More than half the world’s population is projected to live in cities by 2050. This raises the question about the availability of green spaces and resources.

The Covid-19 lockdown rekindled the interest of urban residents to grow food in their own terraces and gardens. The benefits of edible gardens, like cooler and cleaner cities, healthier ecosystems, and healthier bodies, resurfaced in conversations.

The urban farming discourse has been expanding over the past few years. But in the prominence of this discourse are urban people from the middle and upper class with access to technological innovations.

In Mumbai, the financial capital of India, shadowed by the limelight on urban farming, are some invisible and unrecognised farmers. Low-income groups, people with marginalised identities and Adivasi people face exclusion in this dialogue. This leads to a higher probability of the erasure of their contribution, and expulsion from research, policy and planning.

The Aarey Milk Colony was originally a 3,000-acre forested area in the middle of Mumbai. The colony was demarcated as a no-development zone in 1949. The area has been home to 27 tribal villages or padas for centuries. Over the years, the land has been used to accommodate various real estate and urban infrastructure projects. As of 2020, around 600 acres of the milk colony land is demarcated as forest, by the government.

Parts of the Adivasi villages and their farmlands have disappeared gradually. The natives of this urban forest are generational farmers, fishers and livestock rearers, and the most affected by constant concretisation and urbanisation. All Adivasi farmers in Aarey pay a minimal annual tax of Re 1 per gunta (approximately 1,000 square feet of land).

Prakash Bhoir is a farmer, tribal activist, environmentalist and renowned Warli painter. Bhoir’s family grows vegetables, flowers and fruits on their 1.5-acre farm outside their house in Aarey forest’s Kelti pada mainly for subsistence. Aarey lies on the edge of Sanjay Gandhi National Park at the heart of Mumbai.

Bhoir points to his farm across the stream. Water from cow baths and excreta from the Aarey Colony’s cattle sheds comes directly into the farms and acts as manure. Women from the community sell their fresh produce at the high-rise buildings around the locality. Photo credit: Prateek Pamecha

In other hidden farms of Mumbai, agricultural migrants from north India work on the government-owned railway land and cultivate vegetables to cater to the needs of city dwellers. Since 1975, Indian Railways began putting its vacant land to use under the scheme “Grow More Food”.

Intended to protect its surplus land from encroachment and to prevent new slums from developing, the policy allowed railway employees belonging to Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe/Other Backward Classes and Economical Weaker Sections, to cultivate seasonal vegetables on a five-year lease of 4,000 rupees per acre per year. Some of these employees, in turn, hire agricultural migrants to cultivate and oversee these railway farms.

Sawan Chauhan removes Malabar spinach seeds for sowing. Chauhan and her family moved to Mumbai from Uttar Pradesh 20 years ago and have been living next to Kurla’s railway farms since then. They have been appointed by a railway employee to manage the farm. She says her city-bred children do not want to go back to the village now. Photo credit: Geetanjali Gurlhosur

Aarey Milk Colony, which used to be one of the state’s biggest milk suppliers almost 70 years ago, is still home to over 30,000 buffaloes and many cattle-rearing migrant families from Gujarat, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. Of the 32 units of cattle sheds, four have been shut now, according to the locals.

Over the past two decades, cattle rearers of the milk colony have gradually stopped selling buffalo milk to the Aarey Dairy because of the falling prices. While the Aarey Dairy today pays Rs 25 per litre, private wholesalers pay Rs 30 to Rs 32 per litre and the retail price of buffalo milk is Rs 60 to Rs 66 per litre in the city.

Other challenges that the dairy farmers face are bad roads and a shortage of electricity in Aarey, which disrupts their milk production and distribution. Aarey’s cattle rearers want to be recognised as farmers in the city. A dairy worker that the author spoke to, said that transporting buffaloes for dairy is easier than transporting cows because of the controversies surrounding cow slaughter.

A worker measures milk in a carton at a stable in Aarey Milk Colony. Cattle rearers of Aarey insist that they are also farmers because they supply milk to rural and urban populations. A lactating buffalo produces seven litres of milk in a day. Some dairy farmers sell milk to distributors, hotels and private dairies. Photo credit: Prateek Pamecha

Some of Mumbai’s women sanitation workers began small-scale farming for an additional source of income and nutrition during the Covid-19 lockdown. Since January, the collective-based organisation Stree Mukti Sangathan has been training the low-income, Dalit and Bahujan sanitation workers, in horticulture.

With over 2,000 women, SMS runs self-help groups that work in urban waste management, employment opportunities and women’s rights. Since 1998, it has been running the “Parisar Vikas” programme that addresses the problems of waste management, environment-friendly practices like composting and gardening in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region.

Women waste-managers of Mumbai, who go by the name ‘Parisar Bhaginis’, are training to grow vegetables and flowers in housing societies in the eastern suburb of Chembur in Mumbai. During the second wave of Covid-19 in the country, 30 women employed in the sanitation sector in Mumbai started growing microgreens in their own homes too with the help of trainers. These women manage the city’s waste at a mere salary of about Rs 6,500 per month. Photo credit: Prateek Pamecha
Noor Jahan Syed and Sushila Ahire, employed with Stree Multi Sangathan, learn from a terrace garden of a housing society in the eastern suburb of Chembur. Syed points out that only those with enough space can grow their own food in the city, while others cannot. Photo credit: Prateek Pamecha
A bavdi or well is the main source of irrigation on railway farms in Kurla. Farm labourers working here state that there is enough water in the wells all year to grow vegetables. Photo credit: Geetanjali Gurlhosur
Agricultural migrants working on a railway farm in Kurla, that also houses their makeshift residence adjacent to a railway track. The labourers earn up to Rs 6,000- Rs 7,000 per month. Photo credit: Geetanjali Gurlhosur
A vegetable garden inside the premises of a housing society in the eastern suburbs of Mumbai, where sanitation worker Sushila Ahire learnt to practice organic farming amidst the Covid-19 lockdown in early 2021. Photo credit: Prateek Pamecha

This research was conducted as part of the fellowship with the People’s Resource Centre and its project ‘Urban Agriculture Case Studies in Indian Cities’.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.