Seeing the Trees and the Forest(s): On the Destruction of Mumbai’s Ecology

Seeing the Trees and the Forest(s): On the Destruction of Mumbai’s Ecology

A road passing through the eco-sensitive zone of Aarey forest, one of the few green spaces left in Mumbai | Aalok M. Joshi (Wikimedia)

“How to conjure up a picture, for instance, of a town without pigeons, without any trees or gardens, where you never hear the beat of wings or the rustle of leaves — a thoroughly negative place, in short?” Albert Camus, The Plague

Given that the whole world is going through the Covid-19 pandemic, it is worth highlighting some recent research that links newer, ‘emerging’, infectious diseases and epidemics to human actions towards the environment, including deforestation (Jones et al. 2008, Olivero et al. 2017). It is a cruel irony therefore, that even as the country was under a lockdown to halt the spread of Covid-19, trees were chopped in Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP), one of the largest and most beautiful forests in any city.

The continuing encroachment of the SGNP and of the contiguous Aarey Forest, described as the “green lungs” of Mumbai, even into the lockdown, reflects what the city has been witnessing: disregard for larger environmental consequences in the guise of development, callousness towards affected people (particularly the poor and marginalised), and a surrender to powerful vested interests. I use the case of Aarey to focus on some facets of the destruction of the city’s ecology.

Aarey as a window to Mumbai’s ecology

Located in the Mumbai Suburban district, Aarey was created in the late 1940s by transferring land from what is now the Sanjay Gandhi National Park to the Maharashtra Dairy Development Board to meet the city’s needs for dairying. (In the discussion below, I draw upon a recent detailed mapping exercise (Wagh et al. 2020) and sources such as Vanashakti (2019).

Aarey is important not only for its biodiversity, but also because the Mithi and Oshiwara rivers owe their existence to streams and tributaries within the forest. Construction in Aarey is therefore likely to destabilise the water and drainage systems of Mumbai and lead to flooding.

Spread over approximately 1,280 hectares, Aarey has about 480,000 trees. It is characterised by incredible biodiversity. Including some protected species, it has more than 100 types of birds, 19 species of mammals, 100 types of butterflies and moths, and many species of insects. This biodiversity has not even been completely mapped. Six new species were discovered in the past decade, including a scorpion, Lychas aareyensis, which has been named after Aarey. Leopards inhabiting SGNP and Aarey have received coverage in National Geographic, which published some stunning photographs. Aarey is important not only for its biodiversity, but also because the Mithi and Oshiwara rivers owe their existence to streams and tributaries within the forest. Construction in Aarey is therefore likely to destabilise the water and drainage systems of Mumbai and lead to flooding.

Over the years, land in Aarey has been diverted to purposes other than dairy farming, like for building the Film City. It has witnessed construction activity and an increase in built-up area. Mumbai’s latest (2034) development plan estimates the land left in Aarey at about 800 hectares. Even these 800 hectares are demarcated as a “green zone” where some kinds of construction (e.g., for a zoo) is possible.

Aarey has been in the news for a couple of years now with the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation’s proposal to build a car shed there. More than 2,000 trees were planned to be felled for this purpose. Environmental experts cautioned that locating the shed in Aarey would increase the risk of flooding and suggested an alternative at Kanjurmarg, also in the city.

With its hilly terrain and lush-green surroundings, Aarey occupies a special place among Mumbai’s walkers and runners. (My own connection with Aarey began as a runner, training for the Mumbai marathon.) Several citizens rose up a few years ago in protest under the banner of the Save Aarey movement. The-then coalition government of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiv Sena persisted with the project despite these objections and protests, with the activists then taking it to the courts.

Adivasis have been residing in Mumbai’s forests since pre-independence times and their livelihoods are threatened by encroachment and construction of the shed.

One of the dimensions of this fight has focused on the rights of Adivasis. What is not well-known is that the forests of Mumbai — Aarey and SGNP in particular — are home to a sizable population of Adivasis. According to my computations from the 2011 census, the share of Scheduled Tribes in the Aarey census ward is about 4%, higher than their share in urban India (2.8%). Adivasis have been residing in Mumbai’s forests since pre-independence times and their livelihoods are threatened by encroachment and construction of the shed. A petition to this effect was filed in the Bombay High Court against the construction of the shed by residents of Prajapur, one of the 27 Adivasi hamlets in Aarey. After much unrest, some arrests, and the felling of several trees, the Supreme Court, in October 2019, ordered that no more trees should be cut and those arrested during protests be released.

