In A Forest Amidst Mumbai’s Concrete Jungle, Adivasi Women Are Demanding Their Right To Shelter And Dignity
An ambitious road project is likely to swallow many Adivasi homes in Aarey forest, already the site of many other development projects
Neelam Habale, 32, kept wincing as she sat cross-legged on a plastic mat in Habalepada, an Adivasi settlement in Aarey, a precious forested enclave in Mumbai’s concrete jungle. Her white and yellow saree hid a swollen knee. She was among the 60 Adivasi residents of Aarey protesting against a new link road that would cut through their land and disrupt their lives.
At around 2:30 pm on January 30, 2024, officials from the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) arrived at Habalepada with police protection to conduct a survey for the proposed Goregaon-Mulund link road (GMLR). When the residents, mostly women, refused to let the survey be done, the police used force to remove them, injuring many.
“We did not know that the police were there for us, to beat us up,” said Shukri Habale, 33, “When we asked, the police kept saying they were there to support us but they were trying to manipulate us.”
Soon, BMC officials took out their survey instruments. “We did not let them,” said Shukri. “They kept listing the many ways in which the government will help us. We asked them to give it to us in writing. How can we trust them otherwise?”
The residents, mostly women, sat or lay on the ground blocking the path of the officials. The police then started to forcefully lift them up and detain them in police vans. While female police personnel were front and centre, video recordings of the incident show male police personnel and private security personnel who work at the Film City, also using force on the women.
In interviews with Behanbox the next day, the women alleged that in the melee their sarees had come undone and they had been injured as they were manhandled by the police. They also alleged that they were refused treatment at the Balasaheb Thackeray Trauma Care Centre in Jogeshwari.
In 2019, residents of Habalepada had filed land claims under the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA). As per the Act, the state authorities are required to provide the affected communities with a resettlement package in writing and take informed consent on the same before progressing with the project. Residents of Habalepada have said that they received no written notification about the road project and that they had to file an Right to Information application to get the information about it and its impact on their land.
After the January 30 incident, the Habalepada Gram Sabha emailed Maharashtra’s Governor and Chief Secretary, the Commissioner of Mumbai Police and the officials of the Tribal Development Department demanding that their rights be recognised and that no GMLR-related activities be conducted in the area without the consent of the Gram Sabha.
They have also demanded that strict action be taken against the police officers, BMC officials and the security personnel under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act.
Across India, infrastructure development projects have disproportionately displaced Adivasi communities. While tribal communities continue to be most affected, they also often get the least benefits from these projects. The physical displacement also displaces them from their environment, social belongingness, economic practices and cultural life. Behanbox has reported extensively (here, here and here) on the displacement and the impact it has on Adivasi communities, especially women.
In response to its complaints, the BMC has written to the Habalepada Gram Sabha and said that it will be holding a community meeting along with the officials of various government departments on February 13, 2024. Behanbox has contacted the Mumbai Police, the BMC and Dadasaheb Phalke Chitranagari for comments. This story will be updated when we receive a response from them.
Aarey’s Long Struggle
The recent incident is not the first such in the area. The Aarey forest, Mumbai’s only surviving green lung, has been slowly swallowed by small and large-scale development projects since India’s independence. The forest has an Adivasi population of around 10,000 and they have been consistently fighting for their rights and for the forest. Like in Habalepada, many of these resistances have had Adivasi women at the forefront.
The Goregaon Mulund Link Road, first proposed in the 1967 development plan, envisages a 12-km road with twin 4.7 km tunnels running under the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. The BMC says the road will provide the much needed East-West connection for the city’s suburbs, reducing the travel time between Mulund and Goregaon by an hour.
The corporation also said that the tunnels are the most desirable option as they would “prevent cutting of a large number of trees and also to avoid adverse impact on the environment of Aarey colony”.
The BMC had floated the tender for the tunnels in October 2022 with an aim to start construction in October 2023. The project note submitted by the BMC to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change for environment clearance states that the project involves partial displacement of settlements at both ends of the tunnel – around Khidiapada at the Mulund end of the link road and the Film City at the other end.
To enter Habalepada, one has to enter through the Film City gate and state the reason for entry to private security guards. Almost a kilometre inside is Whistling Woods, a premier filmmaking school. Right across, a small turn leads to a cluster of houses with mud-baked walls that constitute Habalepada. And it is these homes that are threatened by the road project.
‘We Were Here Before The Road And The Gate’
The 3,200-acre Aarey forest used to be a lush and densely covered forest area. Acting as a buffer for the protected Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Aarey is also rich in biodiversity. However, over time, the original residents of the forest have been pushed out of their homes and forced to relocate by a slew of development projects, as we said.
