Aarey green cover decimated by city’s development plans
The fight to save Aarey Milk Colony, one of the last green areas in Mumbai outside the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP), continues.
This newspaper has reported that a tribal family, which has been cultivating a one-acre plot of land, which is part of the government-owned Dadasaheb Phalke Chitranagari (Film City), is resisting attempts to evict them.
It is not clear which party has a better claim to the plot. Film City claims that the land is part of their grant, but the family that is facing eviction is member of a tribal group that has lived in the area even before Mumbai came into existence. As tribals – there are around 10,000 members of different tribal communities living in the 25-odd villages inside Aarey – they have protection under the Forest Right Act, 2006, and it will be difficult to evict them even if they do not have formal titles to the land.
Aarey Milk Colony was established in 1949 as a government dairy farm on 1,287 hectares of land. Over the years, the land has been diverted for other uses. The dairy production zone is estimated to have covered over 3,160 acres (1,281 hectares) but is largely unprotected against construction.
Over the decades, a substantial portion of its green cover has been lost to new construction projects. A housing colony built by the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Board, a training and residential camp of State Reserve Police and cemeteries, apart from Film City, have been hived off from Aarey. The tribal residents have rights to live there, but there are illegal slums, with over 30,000 residents, that occupy a tenth of Aarey.
A recent study on the changes in the Aarey landscape, done by Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture and Environmental Studies (KRVIA), estimates that the area has lost 40% of its green cover since 1949. The study points out that only 800 of 1,300 hectares of Aarey, originally marked as ‘No Development Zone’ in the city’s Development Plan (DP), will retain a green cover.
The study says that the 1964 DP reserved the area for the Milk Colony. The next DP, created in 1981 but sanctioned in 1991, reduced the area set aside as a ‘no development zone’ (NDZ) – which restricted development activity in the area – by 23% compared to the NDZ reserved in the 1964 DP.
A 2010 study on the biodiversity of Aarey and Film City, done by Zeeshan Mirza and Rajesh Sanap, acknowledged in the KRVIA study, said that Aarey has diverse habitats like forests, seasonal marshes, hills, rocky outcrops, grassland etc. which nurture its wildlife. Another study by St Xavier’s College in 2019, observes that Aarey Colony is contiguous with Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) and shares the forest’s biodiversity.
Wildlife experts have estimated that the area has 48 species of reptiles and 12 amphibian species, apart from nearly 80 butterfly and moth species.
Large mammals like leopard, deer, boar, mongoose, jungle cats, which are found in SGNP, use Aarey as their backyard.
Many of these species have the protected status under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. But the study warns that new projects (like the expansion of Film City which is located along the boundary of SGNP and Aarey) could sever Aarey’s contiguity with SGNP, affecting wildlife movement, disrupting hydrological systems and the natural drainage.
The latest DP for 2034 proposes more drastic changes in Aarey’s landscape. New projects include a zoo, a housing estate for residents of slums and people displaced by projects, and a car shed for the underground Colaba-SEEPZ Metro.
The allotment of land for the car shed had led to protests by citizens’ group, but the courts have now given the go-ahead for construction. The repercussions of the projects mentioned in 2034 DP will be felt beyond the boundaries of Aarey.