The Maharashtra government on Wednesday decided to declare 600 acres of Aarey land as ‘reserved forests’ by applying Section 4 of the Indian Forest Act, much to the joy of forest rights activists in Mumbai.
As per Section 4, a Forest Settlement-Officer will be appointed for the 600-acres of reserved forest to look into the nature, extent and existence of rights of any person living in the area.
According to a Twitter thread by Environment Minister Aditya Thackeray, the decision will be carried out in two phases, the first of which deals with the 600 acres of intact forests and the second phase will consider additional, open forest land.
Although neither of these phases will consider the metro car shed near the Mithi river, the news has overjoyed activists who have been fighting for forest rights for the last seven years. However, in the past different people from various walks of life have come together to protect this green-pocket of the metropolitan city. Youngsters have even sung songs about the need to protect this land.
“If Covid wasn’t here we would have gone out and celebrated the government decision,” said Adivasi activist Prakash Bhoir who lives in Aarey forest.
He thanked the Environment Minister Aditya Thackeray, for assuring the protection of Adivasi rights and allowing them to continue living in the forest. He hoped that the government would include the 27 Adivasi settlements in the 600-acres of land.
“I always say that any decision to protect Mother Earth is always correct. After last year’s tree-cutting I had thought that nature would never forgive us. Hopefully now, we will be forgiven,” said Bhoir, referring to the cutting of 2,700 Aarey trees on October 4, 2019 to make way for the Mumbai Metro project. As many as 29 people were arrested at that time for protesting against the felling of trees.
Young activist Manisha Dhinde, who was among those arrested last year, also celebrated the State government’s decision of reserved forest land.
“Last year, I got an ATKT because I was fighting for my homeland. Today, after hearing the government’s decision I feel my sacrifice was justified,” said Dhinde.
She said she was happy that Thackeray had promised to protect Adivasi rights, allowing residents to do farming on their land. She hoped that the decision would also help with the metro car shed issue.
Member of Aarey Conservation Group Amrita Bhattacharjee reinforced this optimism, arguing that there is no need for a metro car shed in an area that has now been declared as a forest. She said that such a construction project could lead to flooding since the metro carshed land serves as the catchment area for Mithi river and Oshiwara river. Moreover, as per the Forest Rights Act, any area declared as a forest gives land rights to the Adivasis living there.
“What we need to see now is how this decision is implemented. Development doesn’t just mean concretisation,” she said.
She said that the recent pandemic has reminded everyone about the importance of green spaces in the city. The citizens should therefore demand forest protection from the administration. Democracy is after all, for the people, by the people and of the people, she said.
When asked about the remaining 700 acres of land that has not been declared as a forest area she said that the second phase of the initiative will look into it.
Director for Vanashakti Stalin D. agreed with her, stating that the phasing intended to protect the ‘good’ land.
“While conducting surveys on Aarey forest, they saw that 600 acres of land was still good and untouched by development activities. Therefore, the first phase immediately protects that land. The next phase will look into the degraded forest area,” said Stalin.
Unlike Dhinde and Bhattarcharjee, Stalin said the decision could not help with the metro shed issue since that dealt with the catchment area near Mithi river. Nevertheless, he applauded the decision and the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) coalition.
He said that the State government had long refused to acknowledge Aarey as a forest. Even after the Supreme Court verdict last year stating the same, the government had not acknowledged the forest. With the recent decision, he felt the State has finally faced the truth.
“After being trolled, abused and accused for years by paid misguided elements of the previous Govt, this piece of happy news is welcome to us! Seven years of effort has not been in vain after all. The Metro car shed issue still remains unsolved but we are hopeful it being resolved soon. Rejoice Mumbai, you just got news of 600 acres of Forest being recognised as your asset. Lots of work to be done but for now, we savour this moment of happiness. AAREY IS A FOREST … period,” he said.