Over the past two weeks, an unprecedented spell of heavy September rains have dominated the headlines from Mumbai. On September 4, the Mithi overflowed its banks, disrupting train services and forcing the authorities to evacuate 1,500 people from areas surrounding the river.

In the midst of this chaos, Mumbai also made headlines for another unexpected phenomenon: hundreds of citizens braving the rains to attend protest rallies to “Save Aarey” from the city’s municipal corporation.

Aarey colony, located to the south of Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park, is a 1,300-hectare forested expanse widely described as the city’s last remaining “green lung”. It is home to 27 Adivasi villages, at least nine leopards and nearly five lakh trees.

In 2015, city authorities and the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation announced a plan to clear 30 hectares of Aarey colony to build a car shed for the Mumbai Metro 3 line that is currently under construction. Four years and multiple legal challenges later, the municipal corporation’s Tree Authority committee on August 30 approved a proposal to cut down 2,702 trees in Aarey colony to make way for the metro car shed.

Predictably, the approval enraged environment and citizens’ groups who had been organising “Save Aarey” protest rallies against the car shed since it was first proposed. This time, however, their calls to citizens to attend protest meets have been answered with an enthusiasm unusual for a city with a protest culture that has grown much weaker over the past two decades.

Why has Aarey struck a chord?

On September 1, nearly a thousand protesters showed up with placards and posters and formed a human chain near the proposed car shed site at Aarey. The next Sunday, on September 8, the turnout doubled, with protesters of all ages forming a 3-km human chain along with Adivasi villagers from Aarey colony who will be displaced by the metro project. Despite heavy rains, the protest lasted for several hours.

In addition to these rallies, several other “Save Aarey” protest marches have taken place across the city, all of them well-attended. In July, nearly 500 citizens attended a public hearing to object to the construction of the car shed in Aarey.

Protesters have demanded that the car shed be shifted to alternate sites outside Aarey, such as a site in the suburb of Kanjurmarg, but the municipal corporation and the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation have refused to budge. At a townhall meeting between the authorities and activists on September 9, MMRC chief Ashwini Bhide went as far as to claim that if the car shed is not built in Aarey, the metro line itself would not be made operational. Scroll.in sent several messages to Bhide and the MMRC seeking comment, but did not get a response.

Bhide’s threat has angered protesters even further, and another peaceful protest rally was planned for September 13, outside the MMRC’s office.

In a city with a poor protest culture, such demonstrations of dissent are few and far between. In recent times, some of the biggest protest rallies in Mumbai – such as the Maratha Kranti Morcha in August 2017 by members of the Maratha community demanding reservations in educational institutions and government jobs or the Kisan Long March in March 2018 by farmers to highlight rural distress – have been organised by demonstrators from outside the city. While issues that directly impact the city’s ecology do evoke public indignation, Mumbai residents rarely hit the streets.

Save Aarey protesters at a human chain on September 8. Photo courtesy: Sagar Singh

For instance, the proposed Rs 3,600-crore Shivaji statue in the Arabian Sea and the 36-km coastal road planned along Mumbai’s western coast will both require reclaiming land from the sea at a huge financial and environmental cost, but public dissent against these projects has been limited and often only online.

What is it about Aarey, then, that has stirred Mumbai citizens out of their general apathy, compelling them to show up on the ground? Protesters to whom Scroll.in spoke to claim it is a combination of local and international factors, from the state of the Mithi river to the influence of Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg.

Photo: Save Aarey via Facebook

‘Seeds of awareness sown years ago’

According to leading organisers of the Aarey protests, the main reason for the campaign’s popularity has been the consistent work put in by platforms like the Aarey Conservation Group and Muse Foundation to raise public awareness about the issue.

“These platforms starting sowing the seeds of awareness several years ago and made sure that Aarey was written about in the media,” said Nayan Raja (name changed), an Aarey campaign organiser who did not want to be named because the strategy of keeping organisers anonymous has helped protesters avoid possible police detention.

These efforts at awareness-raising, said Raja, helped citizens feel more strongly about the cause when pro-Aarey litigants lost two crucial court cases.

