The hypocrisy and hollowness of government practices is on crystalline display in Aarey where the lives of Adivasis are being made more and more difficult by an administration that hopes they will finally succumb to the pressure and give up their land.
I spent last night in a small Adivasi hamlet in Aarey Forest and it will surely go down as one of the most consequential nights of my lifetime. My first thought was why have I not done this before, and my last thought was I can't wait to come back again.
Vitthal Lad is our Aam Aadmi Party candidate from Jogeshwari East. He has been a party leader since inception and I was aware he had a lifetime of work on tribal welfare behind him. Last night I learned exactly how significant and impactful his work has been. After campaigning in Mumbra, I left for Aarey where I was to join Vitthal Bhau for an election meeting in an Adivasi village called Keltichyapada on the hill behind the Unit 18 cow shed, or rather buffalo shed. My colleagues and I navigated through the dense forest to locate this place, and even though it was only 8pm in the evening we couldn't find a walking soul to show us the way. The small groups of people who worked and lived at the dairy units were largely of North Indian origin and didn't know much about the exact location of these Adivasi hamlets, called "padas". Finally two boys from Keltichyapada came and rescued us from Unit 18 cowshed. Navigable roads are only up to the dairy units and the Adivasi padas, which are only a few hundred yards from the Units, don't have any road connectivity. In case of medical emergencies they have to carry the patient in their arms for distances ranging from 200 metres to 1 kilometer before they reach a road - and yes this is in Mumbai not some mofussil area. We trekked up a dark hilly path and could see the city lights shining far away in consummate contrast to this silent dense dark jungle. The thrill of a possible wild encounter kept us alert on the way up.
We were greeted warmly by the residents of Keltichyapada and the main topic of discussion was the cruel attempt by local Shivsena MLA Ravindra Waikar and the current BJP-Shivsena Government to declare their idyllic village hamlets as slums and redevelop them under the Slum Rehabilitation Project (SRA). Mumbai's SRA scheme is the most cruel transgression by the "haves" on the "have-nots" wherein a slum is grabbed by a builder, half the residents are declared illegal and the other half are stuffed into small jail like rooms in a ramshackle high-rise and most of their land is used to make a fancy residential complex for the affluent class. The Aam Aadmi Party has vowed to fight the classification of Adivasi Padas as slums. Interestingly, the Senior Police Inspector of Aarey Police station, Ms Pawar, trekked all the way up too, just to witness our small election meeting - methinks the police is still smarting against the complaint I lodged about DCP D S Sawmi for brutality on the night of the tree felling on the proposed car shed site.
After the election meeting we walked along a forest path and saw the intrusions on the forest by Force One, an elite anti terror squad that has been given 100 acres in Aarey forest even though experts argue that they could have easily been accommodated on defense land available in Kalina. Buildings made and abandoned by Force One, metal exercise structures, and other such intrusions defaced the forest in an irrational pattern. We were invited for simple tribal meal at Chafyachapada, named after ancient Frangipani Trees (called 'chafa' in Marathi and 'champa' in Hindi) that grow in this hamlet. I can affirm that the dinner at this 'Frangipani' outlet was more soul enriching than what one may have at its namesake 5 star eatery.
40 tiny houses (most smaller than an average bedroom), two toilets for men and two for women, a small room for a temple and an anganwadi comprise Chafyachapada. After dinner the women told me how when Vitthal Lad started visiting them 30 years ago there were totally unconnected with the outside world. They were illiterate, owned no paper work, in fact often times they didn't even name their children using only common local nicknames. Vitthal Lad pushed them towards literacy, towards naming their children, making identity papers. He named all their nameless padas with literally names of the flower, animal, bird, water body or land feature most sighted there, so that they could easily identify with the name. Thus they became Chafyachapada, Kelitchyapada, Morachapada, and so on.
The ladies had tears in their when they recounted how not so long ago they were so poor, their children used to find the waste dough thrown into the garbage by a nearby bakery and they would make rough bread out of it. From those times to now, where at least they have become literate enough to do menial jobs, is a journey full of tears and small victories. And they credit Vitthal Lad for holding their hand, making them learn, forcing them to fight for their rights and always having their back. They got electricity only around 7 years ago after a long struggle in government offices, and water just a few years back. They mocked the solar lamp which never worked and other impractical halfhearted schemes of the government. They have lived here for hundreds of years, but now they need No Objection Certificates from outside bodies to even tile their temple porch. A boy recounted how Force One soldiers threatened him when he tried to build a toilet in his own home even though he told them that he was only doing what Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked them to do, and the big film stars like Vidya Balan and Akshay Kumar repeatedly said. The hypocrisy and hollowness of government practices is on crystalline display in Aarey where the lives of Adivasis are being made more and more difficult by an administration that hopes they will finally succumb to the pressure and give up their land.
As I was petting a local dog they showed me his scars from a leopard attack and I was amazed how the bitzer survived. Another lady told me how she recently fought a leopard who had grabbed her dog, and they literally had a tug of war till her husband finally flung a brick at the leopard and it relented. The dog is still healing, under ministration of our traditional antidote to all ills, turmeric. Asha Gavit, whose house I stayed in, shared tales of how she herself was attacked by a leopard in her younger days and has scars to prove it. These women were not complaining, they were just matter of fact stating the challenges of their lives. Being children of the forest there have no fear, just a clear sense that they have to share the forest with other inhabitants and occasionally endure clashes.
Just hours away from Khojagiri Poornima, the moon shone through the canopy of trees and I had to pinch myself to remember this was not some remote forest but a forest in the heart of Mumbai. For a moment I felt sorry for our politicians and bureaucrats whose greed had blinded them from appreciating this miracle of nature. That was just for a moment, for the rest of the time I was filled by a purpose to stop their malafide designs. In a fraction of a cost of a statue in the sea we can give pucca sustainable ethnic houses to the Adivasis and develop these 27 villages for tourism with indigenous food, handicrafts, music, dance and rituals on display. What a priceless treasure that would be to share with the world.
It is heartbreaking that instead of preserving the rich lives and culture of Mumbai's original inhabitants we want to convert them into slum dwellers who are at lowest end of the pecking order, that too in a land of which they were Kings, long before the city was even named and founded. How are we different from invaders who came and annihilated local populations just to grab the land? If in circa 2019 we haven't even developed an iota of sensitivity towards preserving culture, of giving justice to the marginalised, of taking our environment seriously, then we are a doomed race.
The takeaway from the evening is to keep fighting. These Adivasi women have fought nature, fought leopards, fought the administration, fought discrimination and they still continue to fight, then we Mumbaikers owe them our time and energy to strengthen their fight.
Preeti Sharma Menon is the National Executive Member of the Aam Aadmi Party, and has been a champion of the Save Aarey Movement.