Don't cultivate, it's a forest. Build a metro, it's not a forest!

Adivasis in Aarey's reserved forest area allege officials destroy their ready-to-harvest crops.

Credit : Shubham Karnick

This report was produced under the Indie Journal Partnership Programme. The funds for this report were provided by a well-wishing senior journalist.

Generations of Ramesh Hatal’s family have lived in their traditional house in Saibanguda pada in Mumbai’s Aarey Colony. They have made their living by undertaking farming, growing paddy, vegetables in Aarey. However, lately, the residents of the village, he alleges, have been facing harassment at the hands of authorities, since his farmland has been included in the 812 acres of land declared as a reserved forest by the Maharashtra government last year.

“They come in the middle of the night and destroy our fields, the vegetables that are ready for harvest,” says Pooja Tokre, another resident of Saibanguda pada in Mumbai’s Aarey Colony.

It’s not just the Mumbai Metro III car shed that gives the adivasis of Mumbai’s Aarey Colony sleepless nights. While the fight against the car shed continues, the adivasis have been facing threats from different projects that have come up in the boards of Aarey, India’s only urban forest. Adivasis residing in the padas (adivasi hamlets) in Aarey have now alleged that right from hurdles in filing claims to their land under forest rights acts to destroying their ready-to-harvest crops, they are being pressured systematically to force them to leave their forest.

“It started around three months ago. Many families had grown vegetables that were ready for harvest. However, authorities began coming to our lands and said that the area was part of the reserved forest and adivasis cannot grow anything here. When people opposed, they started coming after everyone had gone back home and destroyed the vegetables that were ready,” Tokre adds.

Hatal said that the wadis (cultivations) of around 150 families were destroyed by the forest officials on May 18th this year, when the first time such an action was taken.


Demolished cultivations in Saibanguda pada. Photo: Manisha Dhinde


“They came with the police and destroyed our wadis. They ran JCBs through our fields and dug holes in the ground. Many of us had covered the cultivations with temporary fencing made with plastic or cloth to protect the crop from animals. The forest officials accused us of encroaching upon the land during COVID pandemic. We have been cultivating the land for generations, even before the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) was created,” Hatal said.

While the adivasis have blamed the forest department officials for this, the same could not be verified by Indie Journal. However, Amrita Bhattacharjee, a founding member of Aarey Conservation Group, who has been at the forefront of the legal battle to save Aarey, noted that such altercations between authorities and adivasis had begun soon after the land was handed over to the SGNP authorities.

“The SGNP conducted land surveys in the area and began putting pillars. Adivasis who have been living and cultivating in the land for decades obviously opposed the construction of pillars. The same thing happened to Ahade family’s (Khadak pada) land,” Bhattacharjee said.

Dinesh Habale, a resident of Habal pada and President of Adivasi Hakka Sanvardhan Samiti, an organisation that has been working with the adivasis of Aarey, alleged that action was taken against the farms of the adivasis in the reserved area, without giving them any prior notice.

He said, “The officials brought around 300-400 police and SRPF personnel with them. Since then, we have been conducting follow-up meetings with the forest departments, requesting them to resolve the issue, but the actions do not stop.”

“We tried to salvage whatever we could and tried growing vegetables again. But the officials keep coming and destroying whatever has grown,” Hatal said.


Claims under Forest Rights Act

Last year, the then Maharashtra government invoked Section 4 of the Indian Forest Act, 1927, wherein the government intends to declare the land as a reserved forest by appointing a forest settlement officer (FSO). As per the law, the officer is appointed to inquire into and determine the existence, nature and extent of any rights alleged to exist in favour of any person in or over any land comprised within such limits or in or over any forest produce and to deal with the same as provided in this Chapter.


Aarey Colony. Credit: Google Earth/Shubham Patil


“In the case of Aarey, a section 4 notification was issued to the adivasis of Aarey on June 14, 2022. However, it did not reach the residents until early July. Now they are in the process of understanding notice and filing their claims,” Bhattacharjee said.

However, Manisha Dhinde, adivasi activist and resident of Maroshi pada in Aarey says that they hardly had any time to carry out the procedure.

“There is barely any time left for us to understand the notification and take any action. There are 27 padas. We are still holding meetings and trying to understand the situation,” Dhinde told Indie Journal.

Of the 27 padas, 11 have filed their claims to date. But no claim has yet been acknowledged by the authorities.

Prajapur pada, Kelti pada, Naushacha pada, Jitonicha pada, Bhangarmodi pada, Habal pada, Maroshi pada, Khambacha pada, Gaondevi pada, Khadak pada, Bhurikhan pada have filed claims after the notification.

“Most people in these padas are aware, many are educated. That is not the case with other padas. Moreover, it becomes difficult for us to go and file these claims while also taking care of our everyday work. We are holding meetings regularly and trying to get work done as fast as we can,” said Prakash Bhoir, adivasi activist and resident of Kelti pada.

Apart from this, the adivasis from different padas of Aarey have been trying to file claims under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), since 2019. However, they have not been successful in establishing these claims yet.

