As fascism was rising in Europe, German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht lamented that conversations about trees would distract us from bigger things and blind us to injustices. But, today, it is crucial to discuss trees—and rivers, seas and mountains. Through their wanton destruction, our planet has been brought to the edge of a precipice. Temperatures are increasing, coastal cities are at risk, and extreme weather events are occurring more frequently. In India, heatwaves have become an expected feature. Cities like Chennai have witnessed floods, while facing a water crisis.
Paradoxically, while environmental consciousness is rising globally, we are witnessing leaders who are beholden to lobbies and/or in denial. US President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsanaro are perfect examples, but some Indian politicians also belong here. Over the years, Indian policymakers have engaged in tokenism, half-hearted measures and blatant surrender to vested interests. The encroachment of Aarey Colony in Mumbai illustrates this well.
I encountered Aarey about a decade ago, while living in its vicinity and training for the Mumbai Marathon. With its lush green setting, Aarey occupied a place of pride among Mumbai runners. But, Aarey meant much more for us (runners, walkers, people in the neighbourhood): a connection with nature, a place for camaraderie, and a site for charming stories about ghosts and leopards. Many of us appreciated its ecological importance, and still do so.
Located in the suburbs and described as Mumbai’s “green lung", Aarey is spread approximately over 1,280 hectares, with about 480,000 trees. It is home to leopards and different kinds of birds, reptiles, butterflies and insects. Just in the past decade, six new species have been discovered, and one (a scorpion) has even been named after Aarey (Lychas aareyensis). Leopards of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park and Aarey have been featured in National Geographic. Aarey should be preserved not just for its beauty and biodiversity, but also for other reasons: e.g., flood-control and water-table maintenance. Mumbai’s vulnerability to heavy rains and flooding is well-known, but this was reinforced by the 2005 cloudburst.
In a growing city with a powerful real estate lobby, it is no surprise that multiple attempts have been made to encroach on Aarey. The most recent one is Mumbai Metro Rail Corp. Ltd’s (MMRCL’s) decision to locate a car-shed/depot of Line 3, to house, maintain and repair trains. The plan to fell more than 2,000 trees for this purpose started galvanizing people in 2014. I discovered this plan during one of my visits to Aarey. After moving to the US in 2015, I kept myself connected through social media, visits to Aarey, and conversations with activists Stalin Dayanand and Amrita Bhattacharjee.
The battle against tree-felling has been fought in courts, streets, cyberspace and the media. Initial protests forced the Maharashtra government to appoint an expert group to explore alternatives. Environmental experts in this group disagreed with the others, highlighting Aarey’s ecological importance and flooding risks (the metro site is in the floodplain of the Mithi river). They suggested alternatives: Kanjurmarg and Backbay. Legal battles include petitions in Bombay high court, a submission to the National Green Tribunal to declare Aarey a forest, and challenge to the eviction of Adivasis living in Aarey for generations. Recently, the high court dismissed four petitions. The same night, the cutting of trees began, and protesting activists were arrested. Later, the Supreme Court ordered a pause in the cutting.
Commenting on Aarey, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis referred to the “balance between development and environment". Has India even attempted such a balance? As studies (e.g., Churning The Earth by Aseem Shrivastava and Ashish Kothari) indicate, the country’s development has been environmentally costly. Mumbai offers a good illustration. In about four decades, it lost 60% of its vegetation and 65% of its water bodies. It offers little (less than 0.03 acres per 1,000 inhabitants) in terms of open spaces, far less than other global cities (e.g., London’s 12 acres). Historically, India has failed to provide high-quality public goods and services. So, better modes of transport are welcome. But, why should they come at such a high environmental cost? Recent works on climate change (e.g., The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells) have shown that even this vocabulary of balance and trade-offs is jaded and inadequate.
In a recent visit to Aarey, an individual told me, “Ped nahin kaatneka. Hawa chalna chaahiye" (Don’t cut trees. The breeze should blow). The Save Aarey movement has pushed this common sense into action, forcing the state and its agents to listen to ordinary citizens. I often remember a tough stretch in Aarey, and the grimaces of those running up and the smiles of those running down. The stretch was named “heartbreak hill", after a portion of the Boston Marathon. Without multiple movements, this could become a metaphor for India’s ecology.
Sripad Motiram teaches economics at University of Massachusetts, Boston