Hail the Aarey protesters

When Mumbai’s lungs were chopped

Aarey

In the western suburbs of Mumbai, a new story of resistance is being written as youngsters motivated by nothing more than the idea of saving trees and protecting an area known as the ‘green lungs’ of the city have organised themselves to stand against the might of the State. Last weekend, as the authorities began felling trees, swarms of riot police descended in the wooded enclave of Aarey Milk Colony and clashed with thousands of youth protesters. Many of them were arrested and put away in jail under judicial custody. The trees began to fall — some 2,141 so far and more to go— to clear up space for a shed for the upcoming metro lines that will signify more ‘development’, speedier travel for Mumbai’s 25 million people.

The development brigade argues this is what is needed in gridlocked Mumbai, India’s financial centre, home to the highest income tax collections and the showpiece city teeming with slums, but also with opportunity and optimism— Gillian Tindall’s “city of gold,” where the penniless came to become millionaires. And this is also the city where trade unions made a mark against development by smashing light bulbs in the mills when electricity first arrived on the shop floor (between 1905 and 1908). They argued that artificial light was a tool of exploitation because workers were made to work 15 hours under it. The result was the Factories Act of 1911 that limited working to 12 hours in textile factories. This is also the city that saw the birth of the Congress party in 1885 and the launch of the Quit India movement in 1942 (both at what’s now called August Kranti Maidan).

But the idea of resistance, notably in post-liberalisation India, has almost died out in the city; the language of justice, fairness and rights is less heard; economic growth, stock market prices and the glamourous life are more likely the topics of discussion. It is this that modern-day corporations turn to to power their consumption-led growth story –- the youth that they say seek instant gratification, fast food and ready-made solutions. Two-minute noodles, digital wallets and the host of food delivery apps are testimony to an India (and Mumbai as a microcosm of India) that wants to grow faster.

Except, this idea of development is now under strain. The protesters at Aarey tell us a story of a new generation that is unwilling to be codified by the rules that allow the State, the corporations and ‘the establishment’, in general, to exploit resources, push consumption and sell a model under which the largest, greenest, among the oldest and the most majestic part of Mumbai is felled in one night so that metro-rail cars can come there for a night halt.
What’s more, among the protesters at Aarey are students, lawyers, journalists, filmmakers, photographers, tribals, homemakers, writers, and a host of other professionals. For five long years, they have organised, protested, signed petitions, moved courts, organised walks in the woods and educated millions through the media on the perils of trampling on forest land (even if it is not formally declared a forest by the government) that is the most pristine area of Mumbai city. So green and inviting is the place that it has a picnic spot that is called “chhota Kashmir”. The Gazetteer of India for the Greater Mumbai District (second revised edition of 1986) calls the area a “protected green”.

It is not that parts of this protected green have not been violated in the past. It has a road cutting through it; a builder magically got permission long years ago to build a golf course and some villas, although the project never took off in the way it was intended. But protests in the past were few and far between. This time is clearly different, in terms of the age and profile of the protesters, the randomness with which they have worked to pull off a long-term protest and the sheer energy they have brought to the cause of saving a patch of green.
Across the world, it is the new generation that is asking questions on models of development that have brought us climate change, rising inequality and a growing array of lifestyle diseases. From 16-year-old Greta Thunberg of Sweden to the youngsters of Aarey, they speak the same language, ask the same questions and reject the anthropocentric view of development that is the only language that governments tend to speak.

It is possible to argue that this is but one small patch of land in a city of concrete. It is equally true that the trees have begun falling and probably the metro shed will be built. In that sense, it is possible to ask if the protesters achieved anything other than creating noise, raising awareness and then conceding defeat. Fact is, petitions in the Bombay High Court against the felling of trees were dismissed.

Yet, the story of the protest at Aarey is not the story of a win or a loss in the immediate. It sends out a signal that in a city known only by its financial metrics, there is the rise of a new set of voices who do not accept the dominant view, who measure the value of the city and its people beyond Sensex and Nifty numbers, and who are asking questions that have rarely been asked in recent years. This marks a shift, and businesses and governments would be well advised to heed.

In that sense, this is an important step in the change that is probably coming, little different in significance from the smashing of the light bulbs in the mill factories more than 100 years ago. This movement can only get strengthened over time, particularly as some of the ills of unbridled development, such as collapsing banks, declining stocks and slowing GDP numbers, become more apparent and tell us that the story of growth that was sold all along was never as good as it has been made to sound.
(The author is a journalist and a faculty member at SPJIMR) (The Billion Press)

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