A people’s priest

A Christian priest who has won three journalism awards, received public recognition for tireless social work and been lauded for his contribution to Marathi literature? A man who inspired a citizen’s movement against the goonda–cum–builder lobby at the green tip of Mumbai? Meet Father Francis D’Britto 

​Vasai village is located about 75 kilometers north of Mumbai city stretching from Bhayander creek at the south to river Vaitarna confluence at the north. This coastal green belt covering 25,000 acres of land is called Vasai–Virar sub–region. This fertile, wooded and green region, north of Mumbai, has been tradition-ally protected by the designed development plans during colonial and post–Independence governments. 

However, in August 1988 the government of Maharashtra, with the stroke of a pen, converted this green belt into a residential zone, without any provision for supportive infrastructure. Citizens of Vasai, activists dedicated to sustainable development, genuinely feared that in the wake of the execution of these short-sighted changes made in the plan the environment, structure, topography and demography of this region would be adversely affected. But, predictably there was no voice of discontent whatsoever raised from established political parties, or any other public interest institution.

Around this time, a former municipal commissioner of Mumbai, also voiced public concern about the so–called altered development plan for the Vasai–Virar sub–region, through an article in the Marathi daily, Loksatta. The Marathi monthly Suvarta then took up the issue, breaking local silence with an article, voicing concern about the consequences of this hasty, re-prioritising of the project which was primarily motivated by vested interests, with the powerful builders’ lobby in mind. It was not easy speaking out on the issue, there was an all–prevalent fear of the politician–builder nexus that had terrorized local persons at the time. With little local support at the time, on April 1, 1989 Fr. D’Britto who edits Suvarta, called a meeting of eminent people including politicians and social workers from various walks of life; the response was mixed.

Those opposing the changes to the development plan came together and the Harit Vasai Saurakshan Samiti was born. Thereafter began a systematic concientising programme, with Fr. D’Britto moving all over Vasai, spreading information and knowledge about the issue. A mammoth gathering of 35,000 people on October 1, 1989, was the culmination. 

The meeting was addressed by Vijay Tendulkar, noted Marathi playwright, Kisan Mahta, renowned environmentalist, RV Bhuskute, a former tahsildar of Vasai and Fr. F. D’Britto, the convenor of Harit Vasai Saurakshan Samiti. Keeping in mind the protection of the greenery and provision of proper infrastructure, a complete revision of the plan was demanded by the Samiti. 

Predictably, the supporters of the builders’ lobby initiated a counter-agitation, which created confusion and uneasiness among the people. Also, the official stand of the Church on this issue was quite obscure. Initially, there were differences among lay Christians, residents of Vasai and the Church on the issue. Eventually, after the continued persistence and commitment of the samiti, that had begun appealing to people on principles of greater common good, proper infrastructure, agriculture, preservation of flora and fauna and water–logging problem, the Church hierarchy also lent support to the movement.

There were more challenges before the movement. In the 1990s, new housing colonies were mushrooming on both sides of Naigaon, Vasai, Nala–Sopara and Virar railway stations. In the absence of government provided tap water, people had to depend on ground water. But due to the close proximity of this area to the creek, the ground water was very saline and non–potable. The builders had started extracting potable ground water from the Vasai–Virar green belt to meet this purpose. 

Increasing salinity in the ground water in this area as a result of this, had begun damaging agricultural produce. It was the HVSS that studied the situation and invited a scientific body of experts to determine the water table and degree of salinity. 

Among them were: 1) AFPRO – Action For Food Production, Ahmed-nager, 2) Coopers & Lybrand, London, 3) Bombay University, department of geography, government of Maharashtra, 4) Thane Zilla Parishad Land Survey.

The results of the survey proved the fears of the HVSS right, after which an agitation against the tanker and builders lobby was initiated. However, the local politicians supporting the builders, started harassing the peasants of the area. In its report dated May 20, 1991, The Times of India  stated: “The Christian population of the Vasai–Virar region is being terrorised by groups of toughs, allegedly let loose by local politicians and builders… The unprecedented and unprovoked violence against innocent people has its roots in the agitation against the overuse of wells in the Vasai–Virar green belt. The villages in the green belt, which are showing the first signs of a water scarce area, have a largely Christian population. Over the last few weeks, women in the area had begun a movement to prevent the ‘irrational’ use of their well water which is transported to the newly developed urban area mostly for construction work.”

Finally government officials intervened. Ministerial level discussions were held where HVSS was represented. As a result the tankers were banned from withdrawing water from the Vasai–Virar green belt. It was a clear victory for the Harit Vasai Saurakshan Samiti. 

Another attempt to impose another draft of the development plan for Vasai, this time by the City and Industrial Development Corporation (CIDCO), newly appointed as the Planning Authority for Vasai–Virar sub–region in 1990, was resisted by the HVSS. In September the same year, CIDCO presented an interim draft development plan for the area. HVSS studied the plan in detail and realised that, again, it was detrimental to the environment of Vasai–Virar area. In their plan CIDCO had proposed huge holding ponds and dumping grounds within existing residential areas in the green zone. This could cause untold harm to the health of the residents.

Once again the Harit Vasai Saurakshan Samiti protested against this plan. On January 26, 1992, a huge gathering of 1,00,000 people was held at Vasai grounds after which 1,00,000 protest signatures were collected and presented to the governor of Maharashtra, P.C. Alexander and to the then Prime Minister, VP Singh in New Delhi, who promised to look into the matter personally. CIDCO had to make alterations in its subsequent plans  whereby the green belt would be preserved.              



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