As Maharashtra gears up for Assembly elections this month, the recent felling of trees in Aarey colony threatens the livelihood of Warli adivasis and Mumbai’s ecology, could prove to be a roadblock for the BJP and its regional ally Shiv Sena in certain Assembly segments.
Development at the cost deforestation and displacement of tribals in the lush green forest belt located in the suburbs of the city may cost the parties their seats in certain Assembly segments like Jogeshwari, Malad, Andheri and Goregaon, in the upcoming elections.
The Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Ltd (MMRCL) cut around 2,141 trees in the Aarey colony despite protests and resistance from the tribal communities living in the forest. While people who raised their voice against the government’s move were arrested, those within the system who questioned the government’s intent and police brutality against protesters were transferred.
Around 33 hectare of the total 1,280 hectare spread of the forest, currently controlled by the forest department has been set aside for the Mumbai Metro Rail car shed project. About 40 per cent of the forest cover (525 acres) has already been diverted for various development projects including a film city, residential blocks for Force One (special anti-terrorism squad) and Maharashtra State Reserve Police Force as well as Adani Electricity Sub-Station among other projects.
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Vow to not vote
In retaliation, people from almost 30 tribal settlements in the forest have vowed to not vote for the BJP-Sena alliance. Even though Shiv Sena’s young leader Aditya Thackery recently backed the peoples’ movement ahead of the polls, the party’s failure in addressing key issues despite holding considerable seats in the civic body as well as the environment ministry portfolio is being seen as a deterrent.
“About 25 adivasi blocks living in the forest have decided either to boycott the elections or vote for Vanchit Bahujan Agadi, the party which is actually fighting for our rights,” says Laxman Shankar Dalvi, a resident of Gaondevi Pada in Aarey forest.
Residents said Ravindra Waikar, the Shiv Sena MLA from Jogeshwari Assembly constituency (under whose jurisdiction Aarey colony falls), had promised to protect the interests of the people living in the area during the previous Assembly election. He, however, has changed his views after becoming a minister in the BJP-Sena led government, rue locals.
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“After election the minister said there was pressure from the top and that he had to succumb to their demands. How can we trust such people (Shiv Sena) again,” says Dalvi, a resident of the area.
Stating that residents are shocked at the way the government has infringed on the basic rights of people, he says, “Every party after coming to power wants to throw us out and destroy the forest. So, why should we vote for them?”
Politicking on Aarey
Sunil Bisan Kumre, the Congress candidate contesting against Waikar says he is confident of winning as there’s an anti-BJP-Sena sentiment among people. He says although there are alternative places where the project could have been implemented, the Chief Minister and his party members turned a deaf ear to people on this. “People are scared of Shiv Sena members and hence are not vocal about their support to other parties,” says Kumre, who is conducting a door-to-door campaign in Aarey.
“I belong to the tribal community and know the ground issues. We do not have enough funds to campaign doesn’t mean we are not campaigning. We are doing door-to-door campaigns and assuring people of our support to save this forest,” he says.
Also read: Activists, Oppn leaders hail SC order on Aarey forest; hit out at govt, MMRCL
Waikar, however, claims that the resentment of the locals or the results of the polls doesn’t worry him. Asserting that development overrides these issues, Waikar, however, is confident that the people will vote for him as his party is still opposing the project. A four-time corporator before becoming an MLA in 2009, Waikar is contesting for the third time from the Assembly seat. He won by 72,000-vote margin against a Congress candidate last time.
Sitting BJP MLA Parag Alvani says the development work carried out by the Modi government like the Centre’s housing project, road development project, and the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, will fetch votes for the allies.
Residents, term the Sena’s protest against the BJP’s decision on Aarey, as a ploy to make political gains.
Twenty-six-year-old Sandip Pundir, who lives a kilometre away from Dalvi’s place has been working for forest rights since he quit his job a few years back. Last year he was arrested for fighting for forest rights. An officer had mocked him, asking him to carry out a silent protest instead of raising his voice. Ever since, Pundir, along with other youth in the area, is sensitising people on forest rights through performing art forms like drama and songs.
Pundir questions why the Sena, which is not backing the tribals’ cause, didn’t stop the felling of the trees and the projects that have been planned in Aarey and put pressure on BJP before it was too late. For him, Aditya Thackery’s statement is a mere political eyewash.
One of the major fallout of the destruction of the forest and the subsequent eviction of adivasis is that they will be rehabilitated in Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) buildings, which threatens their way of life. Those, who have been already rehabilitated in houses, have not been provided any compensation or alternative occupations to sustain in the place of the farmland they used to cultivate.
“Are we considered equals or not? We have been protecting this land and forest for decades and now that has been cut in a few minutes and that too in the middle of the night,” says environmental activist Prakash Bhoir who is fighting for the rights of tribals in the region.
In a relief to green crusaders, the Supreme Court on October 7 ordered a status quo in the Aarey tree-felling case and directed the ruling government not to cut down any more trees for the Metro car shed project. The next hearing is scheduled for October 21, the day on which Mumbai goes to polls.
While the issue is not restricted to Aarey colony alone, youngsters across the city have expressed their discontentment against the felling of trees in Aarey forest, which is the only large chunk of green space left for city dwellers.
However, aided by social media campaigns and support from certain sections of the film fraternity who are supporting the cause, environmentalists are hopeful that people will make a right choice and not vote for the party, which they allege has encroached on forest land in the name of development and national security.