Mumbai: Aarey tribals in the dark, fear leopard attacks

With no electricity supply to seven tribal villages inside Aarey Milk Colony, residents, who have been staying here for a century, can’t step out of their houses for fear of being mauled by the wild cat

Tribals staying inside Aarey Milk Colony fear stepping out of their houses after dark, because a leopard has come calling several times in the past two weeks.

While slum dwellers in Aarey Milk Colony have legal power connections, tribals residing in the forested area for more than a century are plunged in darkness after sunset. Students are forced to huddle under candlelight in one house for their daily studies
While slum dwellers in Aarey Milk Colony have legal power connections, tribals residing in the forested area for more than a century are plunged in darkness after sunset. Students are forced to huddle under candlelight in one house for their daily studies

With the lack of electricity in their houses and any lighting in surrounding areas, they fear getting mauled by the beast in the dark. Seven out of 27 tribal padas in the forest colony are powerless.

The leopard has been sighted several times, and residents do not venture out after dark, fearing stand-off with the big cat. The 20 padas that do have power supply were provided it in the recent past.

These tribals have been staying in the forest for more than a century. Shockingly, illegal slum dwellers inside the colony have legal electricity meters and water supply.

There are nearly 30,000 of such hutments. In 2013, following a spate of encounters with the leopard and demands from residents for adequate lighting, solar lampposts had been installed in 2013 by the civic body and some NGOs in some of the hamlets.

Over a period, these too stopped working. Visibility has reduced to a few metres and walking out at night without a source of light is virtually impossible. Tribals also fear being bitten by snakes after dark while walking, and students have to resort to studying in groups in one house under candlelight.

Pitch dark
Some of the hamlets without power supply are Vanichapada, Chafyachapada, Khadakpada, Navapada and Jivachapada, which house 800-1000 people, including those who have encroached tribal land.

Chandu Jadhav, a resident of Vanichapada, said, “My great-grandfather used to stay in the same pada. Then it was my late father, and now I stay here with my family.

I have documents to prove that my ancestors have lived here since the 18th century. It is unfortunate that despite being within city limits, we are without power and have to face the risk of man-animal conflict if we step out of home after dark.”

Jadhav’s family cooks food on the traditional clay oven (chulha in Hindi) in their backyard on the periphery of the forest. A few days ago, a woman from Jadhav’s family spotted a leopard in the bushes while cooking around 7 pm.

The animal ran back into the forest on seeing a human, since it avoids humans. The locals here worship the tiger god Waghoba and believe that movement of the animal is a good sign.

“We see to it that we don’t cause any harm to the animal. However, a conflict occurs when the animal mistakes a sitting person for a small prey. Sometimes there are chances that the leopard is in the bushes, and when we pass by, it feels we are causing trouble to him and pounces on us in self-defence. In order to avoid such incidents, the authorities should give us electricity connection and the solar lights should also be repaired,” Jadhav added.

While locals blame the authorities and elected representatives for not providing electricity, the elected representatives claim that they are doing their best to bring power and ask the Aarey Colony CEO’s office to issue a no-objection certificate (NOC) to set up an electric transformer in the padas in order to bring power there (see box).

“Some officials at the Aarey CEO office don’t give the NOC for the transformer because they want money,” a tribal alleged. Applying for an electricity connection requires the residents to submit a form, along with a deposit amount.

Some are too poor to spare even this amount and expect the MLA, who promised to bring power in his election speeches, to help them out.

“If illegal slums can get legal electricity connections, why can’t we? We are legal residents. The politicians, whom we voted for, had promised to give us electricity connection, but it hasn’t arrived.

The local MLA, MP and the corporator should do a proper follow-up on this issue with the Aarey CEO and also help those who cannot pay the charges for getting a connection,” another tribal resident demanded.

The only respite is from the Bombay Territorial Range team of the Thane Forest Department, which patrols the area after dark in padas where there are frequent sightings.

Official speak
Ravindra Waikar, local Shiv Sena MLA, said, “One of the reasons why the padas are yet to get electricity is because residents haven’t submitted the forms and deposit amounts.

I know their financial condition is not good and I will personally see to it that they get power at the earliest. I expect that the Aarey CEO office gives the permissions required for setting up a transformer cabin in the padas.”

L R Bhosale, CEO of Aarey Milk Colony, said, “We have already sent MLA Waikar’s proposal asking for an NOC to provide electricity to adivasi padas to higher authorities at the state dairy development department.

Once they give a green signal, we will issue the NOC for setting up transformers. Our workplace is very transparent and permissions will be given after we receive the nod from state officials.”

Activist speak
“It is unfortunate that tribals who have been staying at Aarey Colony for more than 100 years are deprived of electricity. To avoid snakebites and man-animal conflicts, authorities should give the pending permissions soon. The solar-operated light posts should be repaired,” said Krishna Tiwari, Forest and Wildlife Conservation Centre, an NGO.

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