Zoo Authority rejected the re-development plan and sought a fresh plan which did not encroach upon the green space of the garden. To know that the tree cover of the gardens was going to be protected was a huge relief,” says Hutokshi.

Botanical Garden Before Zoo

Not many people know that the Rani Baug was originally a botanical garden to which a zoo was later added. Established in June 1861, the Victoria Gardens (as it was earlier known) is one of the earliest landmarks of the city. The botanical garden that was earlier situated at Sewri was shifted to the current site at Byculla and funds of over Rs 22,000 were raised from the public for the purpose. A small zoo was started later in 1890.

The Botanical Gardens are home to over 3,000 trees comprising 286 species. Some of the trees are very rare. And some are over a hundred years old. It is a veritable nursery for Botany students and nature-lovers, many of whom learn their basics about trees and plants here. “The Sundari tree here was the only species of its kind in Maharashtra. It is this tree that gives the Sundarbans its name,” says Shubhada pointing to a picture of the massive rare tree. “But the tree has fallen,” she adds with a sigh. To these ladies, the trees of the Baug are like their own children. They know them intimately and feel a deep sense of affection toward them.

While the re-development plan was rejected in 2011 owing to their determined efforts, fresh threats and newer problems emerged. And through them all, this motely little group of women has quietly and persistently continued to ensure that the trees remain unharmed.

Today, in recognition of their untiring efforts toward protecting the Botanical Gardens, the Municipal Corporation consults them regularly in connection with the ongoing modernization process. Their inputs are sought in respect of the modifications being made at the Baug, including in respect of the setting up of a Nature Education Centre and a Butterfly and Medicinal Garden amongst others.

“Initially, our interventions were frowned upon by some people,” reminisces Shubhada speaking of the journey. “We were given the tag of CAVE – which stands for Citizens Against Virtually Everything! But with time, people realised, we were not going to get scared by name-calling and go away so easily,” she laughs.

It is perhaps natural for most activists to develop a sense of cynicism over time. But while their decade-long struggle has been characterised by triumphant highs and frustrating lows, it is heartening to note that these women carry with them only a sense of positivity without any trace of bitterness. “Most people we have encountered during this journey have been good people,” says Hutokshi looking back at the ten years gone by.

While the group has sought and received support from a cross-section of people in their struggle to protect the Botanical Gardens, they did not raise funds toward the cause. They jointly contribute to take care of the shared expenses. “It was a joint decision not to raise money,” explains Sheila.

So, while the city gears up to welcome the new additions at the zoo, it may do well to remember the untiring efforts of those who have selflessly toiled to preserve the gardens that cradle the zoo.

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