The first encounter was quite vivid. We were heading deeper into a forest – one that we never knew actually existed within our very own city. This was part of our school picnic to Chhota Kashmir. Until then, most in my batch hadn’t visited Kashmir, yours truly included, so it was only natural to imagine that this was Mumbai’s slice of the real deal. Without the snow, of course. But we were sold on everything else in that tiny green space. It was a delightful afternoon spent playing around gigantic trees that seemed to touch the sky, and a clean lake where many of us had our first ever boating experiences. Birds chirped all around us, and we were told by our class teachers that this was Mumbai’s ‘green lungs’. It was important that we protect it for our city’s good, they reiterated. As ten-year-olds, we soaked in every word.
Years later, as a collegian we passed by the same area, only to be appalled at the gross neglect that was in full view. In less than a decade, the mindless degeneration of the space as well as inexplicable encroachments and garbage piles marred the earlier pristine imagery that we had of lush Aarey Colony.
A decade had passed when we revisited Chhota Kashmir this time on a work assignment. It appeared like a pale shadow of that frame that was etched in our mind from the school picnic. And the damage had spread further. More litter, rapid commercialisation, residential complexes and whatnot had robbed this green lung of its former glory. The loss of area continues till today, with the authorities refusing to see the larger picture of this area within the Sanjay Gandhi National Park.
Today, we are staring at the possibility of losing even further forest cover due to thoughtless planning that is being presented in the name of development for the city. Many citizen groups, publications like ours, with the Save Aarey campaign, and a few city visionaries have taken this cause up with the hope that the authorities see reason. The road ahead seems arduous. The louder our voices are with more involvement from Mumbai’s citizens, the more impactful will be the pressure on the powers that be to leave Aarey alone.
Or else, Chhota Kashmir and its neighbouring areas will be confined to the pages of photo albums of yesteryear.
The writer is Features Editor of mid-day