It was almost time to wrap up the weekly protest at Picnic Point in Mumbai’s Aarey Colony. Hundreds of protestors stood in a horseshoe formation, brandishing posters and banners.

Police vans were parked nearby, and constables with folded arms watched the protestors. A few television news reporters with cameras and mics stood at the centre, interviewing the protestors, who were part of the Save Aarey movement. Dark clouds hovered over, suggesting the possibility of a monsoon shower on that Sunday morning at the end of July.

The movement had begun in 2014, when Mumbaikars from different walks of life came together to stop trees in Aarey from being cut for a carshed, a structure used in the maintenance of rail cars, for the Mumbai metro’s line number three.

The years that followed saw intense protests against the project, as well as several petitions in the National Green Tribunal, the Bombay High Court and the Supreme Court, seeking, among other ends, to have work halted and to have Aarey declared as a forest. These petitions were largely unsuccessful, and work on the project proceeded over these years.

In late August 2019, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation gave the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation the greenlight to cut over 2,000 trees in Aarey for the carshed. On October 4 that year, the Bombay High Court dismissed petitions challenging this decision – within 24 hours, the MMRCL cut down more than 2,000 trees. Two days later, the Supreme Court ordered authorities to stop felling trees for the project. Activists told that construction work has proceeded since then.

Protestors received some respite in November 2019, when a newly formed Shiv-Sena-led govt put a halt to the work on the carshed in Aarey.

But at the end of June this year, around a month before that Sunday protest, a new government, headed by the Shiv Sena rebel Eknath Shinde, overturned the previous government’s decision within hours of coming to power.

Protestors, who had halted their rallies after the previous government’s decision, began to regather every Sunday. The protest at the end of July was the fifth after the new government’s decision.

There had been some tensions with the police earlier that week – on July 25, police had detained four activists and later released them. But the protestors were undeterred.

Among them were several environmentalists, civil society activists and students, who had gathered from different parts of the city. Their slogans, such as “Save Aarey! Save Mumbai!”, reflected their efforts to protect a vital green space for the city.

Protestors gathered at Aarey after the Eknath-Shinde-led government overturned the previous government's decision to cancel the plan to build a metro carshed in the forest. Photos: Nolina Minj

But also present among the protestors were those who were fighting a far more existential battle – residents of Adivasi padas, or hamlets within the forest. There are 27 such padas, with an estimated population of over 10,000. In 2017, the homes of 61 Adivasis in one of these, Prajapur pada, were demolished and its residents evicted to make way for the carshed.

The Adivasis of Aarey, comprising the Warli, Malhar Koli, Mahadev Koli, Kokna and Katkari tribes, have been a part of the movement from the very beginning. Initially, environmental activists took the lead in the legal struggle, while Adivasis fronted the demonstrations on the ground – but over the years, the various groups worked with each other across fronts to put up a united resistance.

Following the 2017 demolitions, in 2018, a group of affected Adivasi families filed a petition in the Bombay High Court challenging their eviction, and seeking protection from future evictions. In June that year, the court admonished the MMRCL, stating that it had no statutory powers to raze structures. The hearings for this petition have not been listed since the start of the pandemic.

At the July protest, a few metres behind the protestors, serving as a kind of backdrop, was a statue of the iconic Adivasi freedom fighter Birsa Munda, gleaming golden. It was flanked by flags denoting Adivasi and Ambedkarite pride: a yellow one with the words “Jai Adivasi” on it, and a blue one with “Jai Bhim” on it.

Prakash Bhoir, a firebrand Adivasi leader and activist from the Malhar Koli tribe, explained that the statue had been installed by residents a few years ago with the support of a local MLA and corporators, to assert the presence of Adivasis in Aarey.

“Birsa Munda fought for jal, jangal and jameen” – water, forest, and land, he said. “He had fought against the British, but today we’re having to fight against our own people.”

