Environmental activist Zoru Bhathena believes that Mumbai’s fragile ecosystem is at its tipping point and no amount of activism is too urgent or too much to rescue it. (Illustration: Gajanan Nirphale)
Environmental activist Zoru Bhathena believes that Mumbai’s fragile ecosystem is at its tipping point and no amount of activism is too urgent or too much to rescue it. (Illustration: Gajanan Nirphale)

Malavika’s Mumbaistan: The Mark of Zoru

He may not wear a mask or cape and his name may only bear an echo of the original vigilante, but Mumbai’s environmental activist Zoru Bhathena makes up for it with the passion and commitment he brings to every battle he takes on.
By Malavika Sangghvi
PUBLISHED ON JUN 11, 2021 07:13 PM IST

Fans of the superhero genre will be familiar with one of the earliest examples of a masked avenger, known as Zorro. Created in 1919, this swashbuckling vigilante, who rushes to the aid of those in trouble, went on to capture public imagination, when he was played by Douglas Fairbanks in the Hollywood blockbuster The Mark of Zorro. Forty subsequent films and 10 TV series later, he is believed to be the inspiration for a whole slew of comic book superheroes, Batman in particular.

Zorro’s special appeal was that he took on enemies of the greater good, bringing them to book, with expert swordsmanship and fox-like cunning. No matter how strong his opponents, they would ultimately be vanquished by Zorro, as he galloped in, wearing his signature black cape and hat, on his trusty steed Tornado. And no sooner had he annihilated the villains, would he disappear, leaving only the letter Z behind, to mark his presence.

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He may not wear a mask or cape and his name may only bear an echo of the original vigilante, but Mumbai’s environmental activist Zoru Bhathena makes up for it with the passion and commitment he brings to every battle he takes on.

Whether it is waging a war against what he sees as the mindless destruction of Mumbai’s coastline, or the senseless plan to build a casting yard for cement girders on Juhu beach, or the felling of 3,000 square metres of precious mangroves to accommodate a bridge, Zoru battles it out in courts, in the media and on the streets, daily. His mission is to save Mumbai from the destruction of “devil-opment” — a word he is proud to have coined, to describe the wanton destruction of Mumbai’s fragile ecosystem and public spaces.

Never in his wildest dreams, says this 46-year-old father of teenagers, would he have imagined that he would spend every waking hour fighting so passionately for a better city. Or that during a hearing before the Supreme Court, no less than Tushar Mehta, the Solicitor General of India, would point to him and declare: “He is stopping every single project in Mumbai.”

“I have only one regret-of not hollering back “So why doesn’t your government plan and execute things properly in the first place, Mr Solicitor General?” he says.

“Having the SG lash out at you in open court is an unnerving feeling, but a proud reminder that you have stood up for what IS right. Till five-six years ago, I too was a happy-go-lucky, unbothered Mumbaikar. But one day something just snapped.”

It was a day like any other in 2015, he says, driving home from work on the Western Express Highway to Khar, he had noticed that the entire road was lined with dead trees; trees that had shed their bark and turned an eerie, grave-stone white. The sight had sent a shiver down his spine. Taking advice from his solicitor wife, he had sprung into action, joining forces with other like-minded environmentalists, most prominent among them Stalin, whose NGO Vanashakti, he says, has inspired many like himself. The group had enjoyed an early victory when the high court had stepped in and saved the trees.

Since then, there had been no turning back. On the urging of his tree-loving friends, he had visited Aarey, enthralled by the lush, natural beauty of the forest at the edge of the city; on learning that its pristine environment was in danger of being axed to make way for a metro shed, he had been inspired to throw in his might to protect it.

One thing had led to another.

“Daily, I began to notice other things,” he says, “roads that were unnecessarily being repaired, pavements that were ripped up and re-laid with the exact same tiles, trees being senselessly hacked. Getting involved in activism opened my eyes and once opened, there was no way I could close them,” he quips, “In fact, it was just like that Myntra logo — once you see it, you just can’t unsee it!”

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To be sure, Zoru may have assumed the mantle of a fiery activist, but what this otherwise cheerful scion of a famous car racing clan, whose day job is manufacturing of medical supplies, is petitioning for is the simple plea of a majority of Mumbai’s citizens, who love their city and cannot comprehend why its environment appears to be desecrated with such relish by authorities.

“Surely our powers-that-be have travelled abroad. Surely they can see how London, Amsterdam, Madrid, Venice have preserved their heritage. How Singapore has been forested and developed. How Dubai has been converted from a desert into a green zone. How Bali has protected its coast and yet built a coastal road,” he says, adding, “But then, some people believe Mumbai’s roads are paved in gold. The more they dig them, the more they earn. This is the unfortunate fact, which we Mumbaikars must fight to change.”

Nevertheless, though assaults on the city’s green spaces and destruction of its ecosystem are legion, like his fictional namesake, Zoru and his band of fellow activists have seen some successes too. From saving trees on the WEH, to getting the Supreme Court to issue a stay order on tree-cutting at Aarey, to protecting Juhu beach from becoming a cement-casting yard, there have been triumphs, but few know the costs at which they have come. “Activism and taking on powerful state machinery is an uphill battle,” he says, “And unfortunately there are far too few of us and many get worn down pretty quickly...”

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Zoru believes that Mumbai’s fragile ecosystem is at its tipping point and no amount of activism is too urgent or too much to rescue it. Every day, with characteristic impish humour, his social media posts take on the ludicrous, absurd and destructive assaults on it, regardless of politics or party. “Mumbai’s environment is at near rock bottom. Every single protective step is important. Be it saving the coast or the Aarey forest, or our mangroves, they all seem to be planned with nil focus on the destruction they cause. If only our politicians would understand that it is so simple to plan a project while preserving the environment too. The rot that has befallen the city runs deep, deep, deep…” he says.

But perhaps all is not lost. Having won gratitude and praise for successfully dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, perhaps BMC chief Iqbal Singh Chahal, Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray and environment minister Aaditya Thackeray will next be open to sitting across a table to try and understand the pleas of their citizenry.

Meanwhile, the action hero stays ready to mount his steed…

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