‘Sunday For Aarey’ Protests To Save Mumbai's Urban Forest, Completes 90 Weeks

‘Sunday For Aarey’ Protests To Save Mumbai's Urban Forest, Completes 90 Weeks

Aarey is managed by various government agencies and most of the forests in the area are unprotected.

Manoj RamakrishnanUpdated: Sunday, May 19, 2024, 07:52 PM IST
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Every Sunday morning since July 2022, a group of citizens have been gathering at a road junction in the Aarey forest in Goregaon, to seek protection for one of the last surviving natural areas in the city.

They meet near Birsa Munda Chowk, holding placards and banners, and raising slogans. Sometimes, the number of protestors are just a handful, but they have rarely missed a Sunday. This weekend, 15 people gathered for the 90th ‘Sunday for Aarey’ protest. The unique campaign hopes to observe the 100th edition of their protest in July.

The gatherings are organised by local residents and members of the Bombay Catholic Sabha (BCS)’s Our Lady of Rosary Church parish in Goregaon. Many protestors, however, travel from other parts of the city to take part in the campaign. Reshma Shelatkar, an animal rights activist and a resident of Four Bungalows, Versova, was there on Sunday with her 79-year-old mother. “Aarey is one-of-its-kind, an urban forest. We want Aarey to be notified as a protected forest,” said Shelatkar.

Aarey was established in 1949 as the Aarey Milk Colony and covers approximately 3100 acres (1250 hectares). Defunct dairies, a bread factory, the Dadasaheb Phalke Chitranagari (Film City), and other facilities cover almost a third of the area. There are also tribal villages that existed before the dairy was established, and slums. The rest of the area comprises deciduous forests, grasslands, gardens, and tree plantations. The campaign to save the remaining forests started after the allocation of nearly 25 hectares to construct a depot for the SEEPZ-Cuffe Parade underground Metro railway.

Aarey is managed by various government agencies and most of the forests in the area are unprotected. The forest faces threats from slums, new government housing projects, and dumping of concrete debris. “We started our protests in 2014 when government agencies issued notices to cut trees to clear land for the depot. The fight to save Aarey is one of the longest fights to save urban forests. We are not against development, but it should not happen at the cost of the environment,” said Shelatkar.

Alex D’Souza of the BCS said that the protestors have taken permission from the local police station to assemble at the site every Sunday for one-and-half hours after 11.00 am. “Except for a few Sundays, when we were turned away by the police or during heavy rains, we have gathered there. We get support from passersby and people have got out of vehicles to tell us that they support us,” said D’Souza.

Salim Saboowala, a 64-year-old resident of Marol, Andheri (East) who has been a regular participant at the protests said, “Aarey is Mumbai’s lungs. The area has rich biodiversity and is one of the few forests located in a metropolitan city anywhere in the world. Mumbai is lucky to have such an area within its boundaries. We have to save it.”

Over the weeks, the group has raised both local and global environmental issues. For cities like Mumbai, which has been seeing an increased frequency in extreme weather events, the protestors suggest restriction on ownership of private vehicles, special bus lanes to reduce the dependence of private cars and two-wheelers, less concretisation of gardens and other open spaces, increased tree cover, and water harvesting to reduce dependency on piped supplies. The group is of the opinion that electric vehicles that run on power produced by burning non-renewable sources of energy like coal, gas, and oil, is a false solution to pollution, as are smog towers. Global environmental challenges that have been highlighted by the protestors are the reduction of annual Artic ice with its resulting consequence of rising sea levels and climate change.   

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