After years of protests followed by multiple assurances and announcements, the Maharashtra government finally transferred over 800 acres of land in Aarey Colony to the State Forest Department a week ago. The development came nine months after state Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray announced that a part of Mumbai's green lungs would be turned into a reserve forest. Last year, Thackeray had assured that the government would declare a 600-acre stretch of land in the Aarey Milk Colony as a reserve forest. The size of the land was later increased to 812 acres by the government. The land transferred includes 125.422 hectares in Aarey, 71.631 hectares in Goregaon and 89.679 hectares in Marol Maroshi along with 40.469 hectares of land in Marol Maroshi village.
While this has been a major victory for the movement to protect the city’s forest cover from concretisation and 'development', those at the forefront of the cause continue to struggle for justice. Cases against 29 environmental activists are ongoing. The cases are in relation to the protest and the attempts to stop the felling of trees in October of 2019 when the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) had initiated the process following an order by the Bombay High Court which had given a go ahead for the same.
The list of the 29 people includes five women, students, working class people and many more who are struggling to seek justice, despite an assurance from the CM two years ago. On December 1, 2019, Thackeray had said: “I had given orders to stop the metro car shed work in Aarey. When the trees were cut in the middle of the night, Mumbaikars agitated against the decision. They were detained & charged. I have given orders to take back all the charges filed against them.”
The CM had also announced that the controversial Metro Car Shed would be shifted from Aarey in western suburbs of Mumbai, to Kanjurmarg in its eastern suburbs.
Speaking to Newsclick, Prakash Bhoir, whose wife Pramila has been named in the, FIR said that while there have been "big victories" those at the forefront of the movement are still struggling for justice. "While my wife is a farmer, others, who are struggling to find work or are trying to study abroad are facing hardships,” he said.
“To us the problem is the message this sends out, and the chilling effect it creates to stop people from protesting. Students, adivasis and residents were regularly protesting. In our culture even touching leaves at night is unacceptable as plants sleep at night; this was an attempt to remove trees which had been standing tall for ages. During the protest we were stopped, lathi-charged and detained. We were just trying to protect our green cover, our environment. With the change in the government and their support we have been told that the cases will be taken back, however, they still stand,” he added.
The erstwhile Maharashtra government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, under the leadership of Devendra Fadnavis, had decided to set up a Metro Car shed for Mumbai Metro Line 3. It has decided to give 74 acres of Aarey land to Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL). The area which was acquired by the MMRCL was 82 acres (33 ha.) This decision was challenged in courts by a number of activists and by the Shiv Sena, then the ruling partner of the BJP. The challenge pertained to environmental concerns around Aarey and their demand was that the car shed be set up in another location, not on forest land. It was after multiple protests and a longstanding movement that Aarey colony was saved from concretisation.
Kapil Aggarwal, a student who had turned up in the intervening night of October 4 and 5, said this was "one of the first key decisions by the new government, but now our hope is waning. We were charged for protecting the forest and creating hurdles before the government; the state is looking to make an example out of us to stall further movements against the government. This weakens our faith in the system.”
Apart from the 29 people, 19 other people were named in FIRs but they were not arrested; their FIR’s haven't been quashed either. Moreover, cases were also filed in 2019 against those participating in a human chain prior to the elections in the state. In March 2019, over 27 environmental groups had formed a human chain in Mumbai to demand an environmental manifesto from all parties. About 10 people are currently facing trial for violation of norms, creating conflict and obstructing government work.
Ashok, an activist with the Oscar Foundation, one of the many organisations which participated in the human chain on Marine Drive then, said: “I had never even imagined I will be charged for being part of something so peaceful. The case is still ongoing and we have to appear for hearings regularly. We are struggling with the cases, it is tedious to go through this and we are facing this for organising and participating in one of the most peaceful gatherings with school students.”
Mumbai is currently witnessing protests against the creation of the sea road and the coastal zone notification – the proposed projects, activists say, will unleash "ecological hell".
Shailesh Mishra, who participated in the protest said, “We were protecting and standing up for our trees, water and land. The whole idea is to create a fear psychosis to stop ordinary people from participating in protests. For people like me do not wish to go to court or even police stations, this is extremely discouraging."
There is renewed anger towards the estbalishment's assurances and the delay in quashing cases following a progressive recent judgment by Delhi High Court on the issue of arrests of student activists under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. The court stated that the right to protest cannot be stifled. "We are constrained to express, that it seems, that in its anxiety to suppress dissent, in the mind of the State, the line between the constitutionally guaranteed right to protest and terrorist activity seems to be getting somewhat blurred. If this mindset gains traction, it would be a sad day for democracy," it said.
Activists in the Aarey movement hold that the judgement gives them hope that it will be taken as a precedent to clear cases against common citizens standing up for the environment.