A statue of the iconic Adivasi freedom fighter Birsa Munda playing the tarpa, a traditional wind instrument. The statue was installed with the support of a local MLA and corporators, as an assertion of Adivasi identity.

During a pause in the sloganeering, somebody requested Bhoir to sing. And so he broke into song, one that he had composed himself, titled Wagh Deva. The song invokes the community’s leopard god – leopards and tigers are traditionally worshipped by certain Adivasi groups in Maharashtra – and asks the deity to save the forest and all its living creatures from being destroyed. The people around him joined in the refrain.

As the song ended, the air felt thick with a sombre tension. The youth began to chant, “Aarey che mulnivasi? Adivasi! Adivasi! Jungle konancha? Adivas’ancha!” – Aarey’s original inhabitants? Adivasis! Adivasis! Whose jungle, is it? Adivasis!

After they had raised a few more rounds of slogans, the police began to move in and tell the protestors to retreat. Gradually, the crowd dispersed.

“We don’t want the 27 padas in Aarey to turn into SRA buildings,” said Shakuntala Dalvi, from the Maharashtra Adivasi Manch, when I spoke to her in August. She was referring to the state’s Slum Rehabilitation Authority, which constructs low-cost buildings to rehabiliate slum dwellers. “We want development, but not that which destroys Adivasi identity,” she added. “It is Adivasis who have maintained the environment. You don’t have the right to destroy it. Give us education, facilities, let us keep our land, start schools and colleges here. This is what we want.”

This story is part of Common Ground, our in-depth and investigative reporting project. Sign up here to get a fresh story in your inbox every Wednesday.

Aarey’s Adivasis have a deep attachment to their land and traditional ways of life. “Just the way fish can’t survive without water, the same way Adivasis can’t survive without the jungle,” said 23-year-old artist and activist Manisha Dhinde from Maroshi Pada in Aarey. “Their bond is very close.”

Twenty-three-year-old artist and activist Manisha Dhinde at a protest with a sign made from a dried leaf. Dhinde explained that Adivasis have a deep bond with their land and their traditional ways of life.

According to Prakash Bhoir’s son, 26-year-old artist Akash Bhoir, between 70% and 80% of Adivasis in Aarey depend on the land for their survival and livelihood. “People in my grandfather’s generation were completely dependent on the land,” he said. “It’s only when their children grew up, that Aarey’s Adivasis began working outside.”

In earlier times, he explained, the land was so bountiful that people could subsist on it. “People used to live a day at a time without worrying about tomorrow,” he said with a smile. “There was no concept of saving or work, because the jungle was so big and we could obtain food easily.”

But for many decades, there has been steady encroachment into Adivasis’ territory.

“Today, most people cultivate their land and do small jobs outside to supplement their income,” said Akash Bhoir. “The older I grow, the smaller the jungle gets.”

But the community’s connection with the land remains strong. Many in Akash Bhoir’s generation are pursuing a higher education – and are the first in their families to do so – but also continue farming. “If we want to go further in life, we do need to deal with the outside world,” he said. “But we shouldn’t forget where we came from.”

Most Adivasi families in Aarey cultivate grains, vegetables, and fruits to sustain themselves, and sell the excess in markets. Produce and incomes vary seasonally. For instance, in summers, the Dhinde family harvests mangoes and can earn up to Rs 3,000 a day. At other times of the year, they earn around Rs 600 a day harvesting and selling seasonal vegetables. Dhinde mentioned that many also catch fish, prawns and chimbori, or soft-shelled crabs, from the Tulsi and Vihar lakes in the forest, to eat and sell.

The produce is rich in biodiversity and includes crops such as shevale, or dragon stalk yam, kartoli, or spiny gourd, palash flowers, bamboo and wild mushrooms, amongst other unique foods that are difficult to find elsewhere in the city.

