Fire on the margins: CJP calls for a Citizens’ Inquiry to Save Aarey, Mumbai’s Green Lung

In the late hours of Monday, December 3, 2018, a fire blazed in Mumbai’s Aarey forest, the city’s last remaining major green area. Various news reports reported that the fire originated in a plot close to the IT Park that is located adjacent to Aarey. Reports indicated that the fire department struggled to control the fire, which raged through the night before it was doused the next morning.  The fire has prompted fierce criticism and raised serious questions from environmental activists, and has set off a political spat. SabrangIndia’s sister organization and human rights organization Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) visited the location of the fire and investigated the incident. They are of the opinion that the fire was definitely suspicious and that a Citizens Inquiry is needed to investigate and save this last green cover of Aarey.  On December 13, the Mumbai Fire Brigade released a report that termed the cause of the fire as “doubtful”.


Here are important excerpts from the report:

Visit to location of the fire
A CJP team visited the area that was affected by the fire to investigate the issue on Monday December 10, 2018. We wanted to assess the impact of the fire on the local Warli Adivasis and others, as well as the impact on flora and fauna. We were unable to access the main area where patches of burnt land could be seen from a distance of about 300-400 metres, as part of it was behind a concrete wall topped with barbed wire. The barbed wire pointed to the land being “private forest land,” also indicated by two yellow boards emblazoned with the words ‘Private Property’ that were visible from a distance. The path alongside the wall was uphill, rocky and barely motorable, and abruptly ended after a point. The wall that was built around the land marked as private forest land had big window like structures at the bottom, which probably signified the flow of water from the uphill towards other parts.

The Aarey forest, located in the Northern suburbs of Mumbai, is the only green cover in the region, and is known for its lush vegetation, with tall trees, grasslands and rocky hills. The Aarey land has consistently faced onslaughts from many development projects. Government after government has not shown any sensitivity towards the flora and fauna of the area, and the fact that this forest is important for the environment.
At at least two spots, there were signs indicating the land was private property have been erected.


However, the signs did not indicate to whom the land belongs. The area that was burned seemed to have been populated with grass and small shrubbery. There were no hutments or human settlements to be spotted, except one tiny hutment, which seemed to belong to the guards/watchmen. From the other side of the road that led to this spot, one could see the vast stretch of lush green forest and Film City in Goregaon. The local activist who accompanied us pointed to a flag waving in there and exclaimed, “The British flag can still wave only in Film City.”

Response from state machinery
The Times of India (TOI) reported that Maharashtra environment minister called for a Forest Department inquiry into the fire, but that state forest minister Sudhir Mungantiwar said the area in question did not fall under his department. Kadam said, “There are allegations that the area was purposely set on fire and I have asked Mungantiwar to conduct an inquiry.” However, Mungantiwar said that the land was a private plot, and also that “Some part of Aarey Colony too has been affected but that too is under the dairy development department”.

The fire, which spread across three kilometres, occurred on land belonging to the F. E. Dinshaw trust and has been taken over by K. Raheja Realty for “development purposes”, TOI reported. However, a Raheja spokesperson refuted locals’ allegations that there were repeated and deliberate fires set in the area, telling TOI, “It is an open area with dry grass and as in every forest, when a cigarette or beedi is tossed, it catches fire. The adjoining SGNP often sees fires. We have built a boundary wall around our plot except at one spot where there is a nullah and hence, we cannot construct anything there. This opening is used by anti-social elements to access the plot. We have requested the BMC to allow us to put grills there as guards are unable to stop people from entering the area”. In 1996, K. Raheja Realty acquired approval to build bungalows on the plot. However, the company’s spokesperson said, “There are no plans to construct them immediately but the permission is regularly renewed”.