In 2017, activists Amrita Bhattacharya and Biju Augustine petitioned the Bombay High Court to challenge the Maharashtra government’s decision to change the land use of 33 hectares of Aarey land from a “no development zone” to “Metro 3 car shed”. The Court dismissed the petition claiming that Aarey land has not been officially designated as a forest.

Following this, in September 2018, the National Green Tribunal dismissed a petition by environment rights organisation Vanashakti and the Aarey Conservation Group, asking for Aarey to be officially designated as a forest and, therefore, a no-construction zone. The Tribunal claimed it did not have jurisdiction over the matter. Both petitions are now being heard in the Supreme Court.

“When these cases were lost in the High Court and the NGT, there was a lot of anger and citizens started messaging us activists, asking us what they could do,” said Raja. “The fire was lit, and then many more citizens’ groups joined in to help campaign for Aarey.”

The heavy rains of the past fortnight proved to be another potent trigger for the protests this month. For years, environmentalists have been contending that deforestation in Aarey, a giant soak pit, could lead to extreme flooding of the Mithi river. “So when the Mithi flooded this month, people realised what could happen if they do not speak out now,” said Raja.

The Amazon and Greta Thunberg

In addition to these local factors, many protesters attending Aarey rallies are driven by concern for the global climate change crisis.

“On the Whatsapp groups I manage to raise awareness about Aarey, a lot of young people are talking about the climate emergency that has been declared globally,” said Sagar Singh, a 26-year-old environmental science teacher who founded a platform called Eco Warriors India in May and created three Whatsapp groups to mobilise more than 600 people to show up for Aarey protests.

Sagar Singh has been raising awareness about Aarey through three Whatsapp groups. Photo courtesy: Sagar Singh

Simran Deshmukh, a 17-year-old Class 12 student, has been following Eco Warriors online and has attended four Aarey protests so far. “I have always loved nature, so when I came to know that almost 3,000 trees are to be cut in Aarey at a time when the Amazon is already burning, I wanted to do something to help,” said Deshmukh, who has been distressed by reports about raging fires in the Amazon rainforest of Brazil.

Deshmukh has been trying to get her family and friends to accompany her to the Aarey protests, but so far, she has had to attend them alone. “Many people say they don’t have time to join protests, but still the number of people who came for the second human chain on Sunday was double compared to the first one,” said Deshmukh.

One of the biggest influencers for youth like Deshmukh is 16-year-old climate Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who created a global movement out of her “school strike” protests to hold lawmakers accountable for climate change. Fridays for Future, an international platform organising school strikes on Fridays, now has a Mumbai chapter that is actively campaigning for saving Aarey.

Fareedoon Bhujwala, who has been attending Aarey protests for four years, joined Fridays for Future a few months ago. “Greta [Thunberg] has fired up young kids, who are attending meetings with civic authorities and demanding action,” said Bhujwala, a corporate trainer. “At one meeting, a child actually asked the officials why he had to bunk school to say something as obvious as ‘I need clean air’.”

Will the coastal road get this attention?

Some Aarey protesters, who are also part of a much smaller citizens’ initiative to oppose the proposed coastal road in Mumbai, have been impressed by the enthusiasm of ‘Save Aarey’ protesters and are trying to understand why the coastal road protests have not received as much support.

“I suppose it is simpler for people to support Aarey, because it is a forest, it has trees, leopards and an ecosystem, so it should obviously be saved,” said an anonymous member of a Breach Candy residents’ group opposing the coastal road. “But the coastal road will be an eight-lane highway, like many highways abroad, and it will be a breeze to drive on. So people are not as inclined to think about flood prevention and the impact of the reclamation on corals or the fishing communities.”

The group has been trying to get more car-owning citizens to join the opposition to the coastal road, and it now wants ordinary Mumbai residents – people commuting on local trains – to also join the fight.

“The authorities’ stand is that it would be too expensive to shift the metro car shed from Aarey to some other site,” said the group member. “So our demand is that they should cancel the coastal road and use that money towards sparing Aarey and improving the local train system.”

Photo: Save Aarey via Facebook