Food, specifically the harvest of particular foods, is in fact central to certain aspects of the communities’ culture. Asha Bhoye, an anganwadi worker who belongs to the Kokna tribe, and is from Prajapur pada, explained that around Holi, communities celebrate kairi, or raw mango, which are harvested then – the celebration involves a worship of the fruit, followed by a community feast where the old feed kairi to the young and vice versa. Traditionally, people don’t eat kairi before this festival. There is a similar celebration for chavali or cowpeas, around Diwali. In recent years, collaborations with environmentalists have led to foraging food trails and wild food festivals to showcase these foods to others.

Given that their existence is so closely entwined with the land, and what lives on it, it is unsurprising that Adivasis consider these protests to be much more than mere demonstrations. As 30-year-old Shyam Bhoir said, they are “a matter of Adivasi astitva”, or identity.

This sense of pride was well in evidence on August 9, when hundreds of Adivasis from different communities, and their allies, assembled at Aarey to celebrate the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, started by the United Nations in 1994 to spread awareness about issues pertaining to indigenous communities.

The August event wasn’t slated as a protest – but given the backdrop of the resistance to the metro project, it was inevitable that elements of the struggle were tied into the day. The flyer for the event read, “Our art, traditions and culture should endure and the rights and responsibilities we have over jal, jangal, jameen should be inviolable. No one can dispossess us from our farmland and hamlets. We need to show the world that Adivasis are the original inhabitants and guardians of Mumbai through our procession.”

The event began with a brief prayer ritual to traditional gods near a bullock cart used to plough fields, followed by a community dance to the tarpa, a traditional wind instrument. Then the crowd began a large procession, some marching, while others continued to dance as they moved across Aarey. Women wore colourful saris and flowers in their hair, while men wrapped gamchas, or traditional towels, around their heads. Many had also adorned their hair with leaves.

Akash Bhoir (first from left) and other Aarey residents at a celebration in August to mark International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, started in 1994 to spread awareness about indigenous communities.

After around an hour, the procession halted for refreshments at a large open ground. Members of the Maharashtra Adivasi Manch had set up a stage, at which many stood holding banners and raising slogans like: “Birsa tera mission adhoora; hum karenge usko poora” – Birsa your mission remains incomplete; we will finish it.

Several Adivasis from outside of Aarey had also come for the event, including some from padas elsewhere in the city, as well as some from outside Mumbai, who had moved to the city for work.

Akash Bhoir explained that when Adivasis from elsewhere in Mumbai visited Aarey, “they congratulate us on protecting our land and tell us to continue or else we will become like them.” As a result of living amongst other communities, he added, “ their culture has become mixed with that of non-Adivasis. They’re forgetting Adivasi culture and adopting that of other cultures. This is a great tragedy.”

Even some who reside in Aarey have noticed these effects.

“If we want to keep our culture alive, then we’ll have to fight for land,” said Nirmala Patkar, who lives in Kelti pada. “The language I speak today is not our mother tongue. Living in Bombay, we have changed.”

Protestors at the World Indigenous day celebrations. Though the event wasn’t slated as a protest, given the backdrop of the fight against the metro, some aspects of the struggle were tied into the celebrations.

The metro project is far from the only threat to Aarey’s Adivasis’ traditional way of life.

In a Loksatta article in Marathi, Prakash Bhoir lists a number of projects that have taken over forest land over the years: the Aarey Milk Colony in 1949, Film City in 1977, a State Reserve Police Force camp in 1974, the Bombay Veterinary College in 1978. “Most of these projects pushed Adivasis into smaller pieces of land, and cordoned them off from their former land,” he said.

More recently, in 2009, the year following terror attacks by gunmen on Mumbai, the state government decided to put together an elite police commando force to tackle terror threats to the city. This unit, formed in the year 2009, and named Force One, was assigned 96 acres of land inside Aarey for its headquarters, in the vicinity of the hamlets of Kelti Pada, Chafecha Pada and Damu Pada.

Since then, residents of these hamlets have been under pressure to vacate their homes. The Bhoirs’, whose home is in Kelti Pada, said that over the years, they had received several warnings from the commando force to leave.

