Mumbai: Meet the people who are fighting to Save Aarey

By Ranjeet Jadhav

Updated: Mar 05, 2015, 10:34 IST

mid-day brings you the people behind the Save Aarey Milk Colony community, which forced the state government to rethink their decision to chop 2,298 trees in the colony to make way for a Metro car shed

Their job is far from done, but members of the Save Aarey Milk Colony community have something to cheer about. The state government has constituted a panel of experts to find alternative locations for the controversial Metro car shed, which was otherwise going to come at the cost of 2,298 trees and the rich biodiversity of Aarey Milk Colony.

Children convey a telling message during a February 15 protest to save the city’s last remaining green lungs. Pics/Sameer Markande

The movement gathered steam with the participation of citizens in large numbers, but the seeds were sown by a group of likeminded individuals that included morning and evening walkers, cyclists, wildlife photographers and nature lovers. Members of this community have managed to find a proper balance between their professions and their participation in the cause.

The members attached to this group feel that every individual should devote some time for the noble cause once in a week in order to make this movement more successful.

Manish Gadia
Profession: Banker and wildlife photographer
Task: Founder, collaborating with other NGOs

The Save Aarey group (including the group on Facebook and Google Groups) is the brainchild of banker and wildlife photographer, Manish Gadia. The 33-year-old formed the group in 2010 with other nature lovers, to protest against the allocation of land for a training facility for Force One.

“It was the late Vinay Athalye who inspired me to stand with him to ensure Panchavati Gardens (in Aarey) is saved from being allocated for the Force One facility (before which Save Aarey FB Group was created). I remember him, over 65 years old, taking paper cuttings and urging evening walkers to silently protest against the land allocation,” he recalled.

The plan ran into trouble and the gardens were eventually excluded from being acquired. The Facebook group, meanwhile, grew to more than 1,500 members and also got a logo. They reported several illegal encroachments and fires lit by tribals to the Aarey security and management. Gadia credits Athalye’s resolve as an inspiration for carrying on with his work. The group planted six-foot saplings in 2011, next to Chhota Kashmir police station.

By the end of 2014, Gadia had gotten together with other active Aarey supporters like Kamlesh Dalal, Manish Sethi, Prashant Hublikar, and Rishi Aggarwal. “With Sethi and Aggarwal, we launched a massive Aarey cleanliness drive in November 2014. Here we grew spontaneously.

Rishi highlighted the magnitude of ongoing issues, which led to the Save Aarey community’s meeting at the office of Volunteer for Better India (VBI), an NGO. VBI joined us for the cleanliness drive. Rishi guided the team and egged us on to ensure Aarey’s survival,” Gadia said. After several rounds of awareness campaigns, the Save Aarey community had a good team to work with.

Renee Vyas
Profession: Businesswoman
Task: Organises tree walks

A qualified botanist, Renee Vyas (59), a Vile Parle resident, has been associated with the Save Aarey movement since November 2014. The tree lover also organises tree walks for various schools and nature lovers. Though she has a business of her own to take care of, she managed to find time to dedicate to the cause.

“Aarey Milk Colony is one of the last surviving green lungs of Mumbai and nowhere in Mumbai except SGNP will we find such rich biodiversity. Protecting it is very important and, so, my group (of tree walkers) and I decided to join the Save Aarey Milk Colony group. Our only demand is that the authorities should shift the Metro car depot to some other location,” Vyas added.

Rishi Aggarwal
Profession: Researcher, Observer Research Foundation
Task: Interacting with government authorities

Environmentalist and activist, Rishi Aggarwal (40), is the man behind taking the Save Aarey Milk Colony movement further, and attributes its success to the involvement of several likeminded people, NGOs and even politicians.

Aggarwal, who works with a think tank, was the one who suggested that the disputed car depot be constructed on Mumbai Port Trust land. “I first experienced Aarey during walks 25 years ago as a teenager. I have been involved with speaking about saving Aarey for more than a decade now, highlighting the need to conserve it as a buffer,” Aggarwal told this paper.

He was among the first to raise the battle cry to save the buffer zone and has led all core activities related to political activism in the past six months in the Metro car depot issue, in order to make sure they receive the high attention.

“I gave the call for a dharna outside the Tree Authority meeting on February 8, and, subsequently, the protest at the yard site on February 15. My work has suffered a lot due to this (campaign),” he said.

Mona Ambegaonkar
Profession: Actress
Task: Gathering facts, litigation

The actress joined the cause last month when the Tree Authority meeting took place in which the members refused to give permission to the MMRC to chop the trees. She was the brain behind the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) torch march last Sunday.

Ambegaonkar has been going to the car depot site every day to meet with locals and tribals, and is collecting evidence along with Pendharkar to prove there is wildlife at Aarey a contention that the MMRC had denied to the Japanese agency funding the project.

“More people should come forward and participate in the cause on ground and not just on social networking sites. Larger public participation will pressurise the government. I am going to file a PIL because I want to save the rich biodiversity of Aarey Milk Colony, and for that the car depot needs to be shifted,” she said.

