By Priya Ranganathan

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Picture a city with towering skyscrapers, sooty factories, blue-tarped slums, muddy-brown rivers, and piles of garbage lining the maze of roads. And now imagine if, amidst this concrete chaos, lay a green paradise, a wild space in a massive, ever-growing city, with fluttering birds, prowling leopards, wetlands and marshes, and tall trees. If this were your city, wouldn’t you want to save that green paradise too?

Welcome to Aarey Forest, one of two large forest patches in India’s commercial capital – Mumbai. Spread over 1,291 hectares, this forest is a part of the eco-sensitive zone of Sanjay Gandhi National Park, the world’s largest city park! Aarey is home to at least 290 species of wildlife including leopards, spotted deer, sambhar, rusty spotted cats, and over 20 bird species. Two rare birds found here are the Alexandrine Parakeet and the Redwattled Lapwing. The leopards are the largest residents of this forest, but they mostly keep to themselves, feeding on stray dogs, deer, and wild pigs.

My grandparents live in Goregaon East, a stone’s throw away from this gorgeous forest. The air is cooler here, thanks to the dense tree cover, which lowers the smoggy heat present everywhere else in the city. Goregaon was once fully forested, but over time, the trees have made way for concrete slabs and tarred roads. Watching this destruction, much like many of Mumbai’s citizens, I was dismayed and wondered why development had to occur at the expense of the forest.

Why couldn’t we have both?

The same thought was running through the minds of many Mumbaikars, and five years ago, the Save Aarey Campaign was born. Various environmental activists and concerned citizens of all ages came together to protest the unrestricted chopping of trees in the forest to make way for different developmental projects. Development was already eating into
Aarey Forest; the final straw was the proposed building of a metro car shed for the new Goregaon-Mulund elevated
metro line in the forested area. Environmentalists were not having any of it. There were far better places to build a metro shed than Aarey, they argued. In December 2014, citizens filed a petition with the Honourable High Court of Mumbai to stop the cutting of 2298 trees in Aarey. The High Court responded by asking the development body to make the Environmental Impact Assessment publicly available to concerned citizens. Citizens began to spread awareness by protesting peacefully in public areas and talking about the benefits of conserving Aarey forest to people. They even made a human chain of protesters who wanted to save their beloved forest from destruction.

In 2015, two environmental organizations in Mumbai – Vanashakti and Aarey Conservation Group – filed a petition with the National Green Tribunal Pune to declare Aarey as an official forest and Eco-Sensitive Zone, which would prevent it from being cut down. In August that year, the National Green Tribunal passed an order that no construction work would take place in Aarey Colony. But the MMRCL (the municipal body in charge of the metro construction) refused to give up their plan of building the metro shed in Aarey. Citizen protests grew, and the people of Mumbai vocally spoke out against the cutting of a large part of the Aarey forest.

The protests grew larger as more scams were brought to light. People found out that sections of Aarey had been excluded from protection and were being leased for commercial use. One such project was the proposed extension of the Byculla Zoo in Aarey Milk Colony.

“We don’t want a zoo!” people exclaimed. “We want a safe zone for our native wildlife to thrive on the edge of the city. Is that too much to ask?”

In June 2017, concerned citizens were in for a rude shock. The Honourable High Court lifted the ban on development in Aarey, effectively allowing the MMRCL to move forward with the metro project. Citizens who protested against this were told that the chopped trees would be replanted elsewhere. But replanting trees rarely has the same effect as conserving a thriving, productive forest. When transported to new soil, trees often die from stress, as they are unable to get adequate nutrients and establish deep root systems in a new location. Think of how you would feel if you were told that you had to go and live with a new family in a different city. You would be fed, clothed, and given all the luxuries of life, but would you feel happy and thrive? Probably not, right? Well, trees have similar needs too, and many transplanted trees cannot survive the move.

Despite the bad news, Mumbaikars were determined to fight for their forest. The Save Aarey Campaign became the most innovative multimedia campaign in the world; it reached across all social media platforms and engaged environmentalists and citizens living in all parts of the world. Children made posters and songs about saving the forest and hugged trees in the forest to prevent them being chopped down. The city came together to stand by its green lungs in a movement unlike anything seen in India since the Chipko Movement in Uttarakhand and the Silent Valley movement in Kerala. Even when the court case against the metro construction seemed to be failing, citizens rallied and stood firm.

“We are not speaking up against development,” one protester said. “We are speaking up against development at the cost of nature. There is always another way. It is up to us to find it.”

And finally, in 2020, the year of global change, the citizens of Mumbai were offered a respite. The Honourable High Court of Bombay declared Aarey to be a forest, protected by official laws against development. Citizens cheered and cried tears of joy. A protest of massive proportion, the first of its kind in many years, had finally succeeded, and their beloved forest was saved. 

About the Author:

Priya Ranganathan is a wetland ecologist and geologist by training who works in the wild Western Ghats. When she isn’t out wading through swamp forests, she can be found scribbling away in her notebook or practicing Bharatanatyam. Check out her website ‘On Life and Wildlife.’