Picnic at Aarey

August 08, 2017 12:24 am | Updated 12:24 am IST

Over 100 city slickers walk through Warli hamlets and eat locally-prepared lunch, in the process, understanding local issues and providing tribal women with employment

Mumbai: On a sleepy Sunday morning, nearly 110 people from various walks of life turned up at Aarey Milk Colony, some with their children, for an unusual “picnic”. The visitors walked through two villages, Gaavdevi and Khambachawada, for a good two hours and ended the trail with lunch prepared by the tribal women.

Non-governmental organisation We Will Help (WWH), in collaboration with Aarey Conservation Group (ACG), organised a trail through one of the 27 tribal ‘padas’ (hamlets) in Aarey, currently in the centre of a controversy over a proposed Metro car shed that threatens to deprive the city of one of its few surviving green spots.

The idea, said Sanjiv Valsan, a volunteer with ACG, is to increase interaction between tribals and the rest of Mumbai, and create a platform for exchange of information. “There is no guarantee that everyone present here today will work for the cause, but a 100 people getting some important information at once might give us a few people who identify with it.” ACG has also brought on board lawyers who are in the process of collecting information about the loss of livelihood that may result from the car shed. The group's focus, however, is on spreading awareness about the people of Aarey among city-dwellers.

WWH, on its part, regularly organises 'tribal lunches' for people from the city, and aims to providelivelihood to the women from these hamlets, who don’t have fixed incomes or occupations. This was the first time it had joined hands with ACG to raise awareness about issues in the area. Mr. Valsan said, “There is very little awareness about the existence of tribals in Aarey and their issues. We have been working for a year on forest conservation but were fascinated by the way WWH is empowering the people here. So we decided on collaborating with them as a way to bring conservation and tribal women’s livelihoods on the same platform.”

The villagers are Warlis, a hunter tribe nestled in the Sahyadri range that has been forced to become agriculturists over the past few decades.

At the outset, the walkers were given a strict guideline: respect the surroundings. As the group made its way to the temple of Gaavdevi, the local deity of all 27 hamlets, Roopali Mirke, a WWH employee who works with the tribal women, informed the walkers about the daily lives of people in Khambachapada, where the trail ended. The second generation of the tribe is far removed even from agriculture, she says. Most of them are bus drivers, construction workers and masons.

The first 'break' in the walk was at a spot from where they could see the controversial Royal Palm Springs,which abuts the Aarey forest. “The permission to build a golf course,” says the ACG website, “was misused to construct offices, villas, apartment complexes and hotels. Besides being an eyesore these buildings have infiltrated the serene landscape of Aarey colony which is contiguous to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park.”

The organisers proceed to de-brief the walkers about the various issues Aarey faces as an extension of Sanjay Gandhi National Park. Mr. Valsan said, “The Aarey Metro shed will take up 33 hectares of land in the forest area, resulting in the loss of habitat of the Warlis. The Minister of Finance, Planning and Forests, Sudhir Mungantiwar, has claimed that Aarey is not a forest area and there is no proof of this on paper.”

This was enough to get the group going: almost everyone had conservation on their minds, and debated its pros and cons, till they reached the end of the trail, where food prepared by the Warli women took precedence over everything else. A small market had been set up in a common area, selling handmade bags, thecha (a spicy chutney), ginger paste, vegetables and fruits. The proceeds would go to the tribal women. Surekha Mirke, one of the women who hosted the tribal lunch, said, “I earn Rs. 500 for the work I do as a helper and it helps me cover some of the extra expenses at home.”

This was one of many such lunches – 27 over the past two years – that WWH had organised. Eugene Das, a manager with WWH, said, “This has made our visitors aware about the culture here. The local residents are wary of outsiders. They are constantly afraid of them being either real estate developers or government officials who are eyeing this area.”

The organisers insist that their work is not “anti-development” but “pro-people” and “pro-forests”.

The trail had a takeaway for the people who participated. Misha Pharale and Mini Barboza, both homemakers from Marol, said, “We have been researching on the themes of Warli paintings and are glad to be here as this means we get to meet them first-hand and raise employment for them.”

Local residents could do with more, even though they put up a brave front. Sukrabai, a vegetable vendor from Khambachawada, does not appear to be worried about the car shed or any other project in her area.“I’ve been cultivating vegetables since I was nine, and will continue to do so.”

Next Sunday, ACG is organising a similar parent-child trail, which ends at the Butterfly Garden in Aarey, in collaboration with another group. The organisers are making full use of the scenic surroundings – they have organised a painting session for participants. For nature-starved Mumbaikars, it may turn out to be a weekend well spent.

To connect with the organisers, go to: https://www.facebook. com/aareyforestfestival/


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