Mumbai: Aarey’s tribals set to battle for rights over land, seek to use FRA

Kavitha Iyer
Next week, a few dozen residents will undergo training on the FRA. (Representational)

Battling to protect their identity and land, tribal inhabitants of hamlets inside the 3,000-acre Aarey Colony in Goregaon are preparing to map the area they occupy and cultivate, in order to file claims for inpidual and community rights under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, better known as the FRA.

We are compiling documents and will begin a process of mapping the lands, said Santosh Ahade, a resident of Khade Pada inside Aarey. Almost everyone cultivates vegetables, while some hamlets also have fairly large paddy plantations.

Next week, a few dozen residents will undergo training on the FRA, the processes to be followed ahead of filing claims and documentation they will require to append to their claims. Ahade says the tribals of Aarey remain deprived of most welfare schemes meant for them and the need to assert their claim on the land is more acute in the face of rapid developments inside Aarey Colony, including notices to some hamlets for surveys under Slum Rehabilitation Authority.

As part of their plan, around 40 residents of Navshachapada, one of the hamlets, marched 200 metres from their homes to the office of the dean of the Bombay Veterinary College in Goregaon on Thursday. Navshachapada is located on the premises of the college, the land lessee, and a nearly decade-long struggle for electrification has remained hanging in the balance over a missing No-Objection Certificate from the college.

The apasi hamlet of Navshachapada has remained without electricity and other basic amenities. We are intensifying the battle for electricity as part of a longer struggle to assert our claim over our land, said Ahade.

Our families have been here since long before there was any other development in the area. A couple of families in Navshachapada even have receipts of penalties paid in 1960s to the state for cultivating this land, Rakesh Shigwan of Navshachapada said.

Since 2009, when the Shramik Mukti Sangh began to demand electrification, residents approached various authorities and agencies. Each time, the stumbling block was the NOC from the college, affiliated to the Maharashtra Animal and Fishery Science University in Nagpur.

On Thursday, college dean Dr A S Ranade promised to raise the matter in the next meeting of the university s executive body.

A couple of hamlets closer to the Film City end of Aarey have seen attempts by the government to declare our homes as slums to make way for SRA schemes, Shigwan said. Other residents said they sense that the government would like to relocate the hamlets.

We didn t have toilets until last year. We had to march to the government offices to demand toilets, Bharti Umbarsade, mother of a four-year-old girl, said. We had to go in the open until 2018, when they finally placed pre-built toilets here.

The nascent movement among Aarey s tribals comes in the backdrop of the hotly contested issue of whether the area is a forest at all. Aarey Colony is one of the city s few still-green expanses, nestled between the eastern edge of Western Express Highway, Vihar Lake to its east and the dense Sanjay Gandhi National Park adjoining it on the north.

City NGOs Vanashakti and Aarey Conservation Group are currently litigating to seek that Aarey be declared a forest and eco-sensitive zone – a legal battle that began after the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Ltd, building the Colaba-Bandra-Seepz Metro Rail, put up notices on trees marked for felling in Aarey, where a car shed is to be built. In September 2018, the National Green Tribunal said that it did not have jurisdiction in the matter and the case is now pending in the Supreme Court.

Vanashakti is now helping Aarey s tribals with compiling documentation.

Geetanjoy Sahu, assistant professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences School of Habitat Studies, who will conduct a training session on FRA for the tribals next week, cites a landmark judgment by the Supreme Court in 1996. The apex court s judgment in the T N Godavarman Thirumulkpad versus Union Of India case on December 12, 1996, clarifies the misconception on the true scope of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, by saying the provisions of the law apply to all forests irrespective of their ownership or classification. It also says the word forest must be understood according to its dictionary meaning, which meant the law would apply in all thickly wooded areas.

Aarey is home to over 20 tribal hamlets, their rice plantations and vegetable fields, as well as a wide variety of flora and fauna, a lake and winding roads in densely-wooded areas, besides cattle farms and nurseries. In 1940s, the area was used for activities, including the state s dairy project, that gave it the name, and Film City. More recently, a small patch has been set aside for the Metro car shed.

In response to a petition against cutting of trees for the car shed, the Bombay HC ruled last year that there is material on record to show that the car depot site is part of Aarey Milk Colony and not part of the SGNP.