Rahul Jhunjhunwala
Profession: Architect
Task: Finance, manages social media

Jhunjhunwala can be credited for successfully gathering steam for the campaign on social media. A trained architect, he owns a firm that manufactures lights in Daman and Vapi. He got involved with the community in November 2014 through his friend, Manish Gadia, and recalls coming to Aarey Colony for cycling and walks.

“I have seen this place deteriorate before my eyes and was very charged up when Manish took up this initiative to save Aarey. We are 10-12 core members of the group who are looking at different aspects of the movement. Some of us are spreading awareness in schools; some are looking at legal aspects like filing of PILs and RTI applications.

Others are involved in designing graphics and printing posters, banners, T-shirts, badges etc. Some of us had gone to ‘Run Powai Run’ and other street campaigns to raise awareness for this cause,” he stated. Jhunjhunwala manages the official Save Aarey Facebook page and its Twitter account. The finances for the campaign are also handled out of his office.

Stalin Dayanand
Profession: Conservationist with Vanashakti, an NGO
Task: Litigation

Stalin Dayanand (51) joined the cause when he saw notices stuck on trees announcing their death.

“I oversee conservation, education and litigation for Vanashakti, to protect the natural wealth of our country. Dayanand has filed over 15 public interest litigations (PILs) regarding municipal waste management.

Kaustubh Bhagat
Profession: Consultant with Greenline, an NGO
Task: Volunteer

Bhagat represents his organisation in the Save Aarey movement. Having specialised in ecology, eco-restoration and environment education, his expertise comes in handy.

“I joined this cause because I feel strongly about Aarey. It is either now that we stand up for our environment, or never again,” he stated.

Biju Augustine
Profession: Civil engineer
Task: Volunteer

Biju Augustine (45) has been associated with the Save Aarey movement since its inception in 2010. “Managing my professional work along with my hobby as an environmentalist is a difficult task.

However, only an environmentalist understands the importance of forests and wildlife. It is vital to save Aarey, as it is the only buffer zone to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park,” he said.

Manish Sethi
Profession: Entrepreneur
Task: Managed government authorities, graphics

The 44-year-old IIT-Bombay alumnus owns a firm that designs corporate interiors. Sethi has been one of the active members who took the cause forward. “I have been cycling in Aarey for 10 years and have been watching its degradation in the last 3-5 years.

Hence, I got together with fellow citizens a year ago. We first ran the Clean Aarey initiative and started online petitions, as our aim is to protect Aarey and its biodiversity.

Managing time is tough, but my experience in multitasking in the corporate world helps,” he said. Sethi’s experience of working with diverse teams aided the movement. But he gives due credit to his wife, who supported him at home and in his business.

Jyoti Sharma
Profession: Homemaker
Task: Volunteer

This Malad resident lives close to Aarey Colony and says the spot holds a special place in her heart. She threw her hat into the ring with the Clean Aarey day on November 2, 2014, in which her children also participated. “We met other passionate Aarey lovers who had come there. A week later, we came together to discuss the threats to Aarey the yard, zoo, road widening etc.

After brainstorming sessions, we started getting societies, individuals, schools and organisations to send letters to the chief minister, prime minister, MMRDA, to save Aarey,” she recalled, adding that they also got involved in public events like Mumbai Marathon, Powai run to spread awareness.

“These trees, animals and birds are like my siblings...I can’t let them perish in front of my eyes. We are doing everything we can; we even put in our own money for expenses. We have come closer to our goal,” Sharma said.

Kshitij Ashtekar
Profession: Manager at IT firm
Task: Recording tree data

Nature and wildlife lover Kshitij Ashtekar (40) works as a senior manager with a multinational IT company, and has been highlighting the issue of dying rain trees in Mumbai for the past year or so. He induced the civic body to take measures to save the dying trees.

“I make it a point to devote some time for the Save Aarey cause, as saving Aarey Milk Colony and its biodiversity is very important. Whatever hours possible between work, and definitely few hours of the weekend, is what I give for the cause. I have been associated with saving Mumbai trees for more than 10 years and the Aarey cause for six months,” Ashtekar said.

He is also the one who mapped each and every tree of the 2,298 that have been marked out for chopping by the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRC). Ashtekar has recorded the details of the trees such as its scientific name, GPS location to keep a record of trees in the colony.

Anand Pendharkar
Profession: Runs SPROUTS, an NGO
Task: Volunteer, documenting wildlife at depot site

This 43-year-old, who is passionate about eco-tourism, operates an NGO called SPROUTS Environment Trust. He joined the movement a month ago, but has been active in the arenas of wildlife and environment conservation.

Pendharkar said, “My work has gotten affected drastically but this (saving Aarey) is of prime importance. I, in fact, cancelled my camp to be here for the campaign.”

Pendharkar plans to approach the National Green Tribunal with the case. In order to strengthen his case, he visits the Metro car depot site every day to document wildlife species there, which can then be provided as proof.

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