The Bhoirs’ house is made of cement, and has a tiled floor. The outside walls are covered with mud and adorned by striking Warli painting – everyone in the Bhoir family practices Warli art. Their home is encircled by such dense foliage that it can be hard to believe that it is just 20 minutes away from the Jogeshwari–Vikhroli Link Road, one of Mumbai’s busiest thoroughfares.

Even as they have stayed on, the family has found their lives constrained because of the presence of the commando unit. For instance, they cannot repair their house or build additional extensions without the permission of the unit. “Despite this being our land, they don’t let us repair our homes for the monsoons,” Akash Bhoir said. “They tell us that we need their permission because the land is now under their control.”

It isn’t only for projects of infrastructure and security that forest land is taken from the Adivasis.

In 2016, Manisha Dhinde, from Moroshi pada, noticed an excavator digging up a part of her family’s farmland. Residents weren’t informed about this development, nor had any notices been served to them. When she asked the workers what they were doing to the land, they refused to give her a proper answer and said that they were building a boundary wall.

It was only when her family spoke to an official known to them that they learnt that the area was being cleared for an international zoo, which would affect seven padas in the area. The proposed zoo, which was to take over about 200 acres of land, was eventually put on hold after some residents protested, but Dhinde fears it will be back any day.

“They want to displace Adivasis and build a zoo there,” said Asha Bhoye. “I fear that after some days, they will put us inside the zoo and invite people to come watch Adivasis. We don’t trust them, they can do anything.”

The construction site for the metro carshed in Aarey. In 2019, more than 2,000 trees were cut for the project after the Bombay High Court dismissing petitions against it. Photo: Reuters/Francis Mascarenhas

Under state and central laws, displaced Adivasis are entitled to compensation, both in the form of money and new residences. But there are many who don’t want either. “We won’t be able to live without the jungle,” Dhinde said. “How many days will the compensatory money last us? Where will our future generations live?”

She recounted that Adivasis displaced for a sprawling multistorey residential complex called Royal Palms, in the mid-eastern part of Aarey, were given jobs as construction labourers on the same site, but were left to fend for themselves after it was completed. “We’re not very educated, you might give us jobs, but afterwards you can throw us out anytime,” she said. “We don’t care about houses in buildings, we want to live as we are.”

Development has long been a double-edged sword for Adivasi communities in India. In the book Being Adivasi, Dr Virginius Xaxa notes of projects that dispossess and displace Adivasis, “There is hardly any doubt that such projects bring about development and contribute to economic growth. The irony is that the benefits of such development have hardly accrued to people who have made possible these projects by their sacrifice.”

Many in Aarey take pains to point out that they are not against economic development. “We have never opposed development,” said Dhinde. “But why are Adivasis always expected to compromise in the name of development? Can’t others compromise for once?”

She also challenged the idea that there could be only one kind of development. “Don’t just construct buidings in the name of development,” she said. “Try building forests in the name of development. This doesn’t usually happen, but one can try?”

Akash Bhoir envisioned a large marketplace for Adivasis to sell vegetables and fruits, and a cultural centre where they could practice, preserve, and showcase their art. “Our perspective of development is different,” he said. “We don’t want to forget our culture, this is our idea of development. Jal, jangal, jameen, humare gaane, nritya, boli-bhasha, kala, sabh mein hai” – the water, forest and land is present everywhere in our songs, dances, languages and art.

In February this year, families in Kelti Pada, Chafecha Pada and Damu Pada, the settlements affected by the Force One camp, received notices from the Slum Rehabilitation Authority, asking them to cooperate with surveys that the authority was conducting, in which their identity proofs would be checked, and biometric information and household data would be collected.

Many Adivasis take offense at the very involvement of the SRA, which indicates that their homes are seen as slums that need to be demolished and rehabilitated.

“Our houses cannot be compared to slums,” said Prakash Bhoir. “We might live humbly but we are self-sufficient We don’t want to live in SRA buildings.”

Most residents of the three padas refused to cooperate and stuck notices on their front doors, protesting the survey.