In an interview with The Indian Express, Aarey Milk Colony Chief Executive Officer N. V. Rathod seemed to echo Raheja’s explanation for the fire. When asked about allegations that fires are deliberately set to encroach on or develop land, Rathod said, “There are incidents of fire in Aarey but most are reported in summer, that too very small ones. If there are fires, we mobilise our machinery to douse them immediately. One of the reasons for such fires are people throw bidi or cigarette on dry leaves or dry patches. As summer temperatures are high, this sparks a fire in the bushes but it is brought under control immediately. As of now, no big fire has been reported in Aarey. We are prepared for any eventuality.” Of the recent fire, he said that it had “nothing to do with Aarey Milk Colony,” but acknowledged that it “spread near Aarey’s land,” saying that no animals were harmed.

Notable was Rathod’s answer when asked about environmentalists’ arguments that Aarey is a forest, making projects such as the proposed Metro carshed violative of the Forest Act. Rathod said, “Aarey was never shown as a forest in our records. It’s not part of the forest”.

Was the fire deliberate? Activists speak
Amrita Bhattacharjee, environmental activist associated with the Save Aarey campaign, has been crucial in bringing the ‘Aarey question’ to the forefront of public debate. She alleges that the fire was deliberate. Amrita has been instrumental in organising Warli Adivasis to demand their rightful claim to forest land and their livelihood. She accompanied our team to the location of the fire. She said, “As you can see, it’s evident that there are no human settlements around. How can the fire catch on its own? We (activists associated with Aarey) are sure that the fire was deliberate.” When we asked her about the potential reasons, she said, “They are hell bent on proving this is not forest land. These fires ensure that no new saplings grow and the land remains dry and barren.” Amrita also highlighted the difficulties activists face in getting information related to the possession and exact demarcation of private forest land. “Most of the times, individual RTIs get rejected with some bureaucratic answers.” A local resident of the area, who spoke to us on the condition of anonymity, also indicated that it was an open secret among locals that deliberate fires were set.

CJP spoke with environmental activist Zoru Bhathena, who had a similar opinion. He said that as per the Maharashtra (Urban Areas) Preservation of Trees Act, 1975, even saplings are considered part of forests. Section 2(c) of the Act says that “to fell a tree” includes burning or cutting. “Though the same Act has provisions for fine and imprisonment for anyone who fells any tree in contravention of the Act, I have never seen anyone getting punished for felling trees,” said Bhathena.

Bhathena highlighted that though the area has been identified as an eco-sensitive zone, attempts are being made to make it look like it is not an eco-sensitive zone. “This plot of land comes under the no-development zone as per the development plan. However, no-development zone (NDZ) is a misnomer as development is permissible with certain exceptions.” He added, “The fancy buildings and the IT Park you see nearby, are a result of this exception.”

He indicated that fires have been set repeatedly to prevent growth, because if the area became a densely vegetated “proper” forest, it would not be possible to continue any development-related activities on it. This was the first time a fire “spread to this magnitude,” he said.

The growing dangers of fires in Aarey
“Previously so many species of birds would come around this season. This time I have barely seen any,” lamented a resident of Aarey Colony in Goregaon. Reportedly, the recent fire reached very close to nearby residential areas, and even impacted some MHADA buildings. Activists allege that tree cover in the area has dwindled over the years. Particularly revealing are the satellite images of the specific point in question.

CJP team members who visited the area were unable to ascertain how human error such as leaving behind a lit cigarette could have sparked the fire, particularly one that swelled to such a large size. The Mumbai Fire Brigade report mirrors activists’ concerns. While the report could not uncover what specifically caused the blaze, has said that suspicious activity cannot be ruled out. The cause of the fire has been described as “doubtful” by the report and has also said that it may be reviewed later if more evidence surfaces. The fire brigade found some bottles and a burnt tyre during its inspection, indicating trespassing. 

Taking all the facts into account, along with activists’ statements and the fire brigade’s report, CJP believes there is a strong need for both an official, as well as a citizens’ inquiry into the episode. If indeed the fires have been deliberate then humanity needs to worry over its own apocalypse and slow degradation. If not, then one still needs to investigate into the source of the fires and find ways and mechanisms to sustain the only green cover Mumbai has.

The complete report can be accessed here




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