If ever the phrase “the state is the enemy of the people’’ was proven right, it was on October 5 in Mumbai. That night, police fought ordinary people to ensure that more than 2,000 trees were cut at break-neck speed.
Normally, it is Marxists who define the state as the enemy of the people. But those whom the police pushed, dragged, beat with lathis and then arrested that night were no Marxists. Indeed, some of them had no ideology except survival. The Adivasis among them had lived close to those trees for generations; they knew once the latter were felled, their way of life couldn’t survive.
Ideology isn’t something Mumbaikars have time for, though for more than half a century, a substantial section of them did come under the spell of the city’s resident demagogue. Nevertheless, even Bal Thackeray needed his own obedient army to actually wreck havoc on those he abused as the “enemy”. They, not the ordinary Mumbaikar, took to the roads at his command.
As a rule, Mumbaikars do not come out on the streets for a cause. For them, the daily routine of getting to work is itself such a long-drawn-out, tension-filled, minutely-planned exercise, that they guard every moment of rest. Anna Hazare’s 2011 IAC movement drew lakhs in Delhi, but barely hundreds in Mumbai.
Yet, 200 Mumbaikars, old and young, slum and apartment dwellers, rushed to Aarey Milk Colony, a name that every child in this city knows as a ‘picnic spot’, late on October 5,when they heard that the state’s Metro Rail Corporation had started cutting trees there. Their action was the climax of a five-year struggle to save Aarey, which has attracted thousands over the last year, including for the first time, Dalit groups so far aroused only by identity issues.
The government’s action came hours after the Bombay High Court rejected petitions asking that Aarey be declared a “reserved forest” and all work related to a Metro car shed proposed to be built there be stopped. But though the court had refused to stay its order, nowhere had it said that tree cutting should start. All it had said was that the petitioners had erred by approaching it. It was bound by a previous High Court order that had dismissed a similar plea. An appeal against that was pending in the Supreme Court, and the petitioners should have approached that forum.
Obviously, there’s a 50-50 chance of the Supreme Court verdict going in favour of the petitioners, resulting in no permission for trees being cut or anything being built in Aarey. To pre-empt that possibility, the government rushed to cut the trees. It knew that the Supreme Court had closed for Dussehra till October 14.
So who says our governments are inefficient? On October 5, the Maharashtra government showed that when they want to, our governments can act swiftly, discreetly and decisively. Section 144 was imposed, police bandobast put in place, bulldozers sent for—all within a few hours. Around 100 protesters were detained, 29 arrested and kept in police custody overnight, denied bail next morning and sent to judicial custody for five days. By the time the apex court’s Vacation Bench put a halt to the tree cutting, it was all over.
At least eight Mumbaikars died due to potholes between July and September. Like every monsoon in the last five years, the recent rains too left a trail of destruction in the city, including at least 30 deaths. The same authorities, who swung into action to cut the trees, have refused to act to prevent the deaths of their citizens whose taxes allow them to run the city. Indeed, by destroying the Aarey forest (technical definitions apart, anyone knows that 2,000+ ancient trees in a compact space, home to a rich diversity of creatures including leopards, is a forest), they have ensured even more destruction in future monsoons.
Everyone knows this, for climate change is now a reality faced by Mumbaikars. But even if it weren’t, which government in the world rushes to destroy nature, even imprisoning its own people to do so? Names that instantly come to mind are the US, where armed security men used tanks and dogs in 2016 to clear Native Americans guarding their water and ancient burial grounds against the Dakota Access Pipeline; and Brazil, where almost 10,000 indigenous dwellers of the Amazon have, over the years, lost their lives in defence of the forest, which the country’s new president has promised to open up for commerce. That’s real prestigious company for India to be in!
Our environment minister has defended the Maharashtra government’s action, expectedly citing ‘sustainable development’. This time, though, that hackneyed argument won’t work. How can the destruction of a rare urban forest in the world’s fourth most polluted megacity be justified to construct a parking space for metro rakes, that too on the banks of a river which had once flooded the city due to concretisation? Alternative sites recommended by experts from IIT-Bombay and NEERI were rejected by the government because a change in the metro plan would cost too much. “Cost” measured as in?
CM Devendra Fadnavis’ determination to destroy Aarey points to just one agenda: commercialisation of this precious land. Naively, one thought his RSS ‘sanskaars’ would militate against this assault on nature. But every action of this man since he assumed power shows that in Mumbai, builders alone rule.
Freelance journalist based in Mumbai