Reclaiming Forest Land, One Tree at a Time
Prakash Bhoir is a fiery Adivasi activist from Aarey, whose consistent initiatives have helped shed light on the condition of Adivasis in this forest. The Aarey forest, located in the Northern suburbs of Mumbai, is the only green cover in the area, and is known for its lush greenery, with tall trees, grasslands and rocky hills. The Aarey land has consistently faced onslaughts from many development projects, and is home to Warli Adivasis who are on the brink of getting displaced from their land, and losing their livelihood.
“Sometimes the trees come in my dreams. They say, you gave us life, but will you be able to keep us alive? Will I be cursed if these trees die?”- Prakash Bhoir
The walk to Bhoir’s house in Unit 18 in Kelti Pada (an Adivasi settlement) has abundant sunshine, and is dotted with exquisite flora and little streams of water flowing from the nearby dairy farm. The streams have been intelligently used to water the plants and trees in the area. His house is built of mud, amid massive trees, and blends with the natural exterior. Several Warli paintings adorn the mud walls. Bhoir also makes arrangements for environmentalists, researchers, and students, so that they can come and stay in the forest and communicate the importance of saving these forests to the world outside.
CJP team with Prakash Bhoir and Amrita from Save Aarey campaign
“Earlier this was a dense forest. We extract honey from the trees and there are multiple varieties of fruit bearing trees. Drumsticks grow very well in the area. These are very nutritious too. But the forest is disappearing fast,” says Bhoir, talking about the current condition of the Aarey forest land.
Recalling various government projects here, he says, “First came a veterinary. Then the SRPF which acquired 200 acres of land. Force 1 too is now situated here. And now the Metro line construction has started. I wonder what will happen to the forest.” A natural fallout of the development projects is that the Adivasis lose their land every time there is a new project. Many of them are now being pushed into Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) buildings, in precarious conditions. This also disconnects them from the forests, the main source of their livelihood and survival.
The Aarey dairy farm is located inside the forest. Bhoir is of the opinion that when the dairy business went into loss, the land that had been acquired from the Adivasis should have been returned to them. However, this land started getting distributed for various other purposes.
‘Vikas nahi, Vinash’
Highlighting the precarious situation in which Adivasis are staying, Bhoir asks, “What does development mean? People should have electricity and water, right? But when Adivasis try to get the NOC (No Objection Certificate) for any kind of water supply, they don’t get it. He adds that research by a group of TISS students revealed that the water available in the forest is polluted, and is unfit for even animals to consume.
Water storage in Adivasi household
“This is destruction in the name of development,” he says.
Per Bhoir, the multiple development projects in the area have impacted Adivasis’ farming, their cattle, as well as the wildlife. “We are the people responsible for the green cover of Mumbai. With our expertise we help nourish the trees, which in turn give oxygen to the environment. Can you say that our existence is futile? We are giving the city its oxygen,” he says.
Bhoir remarks that any time one talks about the supposed development projects, it is the Adivasis who are sacrificed at the altar of this development. Essentially, he says that the existing notions of development have actually been very violent to Adivasis. He adds, “They [the authorities] say that we will shift you to SRA buildings. Sometimes in the name of zoo construction, today in the name of Metro. This has been going on for past 8-9 years.” Instead, there is a need to radically reverse this notion of development.
“Development should be seen the other way round. Instead of constructing more buildings, why don’t we grow forests in the concrete jungles?” asks Bhoir.
Uncovering the farce of afforestation projects, Bhoir says, “The way most of these afforestation drives work is illogical and unscientific. How can you plant twenty-five trees at mere spacing of a foot or less. What happens to the trees when they grow up? This proves that the approach is incorrect. Most of the saplings planted during afforestation projects die in this manner.”
Talking about the unscientific way of transferring trees from one place to another for ‘city beautification’ purposes, he says, “They dig out trees from one place and plant them to another. So many trees have died like this.”
Lover of the Forest
“We were the kings of the forests. When SRPF came inside the forests in 1975, they snatched away our water reserves. Today, we have to take permission to drink water,” says Bhoir, who is committed to protecting the interests of Adivasis who are not willing to leave their ancestral lands.
Bhoir is now on a mission to safeguard trees. He has built a small nursery around his house. He plants and nurtures good quality saplings and seeds, so that these become healthier trees later. He hasn’t yet started selling these, but may have to sell them in the future.
Prakash Bhoir’s nursery
He is keen that people should visit the forests and see how the Adivasis are living and how their lifestyles have changed.
“We live in great fear. This has an impact on our culture too. We don’t feel like dancing and singing since we live in fear and our minds aren’t free,” says Bhoir about the Warli culture.
Bhoir’s house is adorned with a host of Warli paintings, on different surfaces, done by different members of his family. Some paintings were done on old mushrooms. The colonisation of the forest is reflected in the art as well. The paintings that used to depict the Adivasis’ daily lives, forest animals as deities, weddings etc. are now dotted with helicopters, bridges, and roads. Bhoir believes that this is the subconscious effect of the various security training camps that have been built on the forest land.
Warli paintings on Wild Mushrooms
Bhoir, who juggles his job in the BMC’s water department and his role as Deputy Chief of Shramjeevi Sangathana, Mumbai, which is working to save the Aarey land, says, “My children say that no matter the nature of assaults, we will preserve our land. We are not going anywhere!”