Note: This is a transcribed first person account provided by a citizen involved with the Aarey movement, and written and posted by a Solve Ninja Forum admin.
Aarey is forested area in Mumbai. 3000 trees in Aarey were set to be cut or uprooted so that the Mumbai Metro’s depot could be housed in the area. Citizens were fighting to have the depot moved to an alternative location in Kanjurmarg.
stage 1: discovery
I already had prior experiences fighting for trees in my neighborhood in Mumbai (posts soon to come). However, I was not an activist or an environmental expert, just a regular citizen who was willing to work with the checks and balances of the system to hold the government accountable.
Because of this prior work, someone suggested I should learn more about the growing movement around the Aarey forest. Honestly. all I knew about Ararey was a vague connection to milk bottles, I had no recollection of ever being there. When I finally visited I was stunned. Was this beautiful green paradise in Mumbai? Lush greenery, rivulets and streams - I could hardly believe my eyes. Once I saw it, I knew I would do whatever it took to fight to preserve it.
stage 2: early actions:
The media had already begun to cover the protests Aarey, but in a clinical distant way. I totally understood their attitude, that was how I thought of Aarey too before I saw it. The solution? Invite journalists to come down to Aarey themselves to experience it. Once they did, their attitudes totally transformed. Now instead of disinterested reporters, they were allies, because as fellow Mumbaikers, they know understood what the stakes were.
The government meanwhile filed the anticipate land use change from “no use” to “depot”, opening up the mandatory public suggestions and objections period. However, they had released little information for us to object to, so the first step was to file an RTI in the Bombay High Court to have the government release further details.
stage 3: Land Use
Social and regular media helped publicize the land use notification. Thousands of people filed their objections. This was the first serious mass citizen engagement.
To The Courts
We filed a petition in the high court in late 2017, but by June 2018 the High Court ruled that the government could go ahead. We tried to the move the Supreme Court, but they wouldn’t take up the case. We argued that the natural water banks and streams of Aarey helped prevent floods in the city.
stage 4: tree cutting
Once land use was secured, the govt had to undertake a separate process to be able to cut the trees to begin construction.
Online + In Person Engagement:
The government issued notice in August 2018 that they would cut 3000 trees. Tens of thousands of Mumbaikers protested, filing objections through the online form provided to seek feedback for the government action. Meanwhile, thousands of people came in person to the hearing - so many that we couldn’t all fit into the designated hearing room.
The ‘Tree Authority’ Technicality:
We realized that by law, the BMC was supposed have to a tree authority comprised of 5 outside experts to approve any tree cutting. However, they had no such group set up. We filed in the Bombay High Court on this basis right after the tree cutting notice was issued. The Court indeed stayed the cutting, asking the VMC to set up this authority. This took the government nearly a year, and it was in June 2019 that they had the authority in place. The Court allowed them to resume their functions.
stage 5: tree cutting, 2.0
Unprecedented citizen participation:
The Government issued had to issue a fresh notice to cut the trees. This time over one lakh people objected through the online forms. The action was pushed through the BMC regardless. This resulted in mass agitation by the people, including spontaneous human chains that emerged every weekend in Aarey
The ‘Final’ Hearings:
Dozens of petitions were filed in court, so the Bombay High Court decided to put an end to the matter, and decisively close it. Daily hearings were ordered. Finally, 4 PILs were taken up by the court, including one that argued that Aarey was a flood plain, and by a law just passed by the Maharastra Legislature, this made the area ineligible for construction. The High Court said for reasons of precendent, they advised the case to be taken to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, they informally asked the Maharashtra Government to hold off on any further actions until the Supreme Court ruled (not wanting to set a legal precedent by issuing a formal stay).
stage 6: the government's blunder
At this stage, we didn’t know what would happen. The Supreme Court was not in session, so we were worried it might be too late by the time they would hear cases, and we weren’t even sure they would hear ours. What we didn’t expect was what the government would do the very night that High Court hearings ended.
The Night of 4th October:
In the middle of night, the government sent machinery to begin cutting down the trees. Chaos ensued. Hundreds of citizens showed up, hugging trees to protect them. The police were called. The arrested 29 citizens. This only inflamed things further, massive protests ensued. Curfew was declared in Aarey.
Somehow, the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice came to appraised of the matter. Seeing the total chaos that had broken out, he decided “suo motto” to hold special hearings to decide this case. What really swung his decision was the unprovoked arrests of peacefully protesting citizens exercising their constitutional rights. That morning of the courts hearings was nerve-wracking, not least because the guards initially wouldn’t let us into the Supreme Court refusing to believe we had a special hearing, and telling us to come back next month! The Court finally, thankfully, ruled in our favor! A stay was issued.
stage 7: The MA election
The election is Maharashtra was held, and the ruling government changed. The new government had promised to shift the site away from Aarey and indeed they finally did last week.
You’ll notice that not all these stages were under our control. We didn’t decide how the courts would rule, or when elections would be held or what their results would be. Further, we had many losses, not an unbroken string of victories. Yet, by persevering, we were able to stay the construction until we were finally heard, so that when luck finally turned our way, there was still a forest standing that could benefit from it.