“There are two types of claims that can be filed - community and individual. We requested them, since the dairy is not operational anymore, return our lands to us. If you cannot return those, at least let us file claims to get the lands that we still have registered under our names. But none of that is happening,” Dhinde says.

She adds, “As per the required procedure, we formed gram sabha, involved the local authorities in it and filed our individual claims. The letter for the same has been sent to the Collector. However, the Collector has stalled the process now.”

Bhattacharjee explains that when the claims were sent to the Collector for the first time in 2020, he said that he had written to the State Government to provide a direction regarding the same. “But that is not necessary. The FRA comes under the Central Government. The Collector does not need to ask for direction from the State. The process has been stalled unnecessarily,” she states.


Court affidavit filed by Aarey Milk Colony CEO in 2020.


The Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006 recognises the rights of the forest-dwelling tribal communities and other traditional forest dwellers to forest resources, on which these communities were dependent for a variety of needs, including livelihood, habitation and other socio-cultural needs. With no claims over their own lands, the adivasis are living in constant fear of getting evicted from their homes.

“There have already been a few padas where the builders have encroached upon the lands of adivasis and they had to leave their homes. This has happened in hamlets like Moracha pada, Charandev pada, Devicha pada (Unit No. 7). We cannot wait until this fate comes to all our homes,” Dhinde says.


Encroachments that affected Aarey adivasis

For years, several padas in Aarey have been shifted for various projects. Naushacha pada was shifted when the Veterinary College came to Aarey in 1978. Habal pada was shifted because of the Film City. The residents of Kelti pada, Damu pada and Chafyacha pada have alleged several times that they were pressurised to shift when 100 acres were given to Force One.

“The residents of Habal pada have also filed claims for their land under FRA now. If you see their location, you will find that this pada is in fact very close to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park,” Bhattacharjee said.

Talking about the history of his pada, Dinesh Habal said, “Our pada was right beside the forest. However, it was still taken over by the Film City in the 1970s. My grandfather fought for our home then, just like I am doing now. He was put behind bars back then for protesting the construction of a road through the pada for Film City.”


Aarey Colony from 1984 to 2020. Credit: Google Earth/Shubham Patil


A couple of padas were also evicted when the government took over land for the Metro car shed.

“It all happened so fast, much before the protests against the car shed began. Adivasis who lived in their traditional homes and walked to their fields every day for work were shifted to buildings. One aji (an old woman/grandmother) from the Prajapur pada that was evicted for metro said that since she has had to shift, she barely leaves her home. She does not understand how to operate an elevator and she has no means to travel to Aarey, where her farmland is located. What is an adivasi supposed to do without his land?” questions Akas Bhoir, activist and a young adivasi resident of Kelti pada.


Govt’s bid to ‘rehabilitate adivasis

In the development plan of Mumbai 2014-15, the government had proposed to rehabilitate the adivasis in a 45 acres patch of land inside Aarey.

“The government promised 351 sq ft two-storied homes to every family. The adivasis obviously refused. They also questioned the politicians, where will they find a place to do farming? There was no answer to that question,” Bhattacharjee says.

Visit any pada in Aarey and you will see the adivasis living in traditional homes, which might be lacking in amenities, but it’s a traditional space of their own. Each house has an angan (traditional courtyard) and a small kitchen garden.

“Right now, these 27 padas are distributed all across Aarey Colony. The government seems to want to push all the adivasis to one single patch, so that rest of the land is open and clear for them to bring any development,” Bhattacharjee said.


A house in Aarey's Maroshi pada. Photo: Shubham Karnick


There were once 220 padas across Mumbai, as identified by the Tribal Research and Training Institute (TRTI). There is no mention of them in the development plan for Mumbai. “There used to be seven hamlets in Hiranandani Powai, now it is impossible to locate them,” the activist adds.


An attack on livelihood

While the padas have been excluded from the reserved forest, the farmlands of many families have been included inside it.

“Most adivasis here are completely dependent on farming for their livelihoods. In the low-lying areas, they grow paddy during the monsoon. During the rest of the year, they cultivate and sell different vegetables,” Bhattacharjee said.

Hatal says that the tribals in Aarey grow a variety of vegetables. “We grow cucumbers, different kinds of gourds, gavati chaha (lemongrass), dongarjeera (a kind of cumin), etc. These are all the plantations that have been growing in the forest traditionally. Apart from these, some grow varieties paddy, ragi, marigold, etc. We do not keep everything for ourselves. We keep what we need for consumption and sell the rest in the nearby markets like in Marol,” he added.

It’s the women who sell the produce in the local markets. But Hatal says that this year, villagers from his pada have not been able to take much produce to the market.

“If we cannot cultivate here, it will be impossible for us to live. Most adivasis here are dependent completely on farming and forest. They are trying to pressurise us into leaving our lands. Some people might finally break down. These are all pressure tactics to make us leave our home so that the government and developers can take over the forest,” Akash Bhoir says.

This report was produced under the Indie Journal Partnership Programme. The funds for this report were provided by a well-wishing senior journalist.