State of Mumbai’s ecology

In a city starved of green spaces, ordinary citizens understand the importance of Aarey. Estimates vary, but Mumbai performs much worse than other large Indian and global cities in having open and green spaces. One study estimates open space per person in square metres at 0.88 for Mumbai, compared with 15 for Delhi, 6.4 for Bangalore, 6 for Tokyo, and 2.5 for New York. The comparison of green spaces is similar. The percentage of public green space in Mumbai is only 2.5%, whereas it is as high as 47% in Singapore and 46% in Sydney. Sathyakumar et al. (2019) suggest that the green space in Mumbai is distributed unequally, and residents in affluent areas get better access and higher quality.

During a roughly four-decade period between 1973 and 2009, the share of vegetation in Mumbai’s landscape has fallen from more than half to approximately a third.

How did Mumbai reach this point? Using remote sensing data, Ramachandra et al. (2014) shed light on how this process has unfolded. They classify the landscape into four categories: urban (e.g. residences or industries), water bodies (e.g. lakes or reservoirs), vegetation (e.g. forests or land used for agriculture) and others (e.g. rocks or quarry pits). During a roughly four-decade period between 1973 and 2009, the share of vegetation in Mumbai’s landscape has fallen from more than half to approximately a third, a decline of about 63%. There has been an increase of 155% in land used for urban purposes (residential, industrial, paved surfaces, and built-up area). Essentially, green cover has been lost to buildings, roads and similar structures.

During this period, Mumbai has also lost 65% of its water bodies. Aithal et al. (2017) find similar trends from other Indian mega cities (Delhi, Kolkata, and Chennai), but the changes in Mumbai have been more pronounced. Apart from worsening the visual landscape into ‘concrete jungles’, such construction comes with costs that are not immediately apparent. For example, construction materials such as concrete, asphalt absorb heat and release them slowly, making hot-spells more intense and harmful (Wallace-Wells 2020, 51).

Mumbai is endowed with mangrove forests, remarkable coastal ecosystems that “thrive where no other trees can survive — in the transition zone between the ocean and land” and confer many benefits to humanity (Miththapala 2008). Three benefits need to be emphasised here: the mangroves’ greater extent of carbon sequestration — the absorption and storage of carbon — than other kinds of forests, their prevention of coastal erosion, and their role in flood-control.

[Without] appropriate policies, many parts of Mumbai and several other coastal cities would be submerged over the next three decades. The preservation of mangroves is therefore vital for Mumbai.

Mumbai is a coastal city and is threatened by rising sea-levels due to climate change. A widely cited paper by Kulp and Strauss (2019) argues that without appropriate policies, many parts of Mumbai and several other coastal cities would be submerged over the next three decades. The preservation of mangroves is therefore vital for Mumbai. Yet, Mumbai’s mangroves have been destroyed through various means: private construction, state-sponsored projects, or land reclamation. About 40% of the city’s mangroves (approximately 37 square kilometres) were lost during the 1990s, (Vijay et al. 2005). The overall destruction has been estimated to be as high as 70%.

An example of the ad-hoc and compromised approach towards mangroves, and the environment in general, is provided by Stalin Dayanand (2020) from the Thane Creek flamingo sanctuary. This sanctuary excludes a large area of mangroves. It includes the borders of mangroves and (in this sense) is analogous to the allocation of a residential apartment to a household. Human beings today can be expected to understand and respect private property relations and not transgress beyond the space that they are entitled to. It would be unreasonable (to say the least) to expect birds to do the same: not venture beyond the legal (but arbitrary) boundaries of a sanctuary.

Moving forward

In the evolution of the cities in the West, connections to the countryside and to nature were lost. However, in the 18th century, parks started being established. This process was continued in the 19th century, inspired by the Romantic movement, which emphasised emotions and the human relationship with nature. Beautiful parks in North American cities, which serve as markers of identity today, are products of this phase: New York’s Central Park, the Boston Commons, and Montreal’s Park Mount Royal. (On the differences between modern and pre-industrial cities in the West, see Hough (2004, Chapter 1). I draw upon this source for my historical remarks.)

