Over the years, open grounds in the city have been so vanishing quickly, that more than 70% of schools in Mumbai do not have playgrounds. A whole generation of children are growing up indoors at a time when they should be out playing games and honing their physical skills. They have been deprived a full childhood, and whoever is responsible for this should be tried under child abuse laws.
Developers are gnawing away at the once sprawling patches of green that could be seen from the skies during a helicopter ride or in satellite imagery. Relentless construction has led to increasingly claustrophobic conditions in the city. Over time, the city’s open spaces were grabbed and converted to miniature gardens, but even here, the citizens find they have a smaller claim than the political class or the country’s elite, who name the gardens after their family members. Never mind that their relatives’ names mean nothing to the public. In most cases, a background check will not even reveal any significant social contribution made by the persons to justify naming public parks after them. Under the guise of caretaking, these public spaces are then slowly taken over and hired out for wedding, dandiya programmes or other events, so some people can make a killing.
Time and time again, the excuse of private ownership has been used by the government machinery to help developers gobble up massive tracts of land with natural assets. However, according to a Supreme Court ruling, no matter whose ownership a patch of land is in, the natural assets on it – like trees, for example – belong to the nation, and cannot be destroyed arbitrarily.
Now, a final assault has begun on the few remaining spaces in Mumbai, which incidentally, are owned by the government. Three areas are under immediate stress – Aarey Milk Colony, Sanjay Gandhi National Park, and all the mangroves and wetland areas.
One fine morning in Aarey Colony, atrocious notices came up, announcing that 2,300 trees were to be felled there for the Metro III project. This enraged citizens, many of whom are from different walks of life. Never before in Mumbai had school children, doctors, engineers, chartered accountants, film industry people, homemakers, activists and other common folk all come together to stand shoulder to shoulder and tell the government, “Lay off.”
A sustained year-long resistance campaign even saw the political class (again, for the first time) take up for the conservation of this ecologically sensitive zone. People had had enough; they would no longer accept being robbed of their fundamental right to breathe free and be with nature. Respecting the sentiments of citizens, and seeing reason in the cause, a magnanimous chief minister intervened in the matter. Even now, however, the planners of this project seem keen on destroying the site, coming up with all kinds of excuses to justify it.
Aarey needs to be kept as a ‘breathing zone’ in this city, whose people have had a childhood without playgrounds and are now battling perennial respiratory diseases. Adults too need free and fresh air! Open public spaces are meant for free public use. They are not meant to promotet business or familial megalomania. Public momentum is the need of the hour to prevent a permanent loss for the city.
(Stalin D is an environmentalist who heads the NGO Vanashakti. He has been fighting to Save Aarey Colony and Mumbai’s wetlands)