The first such project was in 1948 when around 1,300 acres were allotted to the State Department of Dairy Development to create the Aarey Milk Colony. Since 1970, parts of Aarey land has been given to 34 projects of various sizes, including 520 acres for Film City, now called Dadasaheb Phalke Chitranagari.
Shobha Dawda, who is now 60 has seen Aarey change radically. “We used to live where the Film City stands now,” said Dawda, whose fingers were gashed during the police action. “I even worked for the building of the Film City.”
Over the last two years, the Adivasi community in Aarey has been regularly harassed by private security guards, said Laxmi Umbersade, 46: “We are being forced to show Aadhaar cards if we have to enter and exit through the gate.”
Arti Habale, 28, said that she had set up a “Manchurian” stall (small stalls selling fried cabbage fritters with Schezwan chutney) in her locality and the security personnel destroyed it. “They tossed all my goods–the chutney, the ingredients,” said Arti. “It was a huge loss for me.”
“We were here before the road and the gate,” said Umbersade. “For generations, we have been living here. But now we are told to leave because it is government land. Where was the government 100 years ago when our ancestors were here?”
Laxmi has been one of the leaders of many similar protests and for that she was specifically targeted by the police, the women told Behanbox. The police also tried to detain Dinesh Habale, a resident and member of Adivasi Hakk Sanvardhan Samiti, an organisation run by the tribal community.
“They started targeting people who are the leaders,” said Shukri. “They thought if they would detain them, our resistance would fall apart. But we held on to them and did not let them go.”
Holding hands, standing their ground, the protestors insisted on an official written notice on the impact of the project on their settlement. “When we kept insisting on a written document, one of the senior officers told another officer to take a random paper and write whatever these people wanted,” said Laxmi, stating how it was insulting to their demands.
Process Not Followed As Per Law
“When FRA claims are under consideration, it is illegal to conduct any surveys for any project without the consent of the Gram Sabha formed by the Adivasi Pada,” said Amrita Bhattacharjee, one of the founding members of the Aarey Conservation Group. “FRA 2006 has provision for project related survey and resettlement. Project Proponents have to follow the process as per the provisions provided under the Forest Rights Act.”
“We need something in writing,” said Shukri. “Earlier also the government has betrayed us. How can we trust now?”
Shukri was speaking about the demolition of houses and eviction of residents in Prajapur Pada for the metro car shed. In 2017, 61 families were evicted. A year later, a group of affected families approached the Bombay High Court challenging the evictions. The court reprimanded the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL) saying that it had no power to conduct these demolitions.
Instead of calling the settlement Prajapur Pada in its survey, the MMRCL called it Sariput Nagar, an informal non-Adivasi settlement right next to Prajapur Pada, said the petition filed in the High Court. The petitioners consider this as an attempt to classify Adivasi padas as slums and residents as slum dwellers.
When they realised that they wouldn’t be able to do the survey, BMC officials retreated and police started closing in, said protestors. “They opened the police van doors and told us to either let them do the survey or get inside the van,” said Neelam. “But we did not relent.”
Police Action Was Excessive, Say Protestors
There were around 50 protestors and at least twice the number of police officers. “There were around 50 female police personnel,” said Shukri. “They had got backup from multiple places.”
“Each woman was attacked by 3-4 police personnel,” several women told us, adding to each other’s statements. “Our sarees were pulled up and had come undone. The male police personnel were watching. Some men also tried to manhandle us.”
In the videos of the incident, some men were wearing uniforms similar to those worn by the private security guards of Film City. They too can be seen exerting force. The private security guards do not have the powers to exert such force on civilians.
Few residents of the settlements started recording the incident on their phone cameras and the women said they were also attacked.
By evening, the police personnel and BMC officials retreated, leaving the protestors injured and bleeding. Around 9 pm, 6 women and 2 men who were injured went to the Hindu Hriday Samrat Balasaheb Thackeray Trauma Care Municipal Hospital in Jogeshwari but they were denied treatment. “They told us that if we need medicines and treatment, we had to get an NC (non-cognisable complaint) or bring a local police personnel,” said Neelam.
“How can we take the police along when the police beat us up?” said Shukri. They then tried calling 100 and the Jogeshwari police came and told them that they cannot do anything and to seek help from Aarey Police.
“We went to the police station to request for the NC but they refused to give it,” said adivasi activist Prakash Bhoir, “And they told us to stop calling on 100.” Till 11:30 pm, the wounded protestors tried their best to get treatment but ended up going to a private health facility.
Neelam believes her swollen knee is a fracture but she has not been able to get an X-ray. At around 11 am on the day after the incident, Neelam gave an interview to Pudhari, a Marathi TV channel. Till 5 pm, when Behanbox spoke to her, she had been managing her pain with a pain-killing injection, she said.
When asked if they are worried the police will return and use force again, the women said that they are not scared. “Yesterday’s incident has made us feel stronger to fight for our rights.”
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