Such green spaces are imperfect substitutes for nature in its pure form. But they add aesthetic value to urban areas and confer benefits like lower temperatures and improved health (WHO 2016). They also foster physical activity. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the lack of physical activity increases the risk of disease and results in about 3.2 million deaths every year.

Scholars have documented attitudes tantamount to climate-change denial at the highest levels of the present government.

Scientific evidence and concerns towards the environment seem to be lost on Indian policymakers. Policies since the early 1990s have resulted in massive environmental degradation. Some checks, including through rights-based legislations, were put in place during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) governments between 2004 and 2014. However, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) governments that followed have been bent on diluting them and continuing on a destructive path (Kothari 2014). Several projects with potentially adverse environmental consequences, like the hydroelectric power project in Dibang valley, Arunachal Pradesh, were cleared during the Covid-19 lockdown, raising concerns about the integrity of the approval process. Scholars have documented attitudes tantamount to climate-change denial at the highest levels of the present government (Parthasarathy 2020). For instance, the union minister for environment, forests and climate change, Prakash Javadekar, stated that “No Indian study has shown pollution shortens life. Let us not create fear psychosis among people.” In saying so, he contradicted existing evidence, including findings endorsed by Indian government departments.

The broad components of an agenda that can deliver both justice and sustainability have been laid out in recent years. For example, the United Nations has highlighted the need for decarbonisation and for addressing the adverse effects of land use on biodiversity and ecosystems (UN 2016, Chapter 5). It has also provided a cautionary note about the limits that we face, both at local and planetary levels. Scholars such as Hough (2004) have argued that human beings share the earth with non-human life forms, and therefore an environmental perspective is an integral component in the design and planning of cities. They have also emphasised the role that inexpensive fossil fuels have played in shaping modern cities. The undesirability of a dependence on fossil fuels is already apparent, so we need a different imagination. Within the Indian context too, scholars like Kothari (2013) have mapped out a broad framework for sustainability.

[Infrastructural] projects in Mumbai have not taken sustainability seriously. They have been conceived and planned without proper consideration of their environmental consequences.

What Mumbai has witnessed so far is at odds with these formulations. As Stalin Dayanand (2020) has forcefully argued recently, infrastructural projects in Mumbai have not taken sustainability seriously. They have been conceived and planned without proper consideration of their environmental consequences. Half-hearted measures have been taken to redress damages arising from these projects. For instance, many saplings planted to replace the felled trees in Aarey have failed to survive. Given the record of government departments and agencies like the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority, there is widespread lack of faith in their actions and pronouncements. A recent instance concerns the doubts expressed regarding the census of trees. In fact, the Bombay High Court has in the past criticised these agencies in the harshest possible terms All of this has to change. In future endeavours, environmental considerations have to be central and incorporated from the outset. In the case of Aarey, no further encroachment or felling of trees should be permitted. The contiguity of Aarey with SGNP should be maintained, which will reduce threats to SGNP and of human-leopard conflicts.

The provision of high-quality public goods and services like transportation is important for Mumbai and many other cities. But resisting climate change and preserving the environment in its various dimensions is also crucial. The state and communities have an important role in striking a balance between these two imperatives. Climate strikes, multiple social movements and endeavours for socioeconomic transformation like the Green New Deal proposed in the United States are emerging across the world, in search of environmentally just and non-capitalist alternatives. Our hope is that these will prevail, so that Mumbai and other cities do not end up as “thoroughly negative places,” to use the powerful metaphor from Camus’ topical masterpiece.

Acknowledgments: I thank fellow members of the Save Aarey movement for inspiration and information. I also thank Amrita Bhattacharjee, Stalin Dayanand, Reena Shah, P. Parthasarathy, T.V. Ramachandra and Bharath Aithal for providing me with information that was useful in writing this paper. I thank Vamsi Vakulabharanam for his comments on a previous version.

Sripad Motiram, Associate Professor, Department of Economics, University of Massachusetts, Boston
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