mid-day's 39th anniversary: Father to a forest

By Heli Shukla | Mumbai

For this conservationist, wildlife photographer and co-founder of the Save Aarey campaign, a forest in the city will always be worth fighting for

Manish Gadia's love affair with Aarey began in 2006 when he would visit it for a jog or plantation drive. Pic/Shadab Khan

Manish Gadia, 36
Banker, Save Aarey co-founder

He has been breathing green for more than a decade. And he's only just begun. Manish Gadia, co-founder of the Save Aarey movement, is actually a banker, who regularly spends weekends in the lush environs of Aarey Milk Colony in Goregaon East. On the Saturday he meets us, he takes us to a patch of land filled with saplings — a project his group undertook with a Bohri trust, just one of umpteen initiatives he had spearheaded in the colony.

Gadia's love affair with Aarey began in 2006, when, after completing his MBA from KJ Somaiya, he was a regular there to exercise. "But I'd see a lot of dirt around. So, we started organising cleanliness drives," he says.

It's here that Gadia met Vinay Athalye, who would end up being an inspiration, besides environment activist Rishi Aggarwal and conservationist Stalin Dayanand from NGO Vanashakti.

Athalye and his family have planted hundreds of trees across Aarey, creating the Panchvati Garden in the colony, which, incidentally, had sown the seeds for the Save Aarey movement. Gadia had created a Facebook group in 2006 to save the garden from being taken over. They succeeded and Save Aarey took root.

Baby steps by way of tree plantation and clean-up drives gradually fed the movement, and in 2014, it grew into a fight to save the colony from unplanned development, becoming one of the strongest green agitations the city has seen. The current thorn in its side: a Metro car shed set to come up in the area at the cost of thousands of trees.

At such a time, is it difficult to keep up the fight? "Thanks to social media, awareness is not a challenge. There are a good number of people you can reach out to who will support you," says Gadia.

In addition to hundreds of volunteers, Gadia's family, including his three-year-old daughter, have been his support, by offering him the most important tools to do the job — time and space. "For nearly three years, between 2014 and 2017, I was away from family on most weekends. They may not be active participants in this fight, but they have given me the strength and support, which I need to carry on."

While he spends Monday to Friday in the bank, weekends are now dedicated to mountain biking. He'd like others too to dedicate a small part of their week towards a cause like he does.

How will he cope if the colony is destroyed by unplanned development? "If the lungs are gone, the body dies. If Aarey and other green areas like it are destroyed, we will have no reason to live in Bombay."

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