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Wednesday, Oct 23, 2019

The Aarey battle has invaluable lessons for Mumbai

Civil society can and does stand up for causes, even in a city like Mumbai with the crushing demands it makes on people’s time and energy. Aarey is a good example of how citizens found common cause and rallied around together.

mumbai Updated: Oct 10, 2019 00:00 IST
Smruti Koppikar
Smruti Koppikar
Hindustan Times
The Aarey forest lost 2,141 trees in the span of two nights and a day over the weekend. The site resembled a war zone.
The Aarey forest lost 2,141 trees in the span of two nights and a day over the weekend. The site resembled a war zone. (HT file photo)
         

The Aarey forest lost 2,141 trees in the span of two nights and a day over the weekend. With their green canopy reduced to stumps, thousands of birds in the sky above searching for their homes, and animals injured or dead lying on the ground, it resembled a war zone. This was, indeed, war. Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis who threw his might behind the location of one car shed of one Metro and Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation head Ashwini Bhide, whose intransigence has irritated many, may not have imagined that the Aarey battle would escalate this way.

Those who brutalised Aarey’s eco-system were armed with a court order, authoritative power and tools, and a sudden inexplicable alacrity of purpose. Those on the other side – a loosely knit group of activists, civic-minded citizens, environmentalists, students, adivasis who live in Aarey and others who took to the cause had in their arsenal only the willingness to fight the good fight. The battle is not over yet but there are lessons to take away.

The first is that the civil society can and does stand up for causes even in a city like Mumbai with the crushing demands it makes on people’s time and energy. Aarey is a good example of how citizens found common cause and rallied around together. The logical question is why this solidarity happened for Aarey and not elsewhere. It’s a valid question. It might extend to the coastal road project – another ill-advised project that threatens to wreck Mumbai’s marine ecology. It should have extended to, say, Mumbaiites condemned to live in the hell hole that Mahul is. Or to the large swathes of forest and villages submerged by the Sardar Sarovar Dam. Hope it will.

The second is that taking on the might of the state means people will be hurt. As many as 29 were arrested that night and criminal charges brought against them – for protesting tree cutting. Among them were young college-goers with exams to write on Monday. Every struggle demands its pound of flesh. In the Aarey case, people paid with their time in lock-ups and criminal record. The Aarey battle needed resources and logistics; the core group managed both.Those who fought such struggles against land acquisition outside Mumbai, against large dams and so on have a list of charges they wear as badges of honour.

The third is that Mumbai’s political landscape is now unipolar and opposition parties which should have stood up to the government are either comatose or unwilling to articulate people’s concerns. Civil society bravely attempts to fill the vacuum but, however strong and purposeful, it is not an alternative to politics. The Aam Aadmi Party was visible on the ground protesting as the trees were hacked, Nationalist Congress Party’s Jitendra Awhad dropped by the following day. That was about it. Neither Congress nor NCP threw their might, such that they have, behind the issue. The Shiv Sena is not to be trusted. The strongest political articulation for Aarey came from the young Thackeray scion Aaditya, who passionately spoke for protecting trees and even called for Bhide’s resignation. When the trees were being hacked, he was nowhere on the scene. He later tweeted about it. His father Uddhav said people will pay once their government is in. But this is, indeed, their government. The Sena shares power with Fadnavis, a Sena man is Maharashtra’s environment minister, and the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation is in their control.

The fourth is that certain truths have to be repeated over and over again. To protest the car shed in Aarey is not to protest the metro, those who fought to protect Aarey also want the metro. There is no need to create false binaries between trees and human lives lost in Mumbai’s over-crowded rail network. Also, it is not true that other projects in Aarey were not resisted but this resonated with people more than the fights against a private film institute and a housing complex did. What’s stopping Mumbaiites from pushing Film City out or protesting slum rehabilitation plan, zoo relocation proposal, and the numerous institutional offices to be built there? Aarey needs all the soldiers it can get, including law students in Delhi who went to the Supreme Court.

First Published: Oct 09, 2019 23:51 IST

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