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The Save Aarey initiative has become synonymous with Mumbai’s fight for greener spaces. Wildlife photographer Manish Gadia, one of the founding members of the group, remembers meeting the late Vinay Athalye, a former businessman, who had dedicated his life to saving Aarey. “I used to come here for jogging, cycling and photography. But I met Vinay Athalye somewhere around 2012. Athalye created the Panchvati garden and started the protest to save Aarey. Back then, land was allotted for the Force One facility. He was so determined and so focused on the fight that I got inspired by him and joined the cause. Now, so many new faces have joined this initiative but we certainly miss Athalye,” says Gadia.
The aim of the initiative, as its website explains, is not to challenge the idea of development but unplanned development, which benefits only a few with ‘vested interests’. The group’s 15 active and 35 voluntary members envision the colony as a ‘world-class recreational area’, complete with ‘hiking and bike trails, picnic areas, nature trails, botanical gardens, museums and cafes’.
By 2014, the Save Aarey movement gained visibility along with the massive public support that it garnered. Environmentalist and research fellow with Observer Research Foundation, Rishi Aggarwal, who joined the movement last year, says, “I met the MMRDA commissioner and BMC commissioner to discuss the proposed metro car shed in Aarey. I tried to warn them about why they should rethink the location. But the authorities neglected my suggestions, claiming that they have no other options. The Save Aarey movement has changed authorities’ attitude towards Aarey and now, they are rethinking the proposal,” says Aggarwal, calling the move ‘the first successful step’.
On February 2014, the group launched its first protest at MCGM headquarters where a proposal to cut 2298 trees for the construction of a metro car shed was tabled. The protest was organised to precede the tree authority’s meeting on February 8. “We protested with placards, banners and appealed to the members of the committee to not agree with the proposal. Finally, permission was not given to cut the trees,” says Aggarwal. Interestingly, the Save Aarey colony movement inspired the residents of Colaba to fight for the residential park Colaba woods, which was in the danger of losing space to the construction and development of a new station for the proposed Metro III.
However, Aggarwal agrees that the Save Aarey team is yet to taste complete success, as the state government is yet to take a final decision about the issue. “Shiv Sena, MNS, Sanay Nirupam and many NGOs have joined hands with the Save Aarey movement,” says Aggarwal.
Aarey has faced multiple threats over the years. One of them came in the form of a plan to widen the Goregaon-Mulund link road, for which more than 400 trees had to be cut. However, supporters of the movement and other authorities elevated the road so that no tree had to get chopped to make way for the road. Yet another plan was floated by the MCGM to develop many activities at the colony via proposed development plan, on grounds that Aarey is the only remaining option for such activities. The group, however, thwarted the plan by mobilising citizens and NGOs to file their objections to the proposal.
There are other victories too. Stalin Dayanand, who runs the independent NGO Vanshakti and is an active member of Save Aarey group says, “When we filed a PIL at the Bombay High Court requesting that Aarey be declared an eco-sensitive zone, the HC ordered a stay on all constructions at the colony. Our next fight is to protect the environment.”