Those who are fighting against the metro project have also raised this objection – the petition in the high court challenges the MMRCL’s classification of Adivasi padas as slums, and the residents as slum dwellers. As part of its strategy, they argue, the corporation has omitted mention of Prajapur Pada in its documents, referring to it instead as Sariput Nagar, an informal non-Adivasi settlement that abuts the pada.

The petition states that in a survey carried out by the MMRCL, it had “wrongly provided the name of location of survey to be Sariput Nagar and not Prajapur pada.” It furthers states that the MMRCL “had deliberately overlooked and disregarded ‘Prajapur pada’ and started using the name of the location as ‘Sariput Nagar’ to treat tribal members of Prajapur pada as ‘slum dwellers’.”

On September 23, the high court agreed to hear an interim petition filed by some residents of Prajapur pada, whose shops had been demolished, and who argued that the alternative premises they had been allotted were unsuitable. The next hearing is slated to be held November this year.

When I visited the Bhoye family in August, whose members are among the petitioners, I first got down from a rickshaw at Sariput Nagar, which was full of concrete buildings huddled close to each other, with barely any open space between them. As I walked toward Prajapur pada, the distinction between the two neighbourhoods became clear. Trees and plants still fleck the pada, which comprises one-storey houses, many of which had hens and other animals around. Less than ten metres behind the houses was the lush green expanse of the forest.

Asha and Kisan Bhoye on their land in Prajapur pada. Kisan ran a general store in Aarey, which was demolished to make way for the carshed. The MMRCL also took away about half an acre of the Bhoyes' land.

For Akash Bhoir, the idea of moving into a building is itself objectionable. He has noticed that his college friends who live in apartment buildings always make plans to travel to places with natural beauty, like mountains and beaches. “I don’t really need to go anywhere for sightseeing. Poora jungle hi mera ghar hai” – the whole jungle is my home, he said. “I climb over a hill and trek daily to go to college. It would be foolish for me to shift into a building and then make plans to go see nature.”

He added that shifting to a building would also mean having to worry about additional expenses, such as on food, which they now largely obtain from the forest.

There are innumerable examples that serve as reminders to current residents of Aarey’s padas to stand their ground for as long as possible.

Among them is that of Laxmi Gaikwad of the Kokna tribe, who was forced to shift from her home in Prajapur pada in 2017. Gaikwad, who is now in her mid-seventies, married into a family in Aarey at the age of 16, and spent her entire adult life there, until 2017. When her family received an eviction notice that year, she refused to shift into the SRA flat allotted to them, even as her neighbours began to move out. She recounted that one evening in mid-May, the police came in accompanied by workers and bulldozers.

“Around 8pm, they threw me out on the road and demolished my house right in front of me,” she recalled. “I cried so much.”

Other members of her family, including her adult children, who had moved into an SRA building in Chakala, 4 km away, were then called up and asked to come pick her up.

Gaikwad now lives on the 12th floor of a 269-square-foot house in Chakala. Life is inconvenient here – she said she receives water for only between 10 and 15 minutes everyday. She dearly misses her land in Aarey, where she used to spend her days cultivating fruits and vegetables, in a large plot of about 1.15 acres.

In 2017, Laxmi Gaikwad was evicted from her home in Aarey, which was demolished for the metro project. Medical troubles have plagued her since she shifted to her current home, a small flat on the 12th floor.

She recounted that many elderly Adivasis died within a year or two of shifting to Aarey. “After coming here, even healthy people fell ill,” she said.

Her own wellbeing has suffered too. In Aarey, she had lived a very active life, but after shifting to the SRA flat, she has mostly been sedentary, confined to her small house. Since she doesn’t know how to operate the lift, she has seldom gone downstairs.

Around a year after she shifted from Aarey, Gaikwad had to undergo surgery for her spine. This was only the beginning of her medical troubles – last December, she slipped and fell on the tiled floor of her house, damaging her knee, after which a metal rod had to be inserted into it. “My health got ruined after coming here and living in a tiny house,” she said. “In Aarey, there was so much open space to do things.” From the start, she has repeatedly requested officials to allot her a house on a lower floor, to no avail.

Gaikwad recounted that her family had about 570 banana, mango and coconut trees in Aarey, and that they would also cultivate seasonal vegetables. They also kept a small poultry farm, from which they would sell eggs. Gaikwad herself would go and sell the produce in the market and earn upto Rs 200 a day. “Anybody visiting us would go home with some or the other vegetable that I would pluck out for them,” she said. “But after coming here, people are struggling and won’t even lend you Rs 10.”

The displacement has left her dependent on her children, who struggle to pay her maintenance and electricity bills. Two of her sons, who work on and off at construction sites, have been allotted houses in the same building. “Life has become difficult for me,” she said. “What do I do? What do I eat? My children have their own children, so how will they feed me? If they gave me a bit of land to cultivate, I would manage to survive somehow.”

When I asked Gaikwad about her early days in Aarey, a gleam appeared in her eyes for a few moments, before the reality of her present circumstances returned to focus. “We cleared the jungle and settled there,” she said, tears running down her face. “Now, everything has slipped out of our hands. My heart lay there, what do I do? Now I tell god, please take me away, so all the tension will go away.”

While Asha Bhoye from Prajapur pada did not have to relocate to an SRA house, the MMRCL took away 20 guntas, or around half an acre, of her family’s land in 2017 for the metro carshed, which struck a blow to their livelihood. In this plot they had cultivated mango, peru, banana, coconut, papaya and lemon trees. Her husband, Kisan Bhoye, ran a general store on the main road, which was among the shops that the MMRCL demolished.

Initially, the family was offered financial compensation and jobs, but none of these promises materialised. Neither did they, or any of the other displaced people of Prajapur pada, receive documents certifying that they were “project affected persons”, which would have allowed them to access certain government jobs.

Officials did offer the family a replacement store, first in Kanjurmarg and then Durga Nagar, around 8 km and 2 km from their homes respectively. The family felt the first was at an unsafe location, where the risk of theft and other crimes was high, while the second was deep inside a commercial complex, where they felt it would be difficult to attract customers. Further, they were told they would have to pay Rs 3 lakh for the space, because it was larger than the store that had been demolished – paying this money would have been impossible, given that Asha earns Rs 4,500 a month as an anganwadi worker, and that the government did not make them any offers for months after demolishing their original store, or pay them any compensation, causing them a huge loss of income.

The family still has a small plot of land left, which lies in the jungle, a few metres from their house. When I visited the Bhoyes at the end of August, as we entered the plot, I noticed men from the neighbourhood sitting on the grass. They were busy talking to each other, or scrolling through their phones, some of them smoking beedis – it was a scene of easy community, in nature.

At her plot, Asha came into her element and began pointing out various plants she was growing. There were several species not commonly found in markets, which she said were of medicinal value.

“Mumbai has only one place where there is a jungle,” she remarked as we left. “Ignoring other spaces, people want to develop this space alone? Isn’t this a thing to wonder about?”

It is this sense of indignation that is driving Adivasis to continue protesting. “If we don’t fight now and give up, then in the future, maybe 10-12 years later, we’ll remember how we used to be and what we had,” Prakash Bhoir said on one of the days of protest. “We had the jungle – trees, plants, lakes, wells, rivers, birds and animals. We were the kings of Aarey. We had a different culture, we had our own songs, dances and art. All of this will be lost. We will live like prisoners.”

What scares Bhoir most is the thought of failing to fulfill what he considers his responsibility to future generations. “I’m scared that our grandchildren will grow older and then ask us, ‘Dadaji, where did you live before? You talk so grandly, that we had our own land and leopards. Why didn’t you fight for it?’” he said. “I don’t want my grandchildren to ask me this question. We don’t obtain anything without fighting for it. This is history.”

This reporting is made possible with support from Report for the World, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.